What is it that makes Indian food so appealing? Scientists think they’ve found at least part of the answer.
By mapping the flavor networks of ingredients, researchers discovered that Indian food has much less “flavor overlap” than North American or Western European cuisine. In fact, Indian food has much less pairing of similar flavors than would be expected by chance.
A Hugely Popular Cuisine
Indian food is popular in most of the world, especially in the U.K., the U.S., Japan, Thailand, and many European countries. Scandinavians love Indian food. The same cardamom that is used so much in Indian food has been used in Scandinavian cuisine since the days of the Vikings as a flavoring for cakes, breads, and drinks.
Scandinavia has an eclectic selection of fine Indian restaurants. In Stockholm, Mowglis Kok is a popular casual place for an Indian lunch. In Oslo, Masala Politics offers a range of Indian food from street food snacks to elegant salmon curry. In Copenhagen, Zahida is known for its tasting menu.
Elsewhere in Europe, lovers of Indian food are also in luck. In Paris, there are literally hundreds of choices. Try the Bollynan Grands Boulevards for quick bites and the New Jawad Longchamp for fine dining.
Indians sometimes complain about Indian food outside of India being inauthentic, finding it too sweet or too different or lacking their favorite dishes. It’s true that each country that has enthusiastically embraced Indian food has changed it somewhat to suit its taste, but this variety makes for extraordinary eating experiences in Indian restaurants around the globe.
An Appealing Lack of Flavor Overlap
Researchers analyzed 2500 Indian recipes containing 200 ingredients. Each ingredient was examined to map out its flavor compounds — the average ingredient had 51. Each flavor compound is made up of combinations of food chemicals that produce a distinct taste.
Chefs in North America and Western Europe tend to rely on combining foods that share a large number of flavor compounds. This pairing theory has led to experiments combining foods that normally would not be thought to go together but that have significant overlap in flavor compounds — for instance, blue cheese and chocolate (which share 73 flavor compounds), white chocolate and caviar, and strawberries and peas.
The researchers determined that one reason Indian cuisine is so appealing is that it has little flavor overlap. Instead, the ingredients in a dish are a carefully constructed, complex combination of unique individual flavors. The average recipe for Indian food has seven ingredients. Each bite contains its own mixture of distinct flavors which will hit the taste buds at different points in the chewing experience.
Scientists discovered that when spices common in Indian cuisine — such as cayenne (a component of curry powder), garam masala, green bell pepper, coriander, cinnamon, ginger, and tamarind — appear in a recipe, there tends to be little flavor overlap. However, when ingredients common in western cuisine — butter, rice, bread, milk — appear in Indian cuisine, there tends to be much more flavor overlap.
Spices Prevalent in Indian Food
Perhaps the most popular Indian dish worldwide is chicken tikka masala, made with yogurt and garlic, ginger, garam masala, cumin, chili powder, and other powerful spices. Second place might go to the somewhat similar biryani, which adds cinnamon, cardamom, cayenne, coriander, and paprika.
These are strong spices that require careful timing in the preparation. The phase of cooking at which they’re added and the way they’re roasted can make a huge difference in the taste of the finished food.
Many people who enjoy Indian food feel that the spices are good for their health. For instance, carom seeds (ajwain) are said to aid digestion. Asafetida (hing) helps digestion and is also an antibacterial. It’s even used to treat asthma and bronchitis. Coriander is an antioxidant, and fennel and cardamom improve digestion and freshen the breath. In fact, Indian cuisine may have its origins in the spices that were used traditionally to preserve food and treat illness.
The combination of negative flavor pairing and the rampant use of spices may explain why Indian cuisine is so appealing. Every bite is a unique flavor experience that may be simultaneously a boost for health.