Scientists looking into the worldwide popularity of Indian cuisine with its mix of spices say the secrets of its attraction are deep -- in fact, deep down at the molecular level, they say.
Analyzing more than 2,500 popular Indian recipes showed Indian food is unique for doing radical things with flavors in a way not found in Western culture, they say.
Western dishes normally are made with ingredients that have overlapping flavors, and food pairings combining those similar flavors appeal to the Western palate.
Food chemists have separated such flavors into their precise chemical compositions that, when combined, create a distinct taste.
A typical food ingredient will contain around 50 such flavor compounds, they've found, which Western recipes tend to pair up in combinations that are complimentary.
However, many Eastern cuisines feature dishes that go against the typical Western choices, making heavy use of ingredients that don't share overlapping flavors.
Indian food in particular leans toward such mixes of ingredients, say scientists at the Indian Institute for Technology in Jodhpur who analyzed data on several thousand recipes posted on a popular recipe website.
Breaking each recipe down by its constituent ingredients, they looked at how often and to what extent those ingredients had shared or overlapping flavor compounds.
The answer? Not very often and not very much, they say.
"We found that average flavor sharing in Indian cuisine was significantly lesser than expected," the researchers wrote.
This is more apparent in some Indian dishes than in others, they say, although the trend is found in almost all of Indian cuisine.
The presence of spices in particular indicates a dish with flavors that do not share any overlapping compounds, they say.
For example, many Indian recipes feature cayenne, the basis of all curry powders, and when a dish has cayenne as an ingredient, it's unlikely to contain any others sharing similar flavors, the researchers found.
When ingredients found in Western cuisine show up in an Indian recipe -- ingredients such as butter, milk, rice or bread -- that dish tends to echo Western tastes by providing considerable flavor overlap, they say.
A final quality of Indian food that differentiates it from Western cuisine is its complexity, the researchers noted; the average Indian recipe calls for a minimum of seven different ingredients, and in total Indian cuisine makes use of almost 200 distinct ingredients.