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.
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.
According to the Washington Post, 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 four different ingredients.
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 there's some overlap in their flavor make-up.
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 just about any Indian 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.
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 seven 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.