Indian food, with its hodgepodge of ingredients and intoxicating aromas, is coveted around the world. The labor-intensive cuisine and its mix of spices is more often than not a revelation for those who sit down to eat it for the first time. Heavy doses of cardamom, cayenne, tamarind and other flavors can overwhelm an unfamiliar palate. Together, they help form the pillars of what tastes so good to so many people.
But behind the appeal of Indian food — what makes it so novel and so delicious — is also a stranger and subtler truth. In a large new analysis of more than 2,000 popular recipes, data scientists have discovered perhaps the key reason why Indian food tastes so unique: It does something radical with flavors, something very different from what we tend to do in the United States and the rest of Western culture. And it does it at the molecular level.
Before we go further, let's take a step back and consider what flavors are and how they interact. If you were to hold a microscope to most Western dishes, you would find an interesting but not all-too-surprising trend. Popular food pairings in this part of the world combine ingredients that share like flavors, which food chemists have broken down into their molecular parts — precise chemical compounds that, when combined, give off a distinct taste.
The healthy eating trends of 2015
The healthy eating trends of 2015
1/10 Acai bowls are the new green juice
Who ever thought we’d have been ok with adding spinach to our smoothies? Yet even virtuous green juices started to get something of a bad rep, as the ‘juice fast’ backlash grew and it turned out that some shop-bought juices contained as much sugar as a can of fizzy drink. Bring on Acai bowls, the new darlings of Instagram. Like a gloopier smoothie, these are made with antioxidant-rich acai berries (they are hard to come by - search for powdered or dried berries or frozen puree), which are said to aid weight loss. Blend with frozen bananas, berries and a little nut milk and top with whatever you like - seeds, nuts, cacao nibs, goji berries. A picture-perfect purple powerhouse for breakfast.
Ella Grace Denton, www.weneedtolivemore.com
2/10 Bone broth is the new Miso soup
Remember back in the day when the word ‘broth’ would conjure up visions of Dickensian orphanages? Then miso came along, Gwyneth embraced it, and we all followed suit, lauding how filling and protein rich with little wonder broth was. We’ve come full circle now, as bone broth is back on the radar. The glowing-with-health Hemsley sisters seem to use bone broth in most of their recipes, and rave about its nutritional benefits. “Bone broth is a nourishing all rounder packed with vitamins, minerals, collagen and keratin which makes it amazing for skin – including the dreaded cellulite! The healthy fats in the broth help you to assimilate important vitamins including Vit D.” There you go, something to stew over...
Food Loves Writing, Flickr
3/10 Bee pollen is the new Manuka honey
Every health hipster has a jar of manuka honey on their shelves - if they can afford it that is, a jar can cost about £15. But many claim it is worth its weight in gold, due to its unique antibacterial properties. Traditionally it was used on wounds, but many also claim that it performs miracles combatting cholesterol, diabetes, cancer and digestive problems (although the science is limited). Now bee pollen is the latest ‘superfood’ out there - thought to ward off colds, limit food cravings, improve skin tone, ward off allergies like hay fever (although some caution that it may exacerbate them) and, of course, fight cancer. Again, the science behind these claims is dubious - but it certainly adds a nice sweetness to your morning porridge.
4/10 Kelp is the new kale
Last year saw the emergence of an unassuming green leaf that was previously barely used beyond cattle feed. Now, we have kale chips in Pret, kale juices, ‘massaged’ kale salads - it’s even on the menu in fine dining restaurants. Yawn. Introducing kelp. This seaweed is high in iodine, which is said to improve thyroid function and control metabolism. It is also thought to have anti-aging properties for skin and hair. Try it in salads or add to asian-style soups.
5/10 Matcha is the new green tea
Yes, yes, yes, green tea, weightloss, yadda yadda yadda, boosts metabolism, etc etc. For 2015, though, it’s not about just any old green tea - this is matcha green tea. Made from finely milled high-grade matcha leaves, which are grown in the shade, matcha boasts 130 times more anti-oxidants than your bog standard green tea and is supposed to boost energy levels, lower stress, improve your mood and aid metabolism. It can be consumed as a regular tea, added to steamed milk for a matcha latte or even used to add a pleasant green shade and flavour to ice-cream.
6/10 Whole 30 is the new Paleo diet
Thought you were a culinary champ with your caveman-style eating plan? Well, think again, paleo is for wimps! Ok, not quite, but while people on the paleo plan cut out grains, legumes, sugar and processed foods, there is an increasing trend to paleo-fy your treats, with almond-flour pancakes, banana bread and a lot of brownies. The Whole 30 plan is a purer, stricter version of Paleo and really takes you back to basics when it comes to eating natural foods. The 30-day plan bans scales as well as sugar and alcohol, so that you can concentrate on nourishment rather than weight.
7/10 Fermenting is the new sprouting
Just when we thought we were ahead of the game by starting to sprout our own seeds and with sprouted flours creeping on to the market, the health set had to kick it up a notch. Now it’s all about making your own kombucha (fermented tea), sauerkraut or kimchi (both kinds of pickled cabbage). Fermented foods are said to aid digestion thanks to the creation of enzymes and probiotics in the process. Plus they tend to be high in B-vitamins and Omega-3 fatty acids. Think of it as the new jam-making, and break out those mason jars.
8/10 Banana flour is the new coconut flour
Coconut flour was one of the coolest baking ingredients of the year, beloved by Paleo fans. Its highly absorbent qualities mean you only need a tiny bit for baking, keeping your creations low carb but resulting in the odd dry-crumbly-mess baking fail. Banana flour is the next flour to experiment with. Made from green bananas (and no, not banana-flavoured), it is gluten free and light in texture, so ideal for baking. High in resistant starch, which is effective against colon cancer, obesity, and diabetes, it is already being lauded for its nutritional benefits in Africa and South America, and will surely start to become much more visible on health-food shop shelves in the near future.
