Watson gets it all wrong

So Watson the computer has just released a cookbook. Or rather, you can now buy a cookbook full of weird pairings generated by Science.

Now Watson’s been hanging out in the [bon appetit] kitchen for quite some time already, where (s)he/it has been “learning” about which foods go together for the purposes of helping to inspire chefs and other people who like to play in kitchens about surprising combinations that apparently work. As I wrote in the Mad Dispatches on the topic of “What is Cooking”, the idea behind Watson isn’t to ‘render the human cook obsolete, but rather to put the superior speed and memory capacities of a computer to the service of human creativity by analysing, for example, similar compounds in a multitude of flavour-pairings. In theory, Watson could then come up with combinations that make complete sense but might have taken us another several decades to discover in the kitchen.’

So how exactly does it work?

Typically, apples are cooked in butter. The fruit can be grown almost anywhere, but in American cooking it is most associated with Northern European styles, where cooking with dairy products is more common. In contrast, Mediterranean cooking, which typically uses olive oil in the place of butter for frying, and rarely involves apples, which can struggle in arid climates.

Watson, of course, doesn’t care about any of that. In fact, [Chef James] Briscione says, “we found that apples share more flavour profile with olive oil than butter”. So Watson readily recommends mixing the two ingredients, leading Briscione to discover the joy of poaching apple sous-vide in olive oil with sage as a condiment for roast duck. “It was something I’d never conceive of doing on my own, but it was one of the best singular bites that came out of doing three years [working alongside the machine].”

The singularity in your kitchen. (See what I did there?)

Except if that concept is so clever, what was the big brouhaha recently with the big discovery about the deliciousness of Indian food?

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For anyone who missed it, Indian food basically tastes so good because so few of the flavour compounds actually complement each other. Per the WaPo:

A lesson for all chefs

The takeaway is that part of what makes Indian food so appealing is the way flavors rub up against each other. The cuisine is complicated, no doubt: the average Indian dish, after all, contains at least 7 ingredients, and the total number of ingredients observed by the researchers amounted to almost 200 out of the roughly 381 observed around the world. But all those ingredients — and the spices especially — are all uniquely important because in any single dish, each one brings a unique flavor.

But the upshot should also be a thought that we might be approaching food from the wrong angle. Combining ingredients with like flavors is a useful (and often delicious) strategy, but it might be a somewhat misleading rule of thumb. Indian cuisine, after all, is cherished globally, and yet hinges on a decidedly different ingredient pairing logic.

Let me break that down for you. The Science behind Indian food is that there is no Science behind it. And that’s what The Globally Cherishing People want! (Though Michael Pollan no doubt has something to say about all those more-than-five-ingredient Indian recipes).

So I reckon we should probably get rid of this Science menace

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and keep robots out of the kitchen.