Peanut butter and what? Jelly. What will you pour on those mashed potatoes? Gravy. In American culture, these duos are classics. Tradition breeds comfort, but routine can lead to boredom. We live in a time where we can eat a greater variety of food in a week than ancient peoples could in their lifetime. This gives us the opportunity to mix and match ingredients that have never before shared a kitchen. The field of molecular gastronomy studies how recipes function on a chemical level, so chefs can predict delicious combos without blind trial and error.
The scientific compatibility of foods can’t be explored without an understanding of aroma’s role in experiencing flavors. Dr. Susan Schiffman was quoted in an article in The Chicago Tribune in 1990 saying that 80 percent of what we taste is actually aroma. At the time she was a professor of medical psychology at Duke University Medical Center and this statistic remains generally accepted to this day. It explains why by eating an apple with your nose plugged, you may as well be chewing on a potato or onion.
Foodpairing is a Belgian firm specializing in creative food technology who uses gas chromatography mass spectrometry (separation of a mixture into its different parts and then measuring how much there is of each) to generate flavor profiles. This is their first step when researching an ingredient because this method builds a graph of all the aromas it is made up of. The only scents humans register are those which surpass a given threshold, so these graphs can show what aromas we experience when sniffing a piece of fruit versus a baked good.
Once the dominant aromas, such as fruity, cheesy or spicy, are pinpointed, pairings can be calculated. Sophisticated algorithms and years of research eventually brought Foodpairing to the conclusion that different foods will pair better if they share certain aromas, like chocolate and strawberries for their “roasted” quality. Bizarre matches can be explored by chefs who may otherwise not have considered throwing two foods in one pot.
So similar aromas equal good taste, right? Not necessarily. Scientists Anupam Jain, Rakhi N K and Ganesh Bagler collaborated on a paper published this year saying that while our Western cuisine prefers positive food pairing, Indian cuisine exhibits a preference for negative food pairing. Their dishes are built from mixtures of dissimilar flavors. Swapping even one spice from an Indian dish can drastically lower the food pairing score (higher indicating complements) as the balance of the flavor sharing pattern is thrown off. Undoubtedly, Indian cuisine is loved by many, indicating that our enjoyment of food may be even more complex than previously thought.
If you’re skeptical about straying from that wine and cheese platter to try oysters with strawberries, think to yourself “you only live once” and take a bite.