India has long been a country of and for food lovers with perhaps the largest variety of cuisines given the immense diversity in soil type, climate, cultures and beliefs that differ from region to region. From tikkas and naans, tangy sorpotel and crispy jalebis to mouth-watering biryani, coconut curries and aromatic rice dishes--India’s vast array of native ingredients, vegetables, fruits and exotic spices have made its cuisines infamous. Scientists, however, would never be content with as generalised a statement as Indian food is the best. In fact, a group of them actually decided to conduct an entire study analysing over 2000 Indian recipes to decode what makes Indian food so spectacular.
Research was conducted by Anupam Jain, Rakhi N K and Ganesh Bagler from IIT Jodhpur and was compiled in a report titled ‘Spices form the basis of food pairing in Indian cuisine.’ The team analysed a variety of recipes from Tarla Dalal’s popular online recipe site and found that unlike the West where the culinary practices pair similar flavours together, Indian food’s uniqueness comes from the pairing of ingredients that are completely different in nature. While Western culinary logic pairs ingredients sharing “flavour compounds”--the determinants of the sweetness, sourness or how spicy it is on a molecular level--things are very different when it comes to food in India and a major role is played by India’s globally-coveted spices.
“We study food pairing in recipes of Indian cuisine to show that, in contrast to positive food pairing reported in some Western cuisines, Indian cuisine has a strong signature of negative food pairing,” the researchers noted in the study. “[The] more the extent of flavor-sharing between any two ingredients, [the] lesser their co-occurrence.” Studying eight different sub-cuisines-- Bengali, Gujarati, Jain, Maharashtrian, Mughlai, Punjabi, Rajasthani and South Indian, as stated in the report--the researchers found that the average flavour sharing in Indian food was far less than they anticipated. Simply put, ingredients that are more similar in flavour are less likely to be used in the same dish.
Spice’s were found to be key ingredients that contribute to “negative food pairing” in Indian cuisine, including cayenne, green bell pepper, coriander, garam masala, tamarind, ginger garlic paste, ginger, clove, and cinnamon. Spices have in fact played a major role in Indian culinary practices through the years. “Archaeological evidences have suggested to the fact that lentils, millets and spices, especially turmeric and garlic were used as ingredients in ancient Indus civilizations. We conclude that the evolution of cooking driven by medicinal beliefs would have left its signature on traditional Indian recipes,” states the study. While we may wonder how evidence of food being cooked thousands of years ago could be studied, with the advancing of technology scientists have developed methods to analyse pieces of broken pots and mud-brick house foundations. As reported by Slate, “researchers must gather crumbling skeletons and find ancient dirty dishes before using powerful laboratory microscopes to pinpoint the ingredients of ancient meals.” Different kinds of spice play their own specific roles in the dish to which they added, be it the tang of tamarind, freshness of cilantro, aromatic cinnamon or the mouth-tingling garam masala--each is important and once combined create the flavours we’ve come to identify as our beloved dishes.
Click here to read the full study
Words: Sara Hussain