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The secrets of the Indian takeaway revealed

6 March 20150 comments

Most of us have chowed down on a chicken korma, munched on marsala and scoffed samosas.

Now, the secret of why Indian food tastes so good has been revealed.

Indian food, with its heady mix of multiple ingredients and intoxicating aromas, is a labour-intensive cuisine which combines taste and texture with strong spice and subtle flavour.

But behind the appeal of Indian food – and what makes it so novel and so delicious – is a piece of almost weird science.

In a new analysis of more than 2,000 popular recipes, food scientists may have discovered the reason Indian food tastes so unique.

They have found that sub-continental cuisine does something radical with flavours, something very different from what we are used to tasting in western food – and it does it at a molecular level.

Researchers at the Indian Institute for Technology in Jodhpur crunched data on several thousand recipes from popular online cooking sites with surprising results.

In western food it is the norm to create dishes with ingredients that have overlapping flavours.

So, you often find popular food pairings and ingredients that share like flavours, which food chemists have broken down into their molecular parts – precise chemical compounds that, when combined, give off a distinct taste.

The Jodhpur researchers examined recipes which used a total of 200 ingredients in Indian dishes. They studied how much the underlying flavour compounds overlapped in single dishes and discovered something very different from Western cuisines. Indian cuisine tended to mix ingredients whose flavours don’t overlap at all.

“We found that average flavour sharing in Indian cuisine was significantly lesser than expected,” the researchers said.

In other words, the more overlap two ingredients have in flavour, the less likely they are to appear in the same Indian dish.

More specifically, many Indian recipes contain cayenne, the basis of curry powder that is in dishes like chicken curry and beef vindaloo.

And when a dish contains cayenne, the researchers found, it’s unlikely to have other ingredients that share similar flavours. 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 flavour sharing pattern with the rest of the ingredients,” the researchers said.

Milk, butter, bread and rice, meanwhile – very common dishes in western cuisine – were found to be associated with just the opposite: flavour pairings that match.

The researchers concluded that part of what makes Indian food unique is the way flavours rub up against each other.

Indian cuisine is complicated with the average dish containing at least seven ingredients. However, all of these ingredients are important because in any single dish, each one brings its own flavour.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Senior Journalist