Big Data is changing the way we look at food

Researchers looked at whether Indian food differed from the scientific consensus on most other global cuisines which rely on "positive food pairing".

March 02, 2015 01:08 am | Updated 01:13 am IST - NEW DELHI

Can Big Data change the way we understand food? A recent study used data analytics techniques to establish an unusual feature of Indian cuisine.

Ganesh Bagler, assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Jodhpur, with two students — Anupam Jain, a systems science M. Tech student and Rakhi N.K., a PhD scholar in biomedical text mining — used Big Data analytics techniques to better understand the basic nature of Indian cuisine.

Using the website of the popular late chef Tarla Dalal to aggregate over 2,500 recipes across eight strands of Indian cuisine, the researchers looked at whether Indian food differed from the scientific consensus on most other global cuisines which rely on “positive food pairing.” This means that recipes in most other cultures involve the pairing of similarly flavoured ingredients.

Sorting 194 ingredients into 15 categories, Dr. Bagler and his students found that Indian cuisine on the contrary relies on negative food pairings, where dissimilarly flavoured ingredients are combined in a recipe. Moreover, Indian recipes are anchored around spices; the researchers shuffled around ingredients in a recipe to observe its effect on negative food pairing, and found that it was the spice that drove the negative pairing. They also found that of the top 10 ingredients whose presence biased the flavour-sharing pattern of Indian cuisine towards negative pairing, nine were spices: cayenne, green bell pepper, coriander, garam masala, tamarind, ginger-garlic paste, ginger, clove and cinnamon.

These are findings that could be expected to emerge from laboratory experimentation, but Dr. Bagler, who stumbled across the idea while teaching a course on Complex Networks, said he came at the question from an “empirical data modeller” perspective, using data mining and computational techniques to look at food. For Dr. Bagler, the research opens up a world of interdisciplinary possibilities; for example, algorithms that can create recipes, especially healthy recipes, and the role of ‘food as medicine.’

These findings ring true for chefs. “Indian cuisine is extremely complex — I use 20 ingredients for an Indian dish while I could do a Western one with five — and we use very bold flavours,” says Padmaja Divakarn, chef, ITC Grand Chola, Chennai. These characteristics lend themselves well to combining dissimilar flavours, and the spice gives types of cuisine their distinctive flavour, she says.

Food historian Pushpesh Pant agrees that Indian food uses such dissimilar flavours — giving the example of tamarind and jaggery in sambar — but cautions against generalising, given the complexity of Indian cuisine across region and social group. Moreover, the late Ms. Dalal’s recipes are limited to certain types of Indian food, and are predominantly vegetarian, Mr. Pant points out.

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