Food is not just about taste and texture, but pairing too. Even as new combinations are being experimented with, time-tested blends continue to hold sway

It seems as easy as pie. Even easier, coming to think of it. (Admittedly, getting the perfect apple pie crust can be infuriating.) Why do we love the foods we love? French fries liberally dusted with salt, and dipped in thick ketchup. Perfectly stir fried pepper chicken, speckled with well-browned cashew nuts. Spongy steaming gulab jamuns, laced with cardamom, soggy with sugar syrup.

Obviously these foods are popular because they appeal to human taste buds. If taste is a language, the code is simple. At the most basic level: all of us like fat, sweet and salty flavours. We dislike sour and bitter flavours. It makes sense when you think of how we evolved. Forests don’t have labels. So when our ancestors lived in challenging food environment, their taste buds were all they had to rely on to tell the difference between what was nutritious, and what was poisonous. Bitter food tends to be toxic, sour food tends to be spoilt. We need a chemical code to communicate just to survive.

Of course the world is different now. And we are spoilt by choice. Yet, we tend to stay with established flavour pairings, simply because they are familiar, accessible and easily accepted. Potatoes and peas. Bacon and eggs. Paneer and spinach.

A scientific report published in Nature.com discusses the ‘flavor network and the principles of food pairing.’ The team says that although food is influenced by geography and culture, they have also found a flavour network that captures flavour compounds shared by culinary ingredients. They say that the “relatively small number of recipes in use compared to the enormous number of potential recipes, together with the frequent recurrence of particular combinations in various regional cuisines, indicates that we are exploiting but a tiny fraction of the potential combinations.”

Or as celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal (who runs the revolutionary Fat Duck restaurant) famously says, “There’s a whole new world of flavor combinations out there.”

If you’re bored of eating the same things again and again, it may be useful to dabble in the brave new world of food pairing. The principal is based on the premise that foods which share major flavour components combine well.

Like many chefs, mixologists and amateur cooks have discovered the easiest, and possibly most attractive, entry point is www.foodpairing.com. The website helps you identify which foods go well together by providing the flavour analysis of a product and then creating a ‘food pairing tree’. Take peas. A dish of peas can be cooked with all the usual suspects: carrot, fish, potato, chicken. Or you can use other food pairing suggestions, such as white chocolate, vanilla, gin, apricot, passion fruit.

There are, of course, other resources, but most of them are very technical. Especially for those of us who hated chemistry in school. But what it comes down to finding foods that taste good together.

Blumenthal himself has an exhaustive list. Snails and beetroot, for instance, as they both have earthy flavour components. Liver and jasmine, because they have similar sulphur compounds. Or caramelised cauliflower and cocoa. He’s used all these combinations, by the way. Think of his much-copied snail porridge. His pork liver and jasmine flower combination. And his cauliflower risotto with cocoa jelly.

A final note before you rush into the kitchen and start rifling through your pantry. American Chef Thomas Keller (of the award-winning French Laundry restaurant) says that while the basic rules are “sweet, salty, bitter — and, of course, fat,” also remember factors like spiciness, acidity, and texture. “Texture is important because it sets off the ingredients against one another in a satisfying way — that’s why there are croutons on salads, and it’s why I eat my scrambled eggs with crunchy Ak-Mak crackers,” he says in a piece he wrote for Esquire.

Talking of how salt and acidity are the only components that actually enhance flavours, he says “When you’re putting together any dish — whether it’s a dish at the French Laundry or a midnight snack in your kitchen — all you have to do is keep those ideas in mind and start pairing ingredients with different flavor profiles to see if they taste good.”

His suggestions: Try ‘sweet and sour.’ (Think strawberries with balsamic vinegar.) ‘Fat and anything.’ (Fish fingers.) ‘Sour plus bowl food.’ (Add vinegar to almost any dish you eat in a bowl. Risotto, stew, soup.) ‘Spicy and sweet’ (Ginger snaps and peanut butter. Which are also creamy and crunchy.) ‘Sweet and salt’ (Prosciutto wrapped in cantaloupe.) Potatoes and anything.

Which ironically brings us right back to where we began. A plate of French fries liberally dusted with salt, and dipped in thick ketchup.

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