It’s an old cooking adage that what grows together, goes together. In other words, ingredients that are cultivated in the same area are likely to taste good together. It’s an idea that’s commonly tossed around on foodie websites as advice to aspiring cooks. Wine aficionados also love to use it to help them chose which wine to pair with a particular dish.
As many times as I’ve seen this advice doled out, I’ve never seen a good explanation of why it was true. So I wondered, is it? Or is it just one of those things generations of grandmothers have been saying as they stirred their spaghetti sauce?
To find out if this was true, I reasoned that you’d need to be able to figure out which foods really do pair well together, then plot them on a map according to where they’re grown, and presto: you’d see if there was a correlation between location and pair-ability. Our grandmothers didn’t have the data necessary to check. But we do!
The site foodpairing.be is a tool for chefs based on the idea that ingredients that share flavor compounds tend to match well together. You type in an ingredient, and the site uses a database of the chemical composition of hundreds of different foods to show you what other ingredients will go well with it. Here’s the one for fresh tomato (credit: food pairing.be):
Cool, eh? The idea is that the closer an ingredient is located to the center one, the more flavor compounds they share, and the better they’ll go together. Some of them aren’t surprising because we see them matched all the time (olive oil), but some are–who would have guessed that raspberry and tomato would be such a close match?
But back to the original question: are these flavors that go together, actually grown together? I took four very different ingredients: cumin, tomato, cinnamon, and chili, and used the best information I could dig up on where they’re grown to plot them, on a map. Then I plotted the foods they go well with in the major places those foods are grown. Here’s the one for tomato. (Click here to see it and the rest of the the maps at a less frustrating size!)
As you can see, the answer isn’t all that straightforward. If you’re like me, when you think “tomato,” you probably thought of Italy. But as the map shows, tomatoes originated from South America. Of course, they aren’t grown there today. You can see the major migration path of tomatoes through the ages on the map above. But this is obviously a major simplification–tomatoes are grown all over the world today (albeit in greenhouses, in some places).
To me, there does seem to be a bit of a correlation, at least, enough that the old “what grows together, goes together” adage probably will help you out in your flavor pairing endeavors, most of the time. But perhaps the correlation is just due to the fact that tomatoes are grown in a lot of places, and those places happen to grow a lot of other foods, as well.
What do you think? Is there some truth to the old adage, or are we better of ditching this idea of location-based pairing for a more scientific one that uses shared flavor compounds as a basis for food pairing (or for another concept entirely)?