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?