Published online 7 March 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.660
Corrected online: 11 March 2008


A recipe for food evolution

Researchers apply statistics to cookery books in different cultures.

Can't find that ingredient? It might soon be replaced.Punchstock

Many people say they really enjoy food; Antonio Roque can cite a paper to prove his love for it.

Along with an eclectic mix of equally gastronome colleagues — including physicists, a computer scientist and a nutritionist — Roque, who is based at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, waded through more than 3,000 recipes to examine how recipe ingredients have changed over time and dominate within cultures. “We think it’s important to analyse cultural phenomena like cuisine,” Roque says.

Together, the group looked at more than 3,000 separate recipes detailed in four cookery books, from Brazil, France, Britain and medieval times1. By analysing factors such as the number of ingredients and their dominance over others within a given culture, and considering the ability of a new ingredient to overtake a traditional one, they conclude that cuisines evolve slowly: some traditional ingredients persist because of the difficulty of replacing them. This should provide some reassurance to those worried that their local delicacies will be swiftly supplanted by generic chain restaurants: the paper suggests that "the idiosyncratic nature of each cuisine will never disappear due to invasion by alien ingredients and recipes".

Playing with food

The team examined the relationship between every ingredient's rank and its overall prevalence (the number of times it shows up in recipes) within a given culture, and found a striking similarity in the graph describing this relationship across all of the cookery books examined. In other words, the extent to which the top ingredient within a culture dominates over other ingredients was similar from one place to the next. “There are statistical features that are common to all those cuisines, even though they use different ingredients,” says Roque.

They also looked at how one particular cookery book, the Brazilian Dona Benta, has changed over time, examining the ingredients from the 1946, 1969 and 2004 editions. Again they found similar relationships.

When they tried to write an equation to describe this relationship, they found they had to include a factor called 'fitness' for the ingredients. This describes the chance that, when a 'mother' recipe is copied into 'daughter' recipes, an ingredient will be replaced by another, perhaps because it is tastier, cheaper or more easily available.

Dominance of the potato

As an example of this process, Roque cites the discovery of the potato, and its subsequent usurpation of the turnip. "Turnip was widely used in Europe before the potato arrived," he says. "In Japan, which is a highly conservative country, they still use turnip in many of their dishes."

Hervé This, the scientific director of the Foundation of Food Science and Culture, part of the French Academy of Sciences, and a pioneer of 'molecular gastronomy', says the paper is interesting as far as it goes but does not get into what mechanisms might underlie the observations. He notes that the paper also doesn't clearly define what an 'ingredient' is — is a carrot an ingredient, or is a chopped carrot one ingredient and grated carrot another, for instance?

But he adds that the paper marks a growing interest in cooking from scientists: making calculations from recipes, he says, is "a new trend". 


Quotes atributed to Adriano Holanda should have been attributed to Antonio Roque. NatureNews apologises to both.
  • References

    1. Kinouchi, O. et al. preprint at (2008)
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