The Science of Spice

By Claudette D'Cruz

The Science of Spice

Humans have a need to understand why.  We know that we love curry, but why? Scientists, researchers, chefs and food enthusiasts have been pondering much the same question for many years.  At last, we have an answer.

A team of researchers from the Indian Institute for Technology in Delhi studied the chemical compounds in 2,000 Indian dishes and discovered that Indian recipes tend to be created with ingredients that share few, if any, similarities.  The ingredients used are all unique and thus pack a flavour punch that is not overshadowed by any of its fellows.  This is markedly different to Western cooking in which most flavours are similar to one another, and therefore blend in together.  This leaves the overall flavour as a little bland.

The contrast and boldness of flavour in Indian food can be credited for making curries with depth and complexity.  They are literally complex in terms of chemical compounds.  They also use a lot more ingredients than other cuisines, with Indian food utilising around 200 of the estimated 381 ingredients known to man.  Though not all at the same time, of course…

Such complexity of flavour appeals to our bodies because it stimulates different sections of our tongues as we consume the dish.  Salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami – the five tastes – dance a flavour tango all over our mouths and delight our senses even before the food reaches the tummy.

To realise such greatness, however, the cook must treat ingredients with respect and knowledge, unlocking the flavour sensations for the diner.  Some cheap, powdered spices lose their flavour after being cooked for 30 minutes so it’s important to know when to add these during the preparation process. Even simple things like onion and garlic need to be cooked with care – do you want your onions to be sweet and caramelised?  To sweat or fry?  It’s also important not to add the garlic too early or it might burn!   Such crucial choices could make all the difference to the deliciousness of the finished product.

Thankfully, recipe books are a guide for those who didn’t grow up with Indian cooks as mothers – follow the instructions carefully!   Easier still are high quality spice blends available (like No Worries Curries) to save you time and ensure that a perfect combination of spices is on hand to take the curry to the level of quality for which the cuisine is world renowned.  

Understanding the science of why always helps inform the how and will improve the what; your dinner.   If we take note of the science and take a little extra care with the creation of meals, we can all maintain the great tradition of the curry no matter how far from India our kitchens are!