zaterdag 10 mei 2014

Food pairing / gastronomy with a telescope

The theory of food pairing inspires little faith (see earlier) but when moving away from culinary applications perhaps it can be used to differentiate cuisines and cooking styles. How Chinese is Jamie Oliver? How similar are Mexican and Indian cuisines? How do French and Indian cooking differ? How unique is Rene Redzepi? 

The aim is to find a way to reveal the inner structure and logic of a cuisine, if such a thing exists, by comparing the way a cuisine or a cook combines ingredients with other cuisines and cooks. The first step is turn a collection recipes (a cookbook) into ingredient pairs, here is what a fragment of a looks like:
Two recipes use both potato and pork, one recipe combine chicken and cucumber, 15 recipes combine chicken with grapeseed oil and so on down the list. In a graph the pairs look like this:

The problem is in the data more than in the code. To get to lists of ingredients as recipes that are easy to process I am using Eat Your Books, a website that catalogs recipes and cookbooks. The ingredient lists are not complete (what exactly are 'cupboard ingredients'? a reference to the mock turtles of the soup) but they will do for my purpose.

Here is the graph of 'An Invitation to Indian Cooking' by Madhur Jaffrey (1975). It is pretty much what you would expect, a chaotic self-referential hairball with the core ingredients in the center with the rarer or less staple ingredients pushed to the edge. All graphs can be enlarged, the real information however is in the shape of the graph, not in the name of ingredients.

A different projection shows the connections differently, clearer on the eyes but not necessarily better: 
If you were creating something that would generate options for chefs you could take a book like "French Home Cooking: An Introduction to Classic French Cooking" by Paul Bocuse (1989) to generate diagrams like the following that shows what Indian (blue) and French (red) cuisines combine with potato and carrots.
It is of course bad practise to use one cookbook as representing an entire cuisine, but we are here in illustrative mode. Indian and French cuisine are national cuisines; how do they compare with someone like Rene Redzepi. With what ingredients does he (in green) combine the humble potato and carrot in his book "Noma: Time and  Place in Nordic Cuisine" (2010)? I a French manner.

But from the perspective of dry cooking this is still puny and close to home. The next image compares French and Chinese cuisines. The French is the Bucase book (blue), the Chinese (red) is Ken Hom's "A Taste of China" (1990). Again we are not actually comparing cuisines but cookbooks representing a certain regional form of cooking to a Western audience but the differences are real. Chinese and French cooking are worlds apart and only share some basics like vinegar, onion and pork. Chinese cooking comes across as much more homogenous and compact.

Now add Jamie Oliver's "The Naked Chef" (2000) to this French/Chinese data and see what happens: Jamie Oliver's cuisine is like a giant flesh eating amoeba devouring both cuisines whole and it still remains hungry. For now it is seems more French then Chinese.
Here is what happens when comparing Rene Redzepi (red) and Jamie Oliver. Even though the two appear to be opposites (the wild vs the supermarket, the avant-garde vs the popular) this graph does not really show it as you can see by the overlap. Both are Western chefs cooking Western food even when many ingredients are not shared.

The next image returns to the observation that Indian and Mexican food are historic twins. Would food pairing confirm this? Comparing Jaffrey (blue) with "Rosa's New Mexican Table" by Roberto SantibaƱez (2010) resulted in the following. The two cuisines are structured as separate spheres with a few heavily contested ingredients. Ingredients do not a cuisine make, as Rachel Laudan would possibly say as this graph seems to say.

In conclusion, to show that two similar bodies of recipes will overlap, I have compared Jaffrey with "50 Great Curries of India: Tenth Anniversary Edition" by Camellia Panjabi (2006). Both writers are of course using different ingredients but this image, in combination with the images above, do suggest a metric of displacement and uniformity: similar recipes will generate similar and overlapping hairballs.

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