Skip to navigationSkip to content
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?

The ingredient that makes each global cuisine taste authentic

By Nikhil Sonnad

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

Cuisine Ingredient % of recipes that use…
African Caraway 8%
American Apple 5%
Asian Sesame Oil 30%
Cajun/Creole Okra 8%
Central/South American Avocado 13%
Chinese Peanut Oil 16%
Eastern European/Russian Egg Noodle 7%
English/Scottish Currant 10%
French Tarragon 5%
German Sauerkraut 15%
Greek Feta Cheese 31%
Indian Black Mustard Seed Oil 5%
Irish Whiskey 8%
Italian Romano Cheese 5%
Japanese Katsuobushi 9%
Jewish Apricot 7%
Mediterranean Feta Cheese 10%
Mexican Avocado 15%
Middle Eastern Roasted Sesame Seed 9%
Moroccan Caraway 10%
Scandinavian Herring 8%
Southern/Soul Food Corn Grit 9%
Southwestern Black Beans 8%
Spanish/Portuguese Saffron 11%
Thai Galangal 11%
Vietnamese Thai Pepper 14%

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

Cuisine Ingredient % of recipes that use…
African Onion 53%
American Butter 44%
Asian Soy Sauce 50%
Cajun/Creole Onion 70%
Central/South American Garlic 57%
Chinese Soy Sauce 66%
Eastern European/Russian Butter 60%
English/Scottish Butter 67%
French Butter 49%
German Butter 56%
Greek Olive Oil 76%
Indian Cumin 58%
Irish Butter 59%
Italian Olive Oil 66%
Japanese Soy Sauce 61%
Jewish Egg 59%
Mediterranean Olive Oil 80%
Mexican Cayenne 71%
Middle Eastern Olive Oil 60%
Moroccan Olive Oil 73%
Scandinavian Butter 53%
Southern/Soul Food Butter 58%
Southwestern Cayenne 81%
Spanish/Portuguese Olive Oil 63%
Thai Garlic 57%
Vietnamese Fish Sauce 78%

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.