Julia Child famously said that fat carries flavor, but perhaps instead we should give thanks to 4-methylpentanoic acid. Unique combinations of such chemical compounds give foods their characteristic flavors. Science-minded chefs have gone so far as to suggest that seemingly incongruous ingredients—chocolate and blue cheese, for example—will taste great together as long as they have enough flavor compounds in common. Scientists recently put this hypothesis to the test by creating a flavor map, a variant of which we have reproduced here. Lines connect foods that have components in common; thick lines mean many components are shared. By comparing the flavor network with various recipe databases, the researchers conclude that chefs do tend to pair ingredients with shared flavor compounds—but only in Western cuisine. Dishes from a database of recipes from East Asia tend to combine ingredients with few overlapping flavors.
This article was originally published with the title "The Flavor Connection" in Scientific American 309, 3, (September 2013)