Co.Design

Infographic: A Scientific Map Of Optimal Food Pairings

What tastes good with what? Now you can know before the food hits your tongue.

Happy Thanksgiving! To keep you busy while you recover from turkey coma, we're republishing some of our favorite stories from 2013. Enjoy.--Eds

Surf and turf. It sounds like mere decadence--a pairing of premium proteins to assuage the appetites of both cigar-smoking tycoons at Morton’s and soccer moms at Applebee’s. But in reality, shrimp and beef share certain chemical compounds, making them natural complements to extract more flavor from one another when paired together.

This is the science of Western cooking. It’s why strawberries taste amazing with basil and beer tastes great with almost anything. And many of its secrets are available, not just to chefs or IBM supercomputers, but to all of us as an interactive infographic produced by Jan Willem Tulp for this month’s Scientific American food issue.

Of course, the Scientific American infographic is actually a reinterpretation a flavor map created by Yong-Yeol Ahn. But Tulp’s sequel is a masterpiece of data visualization that will suck you in long past your coffee (and soybeans, grapefruit, or squid) break. You can look at it as a sort of family tree.

Up top, you have roast beef--the food that shares the most chemical compounds (or food relatives) with other foods. Think of roast beef as a great great grandpa. Click on him, and lines will connect roast beef to foods with shared chemicals. Because grandpa beef is so high on the list, he has a lot of connections like shallots, caviar, and peas (though, surprisingly enough, not red wine).

Roast beef's link to peas is especially notable, because peas sit way down on the tree. Peas don’t have a lot of shared chemical compounds, so they don’t have so many relatives. That said, relatives aren’t everything. Some foods are still quite common in recipes, despite a lack of shared flavor components. Vegetable oil and starch--neither is particularly good for flavor pairings, so they’re buried at the bottom of the chart--but each is still designated by a huge blue dot because they’re found in so many recipes. And of course they are--how many recipes require a fat to fry or a starch to thicken?

The more time you spend exploring the graphic, the more “aha” moments you’ll have. For instance, you’ll see what makes cooking steak so appealing and chicken relatively unexciting: Not a lot of foods share compounds with chicken compared to steak. But a lemon sauce makes a lot of sense for chicken all the same--not just because a lemon’s acid will tickle your tongue--because lemon is a chemical relative of chicken. There’s flavor resonance between the two ingredients.

Interestingly enough, Scientific American points out that while the tradition of Western food is largely based upon these chemical overlaps, Eastern food is created quite differently, with dishes comprised of discrete flavors rather than interrelated ones. Fascinating, isn't it?

Try it here.

[Hat tip: FlowingData]

[Image: Peas via Shutterstock]

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15 Comments

  • John

    Up top, you have roast beef--the food that shares the most chemical compounds (or food relatives) with other foods. Think of roast beef as a great great grandpa. Click on him, and lines will connect roast beef to foods with shared chemicals. Because grandpa beef is so high on the list, he has a lot of connections like shallots, caviar, and peas (though, surprisingly enough, not red wine).

  • Adams

    Happy Thanksgiving! To keep you busy while you recover from turkey coma, we're republishing some of our favorite stories from 2013. Enjoy.--Eds

  • John

    Interestingly enough, Scientific American points out that while the tradition of Western food is largely based upon these chemical overlaps, Eastern food is created quite differently, with dishes comprised of discrete flavors rather than interrelated ones. Fascinating, isn't it?

  • VN

    Hmm, a few issues there. First of all, it is not SciAm that pointed out that "while the tradition of Western food is largely based upon these chemical overlaps, Eastern food is created quite differently, with dishes comprised of discrete flavors rather than interrelated ones", it was the work of Ahn et al. which the visualization is based on. SciAm took the dataset and hired a designer to visualize the pairings, but Ahn and colleagues did the acutal analysis.
    So it's incorrect when, in the whole article, it is assumed that the hypothesis on flavor pairings is true, because the article shows that, well, it depends (it's true that these compounds are also the focus of SciAm's map). Knowing that, it may not come as surprising that beef and red wine do not share many chemical compounds, because chemical compounds may not have much to do with it :)
    In short, the food pairing hypothesis may sound cool and sexy, but scientists have shown that it's often wrong, so we have to be careful drawing conclusions.

