Why do certain foods taste good together?

In 1992, while running his award-winning restaurant Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal was trying to find an ingredient that tasted good with caviar. He looked around the kitchen and by chance, he reached for white chocolate and ate them together. And just like that, one of Fat Duck’s most popular dishes was born.

After this discovery, the obvious question to ask is why. Why do caviar and white chocolate taste good together?

Heston enlisted the help of perfume-maker and food scientist François Benzi to help him answer this question, scientifically. In his lab, Benzi discovered that white chocolate and caviar share major flavor components. That begs the question, what other delicious combinations are out there?

To find out, Yong-Yeol Ahn, Sebastian E. Ahnert, James P. Bagrow and Albert-László Barabási built a network consisting of “two different types of nodes: 381 ingredients used in recipes throughout the world and 1,021 flavor compounds that are known to contribute to the flavor of each of these ingredients”.

They then organized it into a “flavor network” (pictured above) and asked another question: “do we more frequently use ingredient pairs that are strongly linked in the flavor network or do we avoid them?”

The answer depends on the kind of cuisine we’re talking about. They found that in North American and West European cuisine, we are more likely to use ingredients that share flavor compounds in the same recipe. However, East Asian and Southern European recipes tend to use ingredients that don’t share flavor compounds.

Today we have about 1,000,000 recipes in use (based on scrapes done by this paper’s authors). But if we try to maximize the combinations of the ingredients and flavor compounds, the potential number of recipes is actually more than 1,000,000,000,000,000. In other words, we haven’t even scratched the surface!

Here’s the full paper: https://www.nature.com/articles/srep00196

There’s even a website called foodpairing.com where you can discover new food combinations.