Over Easter I have been putting together a new page for Foodmap that allows the user to select 3 ingredients from a list (and/or 3 randomly chosen ones) to find out what foodstuffs are commonly used in combination with it. Optionally it can also display for some ingredients what odor compounds they contain. You might of heard of this as Food Pairing, a theory coming from within molecular gastronomy HQ that states that "foods combine well with one another when they share key flavor components". The ur-example is white chocolade with caviar.
Ever the keen student of Horace Walpole I named the project the Phantom Recipe Constructor and for me it was mostly the challenge of Proof of Concept: could I get the data into manageable shape and would it work as a service.
The question of whether it's working I will leave to your discretion. I would here like to share my reservations about the data, my use of it and the food pairing theory itself.
There are two sources of data:
- Flavornet, a website where some brave soul plowed through the scientific literature to create "a compilation of aroma compounds found in human odor space". I believe that these are the flacor components food scientists are using to pair foods that could be expected to taste well.
- A file with 220.000+ food pairs taken from a file provided as an extra to the 2011 paper 'Flavor network and the principles of food pairing' by Ahn, Ahnert, Bagrow and Barabási. In this they analyze 56,498 recipes from two US recipe repositories (Allrecipes and Epicurious) and a Korean one (Menupan). The latter "to avoid a distinctly Western interpretation of the world's cuisine", which is important but I wonder if Korean cuisine is not too much of a minority cuisine to be representative of anything but itself: its skews the results. Another issue is that some common ingredients are missing or underrepresented. Spinach has only 4 appearances and that is in dried form (never heard of before, maybe a Korean delicacy). Gherkin, eggplant, alfalfa, couscous are all not present. Not a major deal, but important to keep in mind. I use Allrecipes quite a bit when looking for example recipes for specific cuisines (Filipino say) and it is a great resource but once it is parsed straight and verbatim into a database to represent something larger than itself I wonder if its collections of family recipes and the latest inventions of amateur cook can live up to this claim. Not that I would know how to tackle this problem of representation: any recipe collection represents a paper reality and never really touches on what people actually eat.
What the authors have done to collect recipes is as any programmer would solve the problem but I doubt if a historian would be satisfied with this make-do approach to data. There are a huge number of historic, out of copyright cookbooks available and if these could be processed and added to this data, classic flavor combinations might be better represented. It might even be used to trace changing tastes through the centuries. The data also has the huge gap of Indian and Chinese cuisines: the food of over 2 billion people is underrepresented. Adding all of the world's cuisine to a database would however also be a bad idea if it would not allow you to trace differences within culinary traditions, especially as tradition fall apart once you look closer. A workable solution would be to attempt to represent tiny sections of the food spectrum: food pairs of French cuisine between 1880 and 1940, food pairs of bestselling cookbooks in the 1980ties, food pairs in Anglo-Indian cuisine since 1800 and so on.
To add stupidity to the mix I have filtered (got rid of the pairs with a frequency less than 4) and butchered the data (turning boiled, cooked, fried and raw potato into one item: potato) to make it workable within the constraints of a webservice. I would need to look at it properly but I actually think that preparation method is a minor and/or random differentiator in this contect. If you select 3 ingredients, 3 random ingredients and want to see the flavor compounds your browser will show you what I mean (patience it will come). Preparation obviously does much to the taste to ingredients, this data is available in the data file but absent from the Phanton Recipe Generator.
ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US & THE PHANTOM RECIPE CONSTRUCTOR IS FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES ONLY.
My main problem with food pairing is that it is so horribly reductive. What tastes well shares common characteristics?! What a dull concept and a boring theory. The presence of trimethylamine makes white cholocate and caviar
taste well together? But it is a fact that comes out after the fact but might as well be explained as a random event.
Reason by analogy: A dating agency matching you with a future partner might select for you someone equally passionate about music only to find out that your tastes are far apart and incompatable. What you share is what separates you, music is not just sound, it is culture. A dating agency might not suggest a future partner because of different music tastes which may be insignificant once you would actually meet. What makes a good match is not determined by one shared commonality. It is about how differences and similarities balance and contrast each other overall.
Opposites always attract: This is why the Phantom Recipe Constructor offers the reverse function: select an ingredient and it suggests what does not go with it.
The idea that flavors in a dish need to compliment each other is an implicit Western practice and Asian cuisines instinctively do the opposite. Given the ongoing and enthusiastic adaptation of Asian foods in the Western diet I predict that food pairing has little future anyway.