I have recently been ordering food from a place that has a fried rice that I like a lot. A lot a lot. The ingredients are pretty basic, which makes me think that the spices used in this dish are what makes it taste so incredibly good (though of course things like the method of preparation may also matter quite a bit).

I should really go to the restaurant and ask them about this dish. However, this does make me wonder:

Is there a way for me to take a prepared batch of this dish and find out what spices were used? The spices I do not know yet are the ones I care about the most.

(I'm very much afraid the answer will simply be no, but it doesn't hurt to ask, does it?)

  • 3
    There are non-spice possibilities too. Chinese restaurant cooking, for example, benefits from commercial stoves whose heat output exceeds residential stoves. This is described as wok hei (qi), or breath of the wok.
    – mattm
    Oct 17, 2019 at 21:30
  • A way to find out besides tasting it, smelling it, or asking someone else to do the same? Do you mean something like measuring the chemical composition?
    – Juhasz
    Oct 17, 2019 at 21:46
  • 3
    Long time ago Japan has a challenge TV show. The challenger needs to identify total 20 ingredients in a prepared dish after looking, tasting, smelling. However only 1 or 2 can achieve it and get rewards.
    – Conifers
    Oct 18, 2019 at 1:43
  • 1
    The one thing you haven't mentioned which is likely to affect the flavour is what oil of other fats they are cooking in. So if you are going to ask the place how they cook it, be careful that you don't unnecessarily narrow the scope of their answers by asking about 'spices'. There may be more than one oil, one to actually do the cooking and one to flavour near the end, like a toasted sesame or something.
    – Spagirl
    Oct 18, 2019 at 14:08
  • 1
    And there's cooking method -- how hot the wok is, how much oil is in it, how much they're cooking at one time, how often they toss it, etc, can affect chemical changes that change the taste.
    – Joe
    Oct 18, 2019 at 15:27

1 Answer 1


Yes, theoretically, and no for practical purposes.

Here's the Yes part:

If you have access to a chemistry lab, you can certainly analyze the dish for the presence of specific molecules that would indicate the presence of specific spices. For example, the presence of "cinnamaldehyde" would indicate that cinnamon was used.

Here's the No part:

First, you would need to do individual tests for each possible distinct seasoning molecule. Given the universe of spices, that's only feasible if you already have a pretty good idea of what's in the dish and are just verifying.

Second, some seasoning molecules are changed by cooking, making them less recognizable. Sugar particularly can change into dozens of different compounds depending on the cooking process.

Third, some seasoning molecules are just not that indicative of what the original seasoning was. For example, the presence of salt, glutamate, and various soy compounds would indicate the use of soy sauce, oyster sauce, or miso, but which kind of sauce exactly? That's leaving aside the difficulty of distinguishing various starches and sugars. Also, some spices come from the same plant (e.g. coriander seed and cilantro) and thus will be biochemically indistinguishable, even though their effect in a recipe is distinct.

So: ask the restaurant. It'll be way easier.

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