Food Combinations That Work & Why They Work

Why do some foods go well together and others don’t? It basically comes down to the anatomy and physiology of our olfactory (responsible for the sense of smell) and gustatory (responsible for the sense of taste) systems and food chemistry.

Around 80% of our tasting experiences originate from the nose and the remaining 20% comes from the tongue. This is perhaps partly attributed to the number of smell receptors versus taste buds we have: the nose contains around 5-10 million receptors or cells for the sense of smell, whereas the tongue, soft palate, throat and larynx contains around 10,000 taste buds (receptors for taste are located in the taste buds, the majority of taste buds are located in the tongue). The nose has the ability to recognise around 10,000 different scents. The tongue can only distinguish sweet, sour, bitter and salty; all other tastes, such as pepper, lemon and chocolate, are a combination of the 4 major classes of taste. Smell is also more sensitive than taste – a certain concentration of a food substance may stimulate the sense of smell 1,000 times stronger than taste. Essentially, when something tastes nice, it actually has more to do with smell than taste and this has a lot to do with the greater complexity of the olfactory system.

Given the strong influence of olfaction in the eating experience, this lead to the hypothesis that if two foods have one or more key odorants (molecules that contribute to the overall aroma of food and are present in concentrations that are detectable by the human nose) in common, they might compliment on another. At the inaugural molecular gastronomy workshop Francois Benzi (scientist at the largest privately owned flavour house in the world, Firmenich) added further support to this theory by suggesting that jasmine and pork liver go well together as they both contained the aromatic compound indole. Heston Blumenthal (world renowned chef and owner of The Fat Duck restaurant) used this theory to come up with unusual food pairings that actually work. He experimented with salty ingredients and chocolate and found that caviar and white chocolate tasted good together.

Other combinations discovered by Heston and Herve This (French physical chemist at the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique) include:

  • Strawberry and coriander
  • Snails and beetroot
  • Chocolate and pink peppercorn
  • Carrot and violet
  • Carrot and coriander seeds
  • Caramelised cauliflower and cocoa
  • Banana and parsley
  • Harissa (chilli paste) and dried apricot
  • Chocolate and smoked eel
  • Salmon and liquorice
  • Oyster and passion fruit
  • Oyster and kiwi

According to food blogger and organometallic chemist Martin Lersch, the following food combinations might work due to some similarities in their molecular composition:

  • Minced meat and caramel
  • Orange and butternut squash
  • Cocoa and mushrooms
  • Chantarelle mushroom and apricot
  • Sweet white wine and pea shoots
  • Semolina pudding and red curry
  • Tomato and strawberry
  • Cranberries and pistachio
  • Mint and mustard
  • Chocolate and caraway

To read more about Martin’s ideas for food pairings, follow his Khymos blog.

The notion of food pairings based on common key odorants has certainly opened up the possibility of many more food combinations just waiting to be discovered.

How about revisiting some of these classic and delightful food combinations:

· Duck & orange

  • Orange & fennel
  • Strawberries & cream
  • Watermelon and feta
  • Strawberries and cream
  • Almonds & Trout
  • Trout & Horseradish
  • Roast beef and potatoes
  • Potatoes and Duck Fat
  • Lemon and poppy seeds
  • Caramel and chocolate
  • Chocolate and red wine
  • Fish and potato chips
  • Saffron and Lamb
  • Rosewater and pistachios
  • Mozzarella and Tomatoes
  • Tomatoes and Cucumbers
  • Wild rice and sausage
  • Sausage and spinach
  • Spinach and pine nuts
  • Pine nuts and couscous
  • Chicken and peanut
  • Japanese eggplant and miso
  • Bacon and eggs
  • Apples and cinnamon
  • Goat cheese and Figs
  • Sweet peas and pancetta
  • Lemon & fish
  • Chocolate & orange
  • Chilli & crab

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Comments 2 comments

Foodpairing 5 years ago

More Foodpairing combinations you can find at www.foodpairing.com, an update of the foodpairing.be we launched 4 years ago. Be inspired.


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Shanti Perez 3 years ago from Spokane, Washington, U.S.A.

Over the summer I sat down to a steaming bowl of spicy kimchee soup. Before I'd even taken a bite of the soup, I knew that the banana on the table had to be part of the meal. The combined aroma of the soup and the banana seemed to make both better. So I broke off bite-sized pieces of the banana and ate it with the soup by placing a piece on the spoon that already had bits of noodle and broth. It was delicious! Who would think kimchee banana soup would be so delicious?

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