  • VN

    “When my friend the flavourist Francois Benzi first told me about a computer database that shows which molecules are present in a particular foodstuff, I jumped at the opportunity to ferret out lots of exciting new combinations of ingredients. In the medieval period, scientists searched for what they called ‘the philosopher’s stone’, a substance that could turn base metals into gold. For a while I felt as though I’d come across the culinary equivalent of this: I could type ‘benzaldehyde’ into the computer and the screen would reveal all sorts of golden possibilities: marzipan, peaches, almonds, cherries…
    Looking back at my younger self I’m almost embarrassed at my bumptious enthusiasm, not least because I now know that a molecule database is neither a shortcut to successful flavor combining nor a failsafe way of doing it. Any foodstuff is made up of thousands of different molecules, that two ingredients have a compound in common is a slender justification for compatibility. If I’d known then what I know now, I would probably never have tried this method of flavor pairing: there are simply too many reasons for it not to work. As it was, in my naivety I just got stuck in.”

    Heston Blumenthal, “Naivety in the kitchen can lead to great inventions, but too much can take you to some strange places”, The Times, 19 August 2010.

  • John

    The more time you spend exploring the graphic, the more “aha” moments you’ll have. For instance, you’ll see what makes cooking steak so appealing and chicken relatively unexciting: Not a lot of foods share compounds with chicken compared to steak. But a lemon sauce makes a lot of sense for chicken all the same--not just because a lemon’s acid will tickle your tongue--because lemon is a chemical relative of chicken. There’s flavor resonance between the two ingredients.

  • Adams

    Surf and turf. It sounds like mere decadence--a pairing of premium proteins to assuage the appetites of both cigar-smoking tycoons at Morton’s and soccer moms at Applebee’s. But in reality, shrimp and beef share certain chemical compounds, making them natural complements to extract more flavor from one another when paired together.

  • Adams

    Interestingly enough, Scientific American points out that while the tradition of Western food is largely based upon these chemical overlaps, Eastern food is created quite differently, with dishes comprised of discrete flavors rather than interrelated ones. Fascinating, isn't it?

  • John

    Roast beef's link to peas is especially notable, because peas sit way down on the tree. Peas don’t have a lot of shared chemical compounds, so they don’t have so many relatives. That said, relatives aren’t everything. Some foods are still quite common in recipes, despite a lack of shared flavor components. Vegetable oil and starch--neither is particularly good for flavor pairings, so they’re buried at the bottom of the chart--but each is still designated by a huge blue dot because they’re found in so many recipes. And of course they are--how many recipes require a fat to fry or a starch to thicken?

  • Adams

    Up top, you have roast beef--the food that shares the most chemical compounds (or food relatives) with other foods. Think of roast beef as a great great grandpa. Click on him, and lines will connect roast beef to foods with shared chemicals. Because grandpa beef is so high on the list, he has a lot of connections like shallots, caviar, and peas (though, surprisingly enough, not red wine).

  • myrna652

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  • Adams

    Roast beef's link to peas is especially notable, because peas sit way down on the tree. Peas don’t have a lot of shared chemical compounds, so they don’t have so many relatives. That said, relatives aren’t everything. Some foods are still quite common in recipes, despite a lack of shared flavor components. Vegetable oil and starch--neither is particularly good for flavor pairings, so they’re buried at the bottom of the chart--but each is still designated by a huge blue dot because they’re found in so many recipes. And of course they are--how many recipes require a fat to fry or a starch to thicken?

  • FloatingCricket

    Quite the graphic representation. Interesting to know how this food map plays into different cultural dishes. 

  • Adams

    The more time you spend exploring the graphic, the more “aha” moments you’ll have. For instance, you’ll see what makes cooking steak so appealing and chicken relatively unexciting: Not a lot of foods share compounds with chicken compared to steak. But a lemon sauce makes a lot of sense for chicken all the same--not just because a lemon’s acid will tickle your tongue--because lemon is a chemical relative of chicken. There’s flavor resonance between the two ingredients.