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The ingredient that makes each global cuisine taste authentic

Children eat their lunch in a free meal centre at the cyclone-hit Gopalpur village, in Ganjam district in the eastern Indian state of Odisha October 14, 2013.
Reuters/Adnan Abidi
What makes their meal distinctly Indian?
  • Nikhil Sonnad
By Nikhil Sonnad

Reporter

This article is more than 2 years old.

Ever wondered what makes Indian food Indian? Or Greek Greek? Thai Thai? Often, a single ingredient can set a cuisine apart. (Mustard oil, feta cheese, and galangal in the cases above.)

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:

Most distinctive ingredients

CuisineIngredient% of recipes that use…
AfricanCaraway8%
AmericanApple5%
AsianSesame Oil30%
Cajun/CreoleOkra8%
Central/South AmericanAvocado13%
ChinesePeanut Oil16%
Eastern European/RussianEgg Noodle7%
English/ScottishCurrant10%
FrenchTarragon5%
GermanSauerkraut15%
GreekFeta Cheese31%
IndianBlack Mustard Seed Oil5%
IrishWhiskey8%
ItalianRomano Cheese5%
JapaneseKatsuobushi9%
JewishApricot7%
MediterraneanFeta Cheese10%
MexicanAvocado15%
Middle EasternRoasted Sesame Seed9%
MoroccanCaraway10%
ScandinavianHerring8%
Southern/Soul FoodCorn Grit9%
SouthwesternBlack Beans8%
Spanish/PortugueseSaffron11%
ThaiGalangal11%
VietnameseThai Pepper14%

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:

Most common ingredients

CuisineIngredient% of recipes that use…
AfricanOnion53%
AmericanButter44%
AsianSoy Sauce50%
Cajun/CreoleOnion70%
Central/South AmericanGarlic57%
ChineseSoy Sauce66%
Eastern European/RussianButter60%
English/ScottishButter67%
FrenchButter49%
GermanButter56%
GreekOlive Oil76%
IndianCumin58%
IrishButter59%
ItalianOlive Oil66%
JapaneseSoy Sauce61%
JewishEgg59%
MediterraneanOlive Oil80%
MexicanCayenne71%
Middle EasternOlive Oil60%
MoroccanOlive Oil73%
ScandinavianButter53%
Southern/Soul FoodButter58%
SouthwesternCayenne81%
Spanish/PortugueseOlive Oil63%
ThaiGarlic57%
VietnameseFish Sauce78%

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.

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