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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?
By Nikhil Sonnad
Published Last updated 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

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

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.

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