The data and economics blog Priceonomics has tried to quantify that most distinctive ingredient for the cuisines of the world. It trawled 13,000 recipes, tagged by cuisine, from the recipe site Epicurious. Here were the most characteristic ingredients for the 26 cuisines listed on Epicurious up until late 2013:
Yep, that’s right. For Irish cuisine: Whiskey.
Those percentages vary widely because they identify ingredients that are disproportionately common, in order to exclude common ingredients used quite pretty similarly around the globe, such as butter, onion, or cayenne pepper. Those items are only listed as “distinctive” if they’re used an unusually large amount. For example, ”peanut oil is the most distinctive ingredient of Chinese cuisine, because it is found in 16% of Chinese recipes, but less than 2% of the non-Chinese recipes,” Priceonomics explains.
The blog did crunch the numbers for the most common ingredients, too:
As Priceonomics notes, there’s a caveat: because Epicurious is an English-language site that draws recipes from American food publications, its perspective on international cuisine is Western-centric. The results might be quite different with recipes in each cuisine’s native language. What’s more, the list doesn’t account for the potency of these ingredients: Being used more frequently doesn’t mean that an ingredient will dominate the recipe, let alone the taste palette of an entire cuisine.
So take the data with a dash of salt.