Food Science

Pork with Vanilla? Sure, Why Not

April 13, 2017

Historically, I’ve tended to be unadventurous with my food pairings. I adhere to the timeworn, the tried-and-true: wine and cheese, peanut butter and jelly, steak and potatoes, burgers and fries, the like. I’m quite the daredevil gourmand, as you can tell.

At last month’s Hacking Flavor Perception conference, held at Oxford University, Cambridge’s Dr. Sebastian Ahnert stressed the need for eaters to widen their outlook on food pairings. During his presentation, Ahnert reiterated the findings of his 2011 study on novel food pairings whose virtues have been heretofore underappreciated, if not dismissed offhand. In that study, he set out to examine the underlying chemical relationships between seemingly disparate ingredients commonly found in recipes posted on home cooking sites like allrecipes.

Ahnert and his team of researchers scoured over 50,000 recipes, ultimately visualizing their findings in a cobweb of a map. This map is a real mind warp—I’ve been staring at it for a good hour and still can’t quite decode it. Perhaps you’ll fare better.

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His resultant work has championed a number of flavor pairings that may strike the more churlish among us as less-than-desirable. Among his recommendations? Coffee and potatoes. Coffee and garlic. Seaweed and chocolate. Roast beef and chocolate. Blue cheese and chocolate. Caviar and chocolate. Goat cheese and lamb. Matcha and sour cherries. Pork and vanilla sauce. Mussels and strawberries. The list goes on.

I can't say I've ever tried these, but I'm open to experimentation. Of course, Ahnert has cautioned, execution is key here. No one wants some runny mashed potatoes with a potful of watered-down Nescafé, as Ahnert himself had eaten after concluding his research. He says that it's up to chefs to accent the common flavors in these foods in the cooking process. Make of Ahnert's proposed combinations what you will, but the philosophy that undergirds his research is one we could all do well in adopting: that flavor combos some may glibly deem as "weird" may not be so bizarre after all. Embracing them may give us access to pleasures we didn't even know existed.

What's your favorite food pairing that others have declared weird or gross? Let us know in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Zelda
  • Whiteantlers
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


Zelda April 13, 2017
I think the map makes sense, if you look at it as follows:

1. The frequency of how often an ingredient gets used in a given list of recipes, (i.e., on Allrecipies) is proportional to the size of the circle on the map. This is why "Onion" "Garlic" and "Wheat" are bigger dots than say, "Turmeric" and "Grapefruit".

2. Then, you start connecting the dots. If two foods share identified compounds they are linked together. If they share a lot of compounds, the string gets thicker. This is why "Garlic" and "Onion" have a thick thread - they have many of the same flavor compounds. The farther away compounds are from each other, or the fewer related ingredients, the fewer amounts of shared compounds. So foods might play off each other to create a combination, or just be disgusting.

So, working with that, you could play around with substitutions and/or look for new ideas. If say, you take "Chicken" and see that is shares some compounds with "Black Tea", and "Black Tea" shares some with "Tomato", than maybe next time you make Chicken Cacciatore, you infuse some English Breakfast leaves in your sauce while it cooks with the chicken. Or you try curing your bacon with vanilla and coffee.
Whiteantlers April 13, 2017
If you decode that map, please write another article.