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I have this table of foods and flavorings, but seeing as I'm not a chef, I don't know what combinations are appropriate. (This is not for use in real life.)

Could use some help filling this in...

The appropriateness needs to be rated from 0.1 to 1.

Here's the table:

*            Cinnamon  Ginger  Basil  Black Tea  Coriander  Dill  Mint  Rosemary  Tobacco  Thyme
Cinnamon
Ginger
Basil                                            1
Black Tea
Coriander
Dill
Mint
Rosemary
Tobacco
Thyme



*            Cinnamon  Ginger  Basil  Black Tea  Coriander  Dill  Mint  Rosemary  Tobacco  Thyme
Carrot                                           1
Garlic Bulb
Leek
Onion
Potato
Tomato                         1
Apple
Blueberries
Lemon
Orange
Pear
Anchovy
Bluefish
Haddock
Herring
Chicken
Hare
Lamb
Pork
Venison
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If it's "not for use in real life", why do the values matter? –  Peter Taylor Sep 13 '13 at 12:47
    
I matters because I care about things making at least a little bit of sense. This is for use in a video game in which cooking is a skill. –  Truncheon Sep 13 '13 at 13:33
1  
Cooking (IRL) is awfully subject to culture and personal taste. –  KatieK Sep 13 '13 at 16:31
    
If it just needs to make sense, then it doesn't matter if you're a chef, just think about what sounds good to you, and you could poll a few other people too. (Hint: the fact that I said "poll" means this is pretty subjective and not a good fit for a stackexchange site.) Also, in terms of wanting things to make sense, you're going about it a funny way, by forcing all pairings to contain an herb/spice. Blueberry-lemon and carrot-onion-tomato-meat are good pairings too, and while mint-dill might be good, it doesn't really make something you can eat! –  Jefromi Sep 13 '13 at 19:01
    
The other hint this is an iffy question here is that it's explicitly not about real cooking. In any case if you, say, make a google docs spreadsheet for people to copy and fill in (and convince us that these are really the pairings that matter), you might be able to talk some people in Seasoned Advice Chat into filling it out for you... but that's an awful lot of numbers for us to make up. You're essentially asking 300 questions! –  Jefromi Sep 13 '13 at 19:03
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2 Answers

Yes, knowing the reason why you're doing this will help a lot.

Flavorings are of course going to have a huge subjective component, but if you want a big directory of concrete combinations, I can highly recommend The Flavor Bible. It is a tome of nothing but flavor combinations, great for inspiration and will help you fill in your chart nicely.

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Matching tastes is the same as matching colors. People like some combinations and not others, but this depends more on the person than on the combination. Two of the strongest reasons why people like a taste combination is:

The amount of "contrast"

  • When the differences between two tastes are too small, the combination is not noticed or perceived as boring. Example: combining two different grape varieties. The food can be perceived as not seasoned enough.
  • When the two tastes are very different, then you can be perceived as "clashing", as people like some extent of harmony and dislike it when two equally strong sensory inputs are trying to take hold of their attention. This does not mean that these combinations are always bad, but that a cook needs experience and talent to make such a daring match work, for the same reason that a random mix of piano and viola played at the same loudness is an unpleasant cacaphony, but a talented composer can combine them in a way which is very pleasant. Also, daring combinations of tastes tend to polarize people. Some love them, some hate them, depending on their personal tolerance for contrast.
  • Between those, there is a goldilocks zone. Tastes which are similar, but not too similar, make a good combination with little effort. They are acceptable/non-offensive to practically everybody, and so become widespread. In food, this happens when a similar class of chemical compounds is found in two foods. Example: you can season fennel with tarragon.

    The familiarity

    People feel attracted to entities they are familiar with. This is just the way our brains are wired. So, traditional combinations are liked because they are eaten often, and they are eaten often because they are traditional. Note that this is not circular reasoning, but a positive feedback loop.

The interactions between the foods

Beside aroma, foods have other effects on our body, especially on our taste sensors. Other foods can make this effect stronger or weaker. For example, dairy makes capsaicin perception weaker (I don't know if this is a physical effect due to dilution or the fat coating the receptors, but it works), and alcohol makes it stronger (due to its direct effects on human gustatory cells, as I just read somewhere). So, foods interact. But does it mean that you should combine your chilli peppers with yoghurt or with alcohol? The better combination depends entirely on your subjective preference for stronger or milder burning.


So, what does that mean for your table of combinations? It means that an objective version of it cannot exist. Each person will assign different values to the combinations based on 1) how often they have encountered the combination before, 2) how much contrast they prefer in their food, 3) how well the specific recipe combined the two contrasting ingredients, and 4) whether they prefer certain flavors to be more pronounced or more subdued. Three of these factors depend on the eater, and one on the recipe designer, none is truly objective.

If you are shooting for a least common denominator, your best pointer is tradition. It specifies combinations for which all the four factors fall in a tolerable zone for most people. It is not completely fail-free, and it may not include some of the more interesting combinations out there, but at least it is a guideline. The other answer mentions The flavor bible as one of the best publicly available sources of such information, and I agree that it is a good place to start.

But you will never get the precision you want. The flavor bible lists suggested combinations for each food, with great combinations given in bold. This gives you three levels: does not fit (if combination not mentioned), fits, and fits very well. And even if you follow these three levels only, you will always have people who would wrinkle their nose at the suggested combinations and think them unrealistic, just because it is a thing they personally would not like to eat. The higher precision you try to create, the more you are creating some kind of order (orange with rosemary tastes better than pear with rosemary), and for each of these pairwise comparisons, there will be lots of people disagreeing with you.

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