SOME foods are made for one another. From the comforting cuddle of mozzarella, tomato and marjoram atop a pizza to the tantalising trinity of ginger, garlic and soy sauce that make East Asian dishes sing, some combinations seem so natural that it is difficult to imagine a world without them. And yet for centuries, gourmands and academics have been confounded by why some foods harmonise so well.
In 1992, chefs Heston Blumenthal and François Benzi hit the lab to try to solve this culinary riddle. They happened upon the idea that foods that taste good together also share many volatile flavour compounds – the aroma-carrying chemicals that rise up into the back of the nose to create the perception of flavour on the tongue. Their findings were validated in 2011, with a study that analysed 56,498 recipes from different international cuisines.
Yong-Yeol Ahn at Indiana University and his colleagues used the data to construct a network model, a complex map of the relationships between all of the recipes’ ingredients and the flavour compounds they shared. This confirmed that recipes from North America and western Europe do tend to pair ingredients that share flavour compounds.
“Flavour pairing theory” made waves in the culinary world, with food manufacturers dedicating resources to applying the idea to their products and start-ups tapping into open-source data on flavour compounds to predict what the next big…