One time, as a precocious know-it-all in my early 20s, I attended a fancy soiree in downtown Chicago. To give you an example of how classy, I remember seeking advice from three different individuals to make sure my tie was knotted in a socially-acceptable way. Now, besides searching for pre-party knot advice, I don't remember much else about the evening itself. (It was an open bar, it should be pointed out.) I can't recall the address, don't have a clue what it was celebrating, and certainly can't remember how I got home. But one of the few memories that still linger today, almost 10 years later, is the fact that one of the hors d'oeuvres being served was a piece of chocolate with a dab of blue cheese on top.
Let me repeat: Chocolate and blue cheese.
Of course, these days a flavor combo like that's old hat to most culinary-minded individuals. But for me, at that time period in my life, putting those two items together was more fitting for some kind of demonic exorcism ritual than the willing taste buds of the living. Being the brave soul that I am, though, I felt it was my duty to give one a shot. So after a few more complimentary cocktails to steel my nerves, I ate one.
And then, another. And a third and a fourth.
Soon enough, the serving tray was empty and the person holding it was looking in my direction with a mix of disgust and worry. Meanwhile, I was scanning the party for another tray. The message I received that night was loud and clear: Some foods that shouldn't go together, actually do. And as it turns out, they do so because of our good old friend science.
The reason that strawberries somehow go with basil, that rum goes with apples, that peanuts go with beef, that any weirdly-concocted combination go wonderful together, is not the result of some poor sad sack sitting in a warehouse tasting every variety there is, eventually stumbling on something that doesn't make him throw up. It's because certain foods share the same flavor compounds. This finding was the result of a massive and overwhelming report back in 2011 for Scientific Reports:
This food pairing hypothesis has been used to search for novel ingredient combinations and has prompted, for example, some contemporary restaurants to combine white chocolate and caviar, as they share trimethylamine and other flavor compounds, or chocolate and blue cheese that share at least 73 flavor compounds.
See? There's that chocolate and blue cheese mix, sharing at least 73 flavor compounds. No wonder the two of them go so great together!
But that previously-linked science report? If you clicked over, then you saw how longwinded and unwieldy it was. You don't have time to scan through it to find taste combinations. You have things to do. Which is why we're lucky that the folks over at Scientific American distilled that information into its essence and created a wonderful interactive map for all to use. (Be warned, the site takes a bit to load up.)
The map looks like this:
The main thing to look at here are those red lines. They represent the number of compounds the foods have in common with one another. The thicker the line, the more compounds they share, the stronger the link.
For example, let's take a look at what goes with that perfectly-created nectar of the gods, beer. According to the chart, the thick red lines of connectivity shoot out from beer and towards: (1) cheeses of various kinds; (2) apples; (3) coffee; (4) cocoa; and (5) roasted beef. All of which are flavor combos that I, being a connoisseur of the beverage myself, can completely vouch for.
But there are other, more seemingly random combinations that the chart also highlights. Milk and roast beef. Soybean and pork sausage. Red wine and pineapple. The chart's filled with a ton of these pairings that you'd never consider on your own. So perhaps before you try to play your hand at experimental chef, consult it and see what combinations make sense on a scientific level.
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