Circles are common ingredients, lines between are the number of shared compounds, ie flavors. From Nature.
In Asian or Sri Lankan cooking, we put a lot of diverse ingredients into a dish. Salt, chili, curry leaves, coconut milk, onions, garlic, green chili. That’s just the base for many Sri Lankan recipes, before you start adding distinctive stuff. In western food, by contrast, the base is less, and less diverse. This seems apparent anecdotally, and also now scientifically. A chemical study has shown that Asian dishes incorporate more diverse flavors than western ones.
North American and Western European cuisines exhibit a statistically significant tendency towards recipes whose ingredients share flavor compounds. By contrast, East Asian and Southern European cuisines avoid recipes whose ingredients share flavor compounds. (Flavor network and the principles of food pairing)
Flavor Pairs And Contrasts
Of the graphs I understood, this stood out. Shows the number of shared compounds compared to what you’d expect from a random shuffle.
From what I could follow, it seems that a really rough approximation of how similar tastes are is the amount of chemical compounds ingredients share. Cooking is an art as much as a science, so they admit this is an approximation, but still one that useful for comparisons. What’s striking is how obvious the difference between western and eastern cooking is. Western cooking seems to trend towards combining like items (even in molecular gastronomy, consciously using this type of analysis). I would call this overall effect bland. Eastern cuisine, on the other hand, seems to actively avoid flavor combinations, striving for contrast. I would call this spicy.
Take a breakfast order. You can get the western breakfast, which is mainly straight sweet and salty, breads, jams, milk, eggs, bacon. Stuff is seasoned not at all or with salt and pepper. A Sri Lankan breakfast, by contrast, would be bread, fish curry, purippu, pol sambol, egg, all intensely seasoned. Try ordering just an egg and toast at an outstation guesthouse. They have to douse it in pepper. I’d venture that western breakfasts have a greater contrast between sweet and salty (we don’t seem to eat sweet breakfasts much in SL), but on a molecular level, it seems that the Asian breakfast is more diverse.
I use the pejorative term ‘bland’ to refer to western food, but I’m just joking. It’s really just a matter of taste, and what you’re used to, and what mood you’re in. When I (rarely) go abroad I wish I’d brought a jar of chili with me, but when people come here they might wish they’d brought a firehose (to get the burning fiesta out of their mouths). Different strokes for different folks. I also crave something normal and comprehensible sometimes, but I think chili has addictive properties of its own.
It’s just interesting to see, on a chemical level, that contrast is valued in eastern cuisine while complements seem valued in western cuisine more. Cool cool.