9/10 Bulletproof coffee is the new soy latte
Nowadays it is possible to walk into almost any cafe and order a soy latte without being eyeballed as a lunatic by the person behind the counter. But would you have the guts to request a stick of butter in your morning brew? Well, some coffee shops are offering exactly that. Bulletproof coffee is a paleo-friendly invention which involves a black coffee with a dollop of coconut oil or butter. Bleurgh. But advocates say it gives you more slow-release energy, sharpens your brain and helps you to focus - and even that it is delicious. Now the theory has been expanded into a whole ‘Bulletproof’ diet plan, rich in fat. Who wants to bet on when Starbucks will give it a shot?
10/10 Tiger nuts are the new almonds
2014 was a good year for almonds. Gym-goers and raw foodists alike carried around a stash for healthy, protein-rich snacking, almond-milk lattes were quaffed, and almond flour featured in so many paleo and gluten-free treats. Now tiger nuts, or ‘earth almonds’ (yes, really), are about to vie for snacking superiority. Tiger nuts are not nuts, but the tubers of the sedge plant. Originally a key food source for Paleolithic Indians, they have until recently been used as animal feed or a side dish in South America, Africa and the Middle East, or in Hispanic companies made into a sweet, milky drink called horchata. But now the hipsters have got their hands on it, drying, roasting and flavouring with the likes of sweet chilli for an on-the-go snack. High in healthy fats, protein and natural sugar, it is rich in energy content, and thought to help prevent heart disease and improve circulation.
Most of the compounds have scientific names, though one of the simpler compounds is acetal, which, as the food chemist George Burdock has written, is "refreshing, pleasant, and [has a] fruity-green odor," and can be found in whiskey, apple juice, orange juice and raw beets. On average, there are just over 50 flavor compounds in each food ingredient.
A nifty chart shared by Scientific American in 2013 shows which foods share the most flavor compounds with others and which food pairings have the most flavor compounds in common. Peanut butter and roasted peanuts have one of the most significant overlaps (no surprise there). But there are connections that are more difficult to predict: strawberries, for instance, have more in common with white wine than they do with apples, oranges or honey.
Data crunching Indian recipes
Chefs in the West like to make dishes with ingredients that have overlapping flavors. But not all cuisines adhere to the same rule. Many Asian cuisines have been shown to belie the trend by favoring dishes with ingredients that don't overlap in flavor. And Indian food, in particular, is one of the most powerful counterexamples.
Researchers at the Indian Institute for Technology in Jodhpur crunched data on several thousand recipes from a popular online recipe site called TarlaDalal.com. They broke each dish down to its ingredients, and then compared how often and heavily ingredients share flavor compounds.
The answer? Not too often.
Here's an easy way to make sense of what they did, through the lens of a single, theoretical dish. Say you have a dish with 4 different ingredients, like the one below:
Each one of those ingredients has its own list of flavor compounds. And any two of those ingredients' lists might have some overlap. Take the coconut and onion, for instance. We can all agree that these two things are pretty different, but we can also see (in the Venn diagram below) that there's some overlap in their flavor make-up. (Ignore the math symbols.)
You could create the same diagram for all the ingredients with overlapping flavor compounds, as in this diagram. There are six that have overlap. (Again, ignore the math.)
The researchers did this for each of the several thousand recipes, which used a total of 200 ingredients. They examined how much the underlying flavor compounds overlapped in single dishes and discovered something very different from Western cuisines. Indian cuisine tended to mix ingredients whose flavors don't overlap at all.
"We found that average flavor sharing in Indian cuisine was significantly lesser than expected," the researchers wrote.
In other words, the more overlap two ingredients have in flavor, the less likely they are to appear in the same Indian dish.
The unique makeup of Indian cuisine can be seen in some dishes more than others, and it seems to be tied to the use of specific ingredients. Spices usually indicate dishes with flavors that have no chemical common ground.
More specifically, many Indian recipes contain cayenne, the basis of curry powder that is in dishes like red curry, green curry, or massaman curry. And when a dish contains cayenne, the researchers found, it's unlikely to have other ingredients that share similar flavors. The same can be said of green bell pepper, coriander and garam masala, which are nearly as ubiquitous in Indian cuisine.
"Each of the spices is uniquely placed in its recipe to shape the flavor sharing pattern with rest of the ingredients," the researchers noted.
Milk, butter, bread, and rice, meanwhile—all of which are hallmarks of Western cuisine—were found to be associated with just the opposite: flavor pairings that match. When any of those ingredients appeared in an Indian dish, there was a good chance there would be a lot of flavor overlap.
A lesson for all chefs
The takeaway is that part of what makes Indian food so appealing is the way flavors rub up against each other. The cuisine is complicated, no doubt: the average Indian dish, after all, contains at least 7 ingredients, and the total number of ingredients observed by the researchers amounted to almost 200 out of the roughly 381 observed around the world. But all those ingredients — and the spices especially — are all uniquely important because in any single dish, each one brings a unique flavor.
But the upshot should also be a thought that we might be approaching food from the wrong angle. Combining ingredients with like flavors is a useful (and often delicious) strategy, but it might be a somewhat misleading rule of thumb. Indian cuisine, after all, is cherished globally, and yet hinges on a decidedly different ingredient pairing logic.
Copyright: Washington Post
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