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A Different Kind of Harmony

Explore Life Science

Mussels and melons, coffee and carrots, blue cheese and chocolate: those whose cooking adheres to the principle of “food pairing” combine foods that share common aromas. What is the secret behind a dazzling flavor?

Imagine a summer salad: “cucumber, olive oil, flaxseed, salmon …” This is how Professor Thomas Vilgis sends us on our imaginary journey of flavors. “All these ingredients feature green, grassy, cucumber-like aromas that make a wonderfully harmonious salad.” This imaginary meal embodies the central idea of food pairing. The hypothesis behind the culinary concept: ingredients go particularly well together if their predominant aromas are similar. The physicist at the Max Planck Institute® for Polymer Research in Mainz, Germany, has extensively studied this trend, which dates back to 1992.

British star chef Heston Blumenthal, owner of the restaurant “The Fat Duck”, experimented to find out how to best combine foods. The object of his studies: caviar. He followed his intuition and sampled it together with white chocolate – quite the contrast. However, the taste experience tells a different story. The salty caviar is complemented superbly by the fatty sweetness of the chocolate. The reason why certain foods are a perfect match still remained elusive. Is there a pattern, a system?

At approximately the same time, François Benzi was intrigued by the scent of jasmine. Wasn’t he detecting an ever so slight whiff of liver? The discovery was on his mind until, finally, he decided to incorporate jasmine flowers in one of his liver pâtés – and hit the culinary jackpot. The perfumer and food technologist was working for an aroma and fragrance manufacturer, a position that equipped him with the necessary tools to study the unique pairing. Eventually, through his employer, he received a request from the UK concerning caviar and chocolate. This is how Blumenthal and Benzi met, and together, they continued to analyze different ingredients and combinations until they were certain that their novel hypothesis was correct. The principle of food pairing was born.

Harmony versus contrast

The concept is based on the balance between individual aromas. In this respect, foods are more compatible than meets the eye. A random example: strawberries and pollock. Both contain fatty acids that form during ripening or growth, respectively, in the cell membranes of the strawberry and in the muscle tissue of the pollock. “These fatty components then give rise to identical flavors”, explains physicist Thomas Vilgis. “Since each food contains a certain proportion of fats, there will always be an overlap between some of the molecules.” Does this mean that anything goes?

According to Vilgis, there are definitely differences; they are, however, rooted in contrast, rather than harmony. “The strawberry adds something to the pairing that the fish lacks: fruity aromas and sugars”, explains the researcher. To him, complementation is the key to a cuisine that continues to amaze, as described in his book “Foodpairing: Harmonie und Kontrast“. On this note, he has something to add to the above mentioned summer salad: “It is entirely devoid of contrast. Three spoonfuls in you will know exactly what to expect from the fourth.” Thus, food pairing does not automatically equal interesting.

Nuance is key

Vilgis advises concentrating first on flavor – on the six qualities that our tongues will recognize: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami and fatty. If combinations are not balanced, no chemically organized pairing of aromas will salvage the dish. In addition, the amount, as well as the presentation and delivery, will decide whether a combination can be considered a success. One famous example is the squeeze of lemon with fish. A pool of lemon juice will skew the proportions.

Even though Blumenthal’s and Benzi’s concept may be controversial, it has been firmly established in the culinary world. Even the system-based restaurant chain Vapiano began advertising food pairing specials at the beginning of the year. Thomas Vilgis welcomes more openness in the kitchen. Right now, he himself experiments with Harzer cheese and fruit. Ever the brave palate!

And tomorrow?

The taste of Big Data

Roughly 10,000 flavoring agents are known to occur in nature; an overwhelming place to start for possible pairings – and a springboard for the tech industry. Bright minds combine the principle of food pairing with the systematization of large amounts of data. The most important ingredient: artificial intelligence.

The Belgian firm Foodpairing NV has created one of the largest food databases sorted by aroma. Their algorithm creates ingredient pairings, even complete recipes, for the gastro­nomy sector as well as for industry. In collaboration with the magazine Bon Appétit, IBM® and its artificial intelligence Watson have created an app. The supercomputer analyzed 9,000 recipes from the Bon Appétit inventory in order to detect patterns and recommend combinations. Will chefs be replaced by computers in the near future? “It ­depends on their eventual ability to learn”, says Thomas Vilgis. In the meantime, the best is still ­reserved for us humans: eating.