Back in the 2000s data scientists began crunchy large data sets of recipes searching for the secret behind why certain flavor combinations work. Chefs were excited with the discovery that recipes tend to be built around ingredients that shared flavor compounds. That discovery helped chefs find unusual pairing combinations such as chocolate and blue cheese that really worked.
Unfortunately, further data crunching showed that the flavor pairing hypothesis only applied to European and North American cuisines. East Asian cuisines used contrasting flavors. It was furthermore discovered that when you pull dairy products and eggs out of the picture, the flavor-pairing hypothesis is less salient. It succeeds as a method for finding interesting combinations that work but not as a comprehensive explanation of food preferences.
In 2017, a Spanish research team developed a new theory again based on a massive database of recipes:
The basic idea is that when two ingredients do not share flavors, the team look for a third ingredient with flavors in common with each of the first pair. In this way, they were able to identify flavor chains and explore how recipes in different parts of the world use them.
For example, apricot and whiskey do not share flavors with each other but do have flavors in common with tomato. This creates a flavor chain that links all three ingredients, making them suitable to be used in the same recipe.
Called flavor bridging, the theory suggests that the bridge flavors smooth out the contrasts between ingredients that don’t share flavor compounds thus enabling the flavors to harmonize.
But even this theory is not complete.
In Latin America, for example, recipes exploit both food pairing and food bridging, while East Asian food seems to avoid both principles. Southeast Asian cuisines such as Thai and Vietnamese seem to rely only on food bridging, while North American and Western European food use only food pairing.
It’s beginning to look to me like there is no universal theory that explains food preferences. And why should there be? People eat what is available and enjoy what is familiar. History and happenstance play an important role in explaining a culture’s food preferences.
But this data is great for creative chefs. Maybe a gas chromatograph should be in every kitchen. You can find one for around $70,000.