Indian Chickpea and Cauliflower Curry
Credit: © Kristen Stevens

Good, spicy Indian food can be an experience unlike any other cuisine, and it turns out there may be a scientific reason for that. Researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology in Jodhpur sifted through thousands of recipes and discovered that, unlike most Western food, Indian dishes combine ingredients with flavor compounds that don't overlap. They aren’t talking about basic tastes—salty, sweet, umami—but rather the building blocks of flavor, which are chemical compounds like capsaicin.

Traditionally, cuisines from the West tend to follow what is called positive food pairing, meaning ingredients are put together because they have similar flavor profiles. For example, the beer-and-cheese pairing you just served at your last dinner party worked because the two have many of the same chemical compounds, as do red wine and beef. (If you want to see more classic combos, Scientific American created a helpful chart.)

Indian food, however, does the opposite. For example, one recipe the researchers analyzed contained crab, which has five compounds, and onion, which has seven. They share only one: isopropyl alcohol. Many more ingredients shared no compounds at all. In fact, the researchers found that the overlap of flavors in Indian food is lower than in a recipe created totally at random.

The bottom line for those of us cooking at home is to branch out. We might go bake up some curry cookies tonight just to see what happens.