14 December 2011

Food Pairing: Fad or Totally Rad

Since its conception food pairing has been on the tip of every chef and bartenders tongue. Combine that with the work of people like Bernard Lahousse, who has created a website which offeres the easiest and most approachable access to possible combinations, it is definitely a "trending" topic you might say.

Recently though there has been more and more questions raised concerning the theory and whether it stands up both on a scientific level but also from a cultural and empirical level. We thought we would take a look at what is being said and then let people make up their own mind.

Lets begin with the basic premis of what food pairing actually is.

The more aromatic compounds 2 substances have in common the better they will taste when paired together. This idea is said to be even more true when these aromatics are shared amongst a foods "characteristic flavour"

In more practrical terms it means that we can take flavour A and substitute it for flavour B. The two flavours are not naturally something that would "work" together however due to their similar aromatics it means they should, in theory, be easily swapped out. This is the first step to creating a new combination.

The theory is also based on the idea that we taste volatile compounds 80% through our olfactory or smell. The other 20% is perceived through mouth feel and taste on the tongue.

So in short we can put this flavour with that flavour because they share aromatics. Regardless of what we have "learnt" through our experiences of taste, or ideas we have formed on what should be served with what, scientifically the two will work. This does not detract from the fact that the flavours must still be balanced and a symphony created between the two.

The idea was given birth back in 2002 by Heston Blumethal. He was searching for alternatives for salt when he stumbled upon the combination of white chocolate and caviar. Bemused and intrigued, equally, Heston sought answers. They came from a man named Benzi who cited the combination of pork liver and jasmine. It was a similar anomaly of delicious flavour combination, and worked because they both share the volatile compound indole.

Maybe the best visual illustration of the principle can be seen over at Khymos and is illustrated below.

The letters represent a food and the colours represent how many odourants / volatiles/ aromatics they have in common. In the example below A and K have no aromatics in common however they taste delicious together .
Because the colours are similar we can see that A and C share aromatics. It would be unsurprising that the two would taste good together and indeed taste similar.

Here we see A and Z. Despite the letters being at opposite ends of the scale Food Pairing shows us that they share key aromatics and so should taste similar.
Imagine A is a prominent experiment in a dish. The colours surrounding it are traditional accompaniments. We see this in the way the colour tones are matched.
Based in the Food Pairing theory we can then add Z into the mix, as it shares similar aromatics to A and so should sit well with the surrounding flavours.

Following this theory one step further we should be able to substitute A for Z entirely. Carry on the process with the surrounding ingredients and it will slowly but surely become an entirely new dish.

Some have begun to argue that the idea is just a fad sweeping through Europe. Used as a method to separate kitchens, and their chefs, based on 'those who do' are excellent and pushing the boundaries. 'Those who don't' are average and doing nothing innovative. There may be some truth in to this, however the idea has already been around for a solid decade and seems to be gaining pace rather than slowing. Especially with the advent of it's path leading towards bars and drinks meaning we are seeing more weird and wonderfully unapparent combinations springing up on Cocktail Menu's all over the globe.

A study was conducted recently which offered some interesting, yet hotly contested, findings.

Undertaken by Yong-Yeoul Ahn at Harvard University. The group mapped and studied over 56,000 recipes taken from website Epicurois.com, Allrecipes.com and the Korean site Menupan.com.

The recipes were split into geographical groups. I.e Asian, North American, European and analysed to understand the flavour sharing components between them.

The results found that recipes from North America and Western Europe lean toward ingredients that share flavours. However Southern Europe and East Asian cuisine tend to avoid ingredients that share flavours and actually leant more toward a concept dubbed 'Antipairing'.

Now, arguments abound that this has more to do with location, availability, tradition, and cost in some cases. Rather, that in certain places these dishes are eaten out of necessity rather than for the pleasure of flavour combinations. Others contest that Asia is actually one of the most successful examples of Food Pairing theory.

Whether or not this theory applies to drinks is another question. An entirely new study could be conducted on cocktail ingredients and their origins. However one thing is for certain currently the Food Pairing theory is laying down the gauntlet of how far we can push drinks combinations. The idea of savoury flavours within cocktails is only just really being breached, beyond Bloody Marys, Bull Shots, and dare I say bacon infused vodkas we have stuck to what people know and are comfortable with.

I think we would be hard pressed to find another time when people's mind were more open to food and drink breaking down boundaries.

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