Perfectly imperfect pairings

Ham and cheese, lobster and butter, tomato and basil. These are flavour pairings loved for generations that are popular on menus and bring a contented glow to diners. We have known that strawberries and chocolate are a perfect match for years, but what about chocolate and smoked eel, salmon and liquorice, or even oyster and passionfruit? These are modern flavour combinations that are actually served in top restaurants based on scientific research on the aromatic molecules in food and wine.

The experience we describe as flavour is the combination of the sensations we feel on our tongue and in our mouth, and the aromas we detect in our nose. The tongue detects saltiness, sweetness, bitter compounds, acidic molecules and amino acids that taste delicious and that the Japanese call umami. The mouth also senses changes in texture, heat and compounds that we detect as ‘heat’ or ‘spiciness’. The information from the nose and mouth goes to the brain to create what we call ‘flavour’. Eighty percent of this sensation comes from aroma, twenty percent from the tongue and mouth. Flavour is a mix of smell and taste. 

One of the newest flavour pairings of the modern era is white chocolate and caviar. Experimenting in his kitchen laboratory in Bray in the UK two decades ago, Fat Duck chef Heston Blumenthal discovered that certain amines, a product of broken-down proteins, found in both caviar and white chocolate, complemented each other so much that they formed a special bond on the palate. Together their taste became greater than the sum of their parts, creating that umami flavour and releasing aromas that worked perfectly together. He has been serving that dish for more than 20 years. 

Recent research by Belgium food scientists Peter Coucquyt, Bernard Lahousse and Johan Langenbick found that the reason sourdough and avocado go so well together is because of a molecule called hexanal. This compound of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen is found in many plants, but it’s also produced during sourdough fermentation. When avocado comes in contact with sourdough, the naturally occurring hexanal in both ingredients pairs up and makes the other aromas blend perfectly together. Their book The Art and Science of Foodpairing, along with the food pairing website and apps, have become essential tools for many modern chefs. 

Using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, scientists have been able to pinpoint aroma compounds such as 2 furfurylthiol, which is found in coffee, roast meat, popcorn, canned tuna, yeast extract and slightly roasted white sesame. This is an aroma that we find seductive and its discovery is behind the rise in toasted sesame and sesame oil being used in a broad array of dishes. More interesting food pairings see oysters topped with tropical fruit concasse or granita. This is because oysters contain methyl hexanoate as do pineapples, kiwi fruit, passionfruit and even hops!

What food scientists did after scientifically analysing food was to crunch the data using algorithms to see what foods could possibly go with others based on the aroma compounds they had in common. This led to novel matches like vanilla and white asparagus, broccoli and dark chocolate, and cheese and pineapple. 

Using this method, the team at Foodpairing worked out that sweet potato and mango had enough aromatic data points in common to work together on the plate. Sweet potato and mango salad became an online hit recipe recently. The same story goes for vanilla and white asparagus. In 2019, Parisian chef Yannick Alleno created a dish of shaved white asparagus, asparagus stems and a vanilla-infused sauce. And while cheese and pineapple sound a little odd in the same sentence, put together on top of a Hawaiian pizza it is a dish enjoyed by thousands of people every day. Other food pairings that work on paper and on the plate are chicken and liquorice, turkey and crème de cacao, black truffle and French fries, and cauliflower and raspberry.

Speaking from Belgium, Foodpairing co-founder and co-author of the book, Peter Coucquyt, said “due to the pandemic trends have switched, mainly to health and building immune systems”. He refers to the unlikely pairings of chocolate brownie with fermented white miso an roasted beetroot with sesame seed. Coucquyt suggests we will be washing these down with kefirs flavoured with apple, peppermint and lemon geranium. “Fermented foods are trending,” he says. “The big thing will be novel flavours in naturally brewed drinks.”

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