Cultural combos | Sumfood

Posted in Consumer, Culinary, Locavore on Apr 01, 2019

The weird and the wonderful

It sometimes feels like there is no accounting for taste. What one person might relish in the way of food combos, another may abhor and, while it is easy to explain some of this as personal preference, there are patterns of flavour combinations that appear to be geographically or culturally determined. We peel back the banana skin and investigate why someone may wish to pair banana with mayonnaise.

Science has an explanation (of sorts)

A 2013 article in The Guardian explored how our food preferences were formed. Our diets have been influenced by factors such as geography, climate, available flora and fauna, and even religion. There is also evidence that our genetic makeup has a role in whether we are attracted to eating foods such as fish, tomatoes or licorice or not; although, it does appear to be difficult to untangle genetic predisposition from the impact of family environment on food preferences. Another good example is the case of the often maligned coriander or cilantro: those who are not fans liken it to eating hairspray or soap and a study reported in the Wall Street Journal) identified that the dislike of the leafy herb may be genetic.

A manifestation of the geographical effect

Recipes are also geographically specific, and this means that the flavour combinations that we get used to are carried on through shared recipes. Of course, the impact of globalisation has moderated this a great deal, but some flavour combinations persist and seem to be almost geographically constrained.

In an effort to understand the preference for flavours, researchers investigated what they term the ‘flavour network’ and how foods are paired. Specifically, they wanted to understand if there were general patterns of combination that surpassed taste and recipes. Their results were interesting. The research involved investigating the hypothesis that ingredients sharing various flavour compounds (chemicals) are more likely to taste better together than those that do not have that commonality; as an example, chocolate and blue cheese share at least 73 flavour compounds and is, apparently, delicious.

The research found that there were geographical differences. After examining over 56,000 recipes from repositories in the US and Korea they discovered that recipes from North America or Western Europe had a ‘statistically significant tendency’ to use ingredients that shared flavour compounds. The same was not true for East Asian and Southern European food where recipes avoided combining ingredients with the same flavour compounds. In fact, the more compounds that the ingredient shared, the less likely they were to be used together.

It is a matter of taste

Science aside, there are the debates that rage on social media about whether you ‘should’ do something. Case in point, is the addition to of pineapple to the toppings of pizza. The world seems to be divided on the issue with some vehemently claiming it is an abomination and sacrilegious to the humble pizza to drop a fruit on top. Others point out that “Pineapple is acceptable when thoughtfully applied” It actually turns out that pineapple was in Italian culture way before pepperoni and no one seems to complain about the presence of pepperoni on their pizza. As Amy Fleming of The Guardian pointed out: “One nation's succulent horse fillet is another's scandalous counterfeit beef”.

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