Need to Know
  1. Indian food uses ingredients with different flavor profiles
  2. When flavors are most different, spices tie things together
Indian food
Photo by Flickr user eliazar

If you’ve ever been seduced by the mere scent of an Indian buffet or wondered why chicken tikka masala is particularly addictive, the answer may lie in food science. According to the Washington Post, scientists in India have discovered that a hallmark of many Indian dishes is ingredients that share few chemical similarities. In other words, Indian food tends to play up contrasts between flavors, while many Western cuisines favor ingredients that overlap in flavor.

The study from the Indian Institute for Technology analyzed more than 2,500 recipes from a popular Indian recipe site and identified about 340 unique ingredients found in the recipes. Then, the researchers found flavor profiles for about 200 of those ingredients and analyzed them in the combinations found in the recipes, looking for places where the flavors diverged and places where they overlapped. Compared to groups of recipes from other cuisines, the ingredients in Indian recipes were significantly more diverse in their flavor profiles. Additionally, spices play a key role: When spices exist in an Indian recipe, the other ingredients in that recipe are especially unlikely to share flavors. These findings held true across different regional types of Indian cuisine, leading the researchers to conclude that these differences in flavors within a recipe are a defining feature of Indian food.

What does that mean? The researchers note that their study has applications for interesting Indian recipe generators (yes, please!). These findings also suggest that those of us who routinely cook other types of food might want to experiment with flavors that contrast with each other, rather than stick to ingredients that taste similar. And perhaps we should get to know our spice drawer a little better, too.