Why do fatty foods tend to go with acids?

Mayonnaise and hollandaise contain lemon juice, and fatty fish tends to be served with lemon. Barbecue pork and pork belly are sometimes served with a vinegar-based sauce. I've also heard that fatty foods should be paired with acidic wines.

Is there something about the way we taste fat or the way we digest it that makes us crave sourness?

  • Not strictly related, but it seems that iron and lemon juice are often found together. Since iron and fat tend to come together (meat, eggs, sesame etc.) this could be the cause of the phenomenon. Lemon juice and iron are served together frequently, as the vitamin C is used in metabolizing iron. The same is true of cabbage by the way, hence hot dogs.
    – Carmi
    Commented Mar 3, 2011 at 5:13
  • @Carmi, On that topic, we also find lemon in many cooked spinach dishes probably for the same bioavailability of iron reason.
    – Neil G
    Commented Mar 3, 2011 at 7:49

1 Answer 1


In regards to the general question, our brains are wired to like fats; they are compact sources of energy. However, too much fat in a given dish can feel unpleasant in the mouth, and acid washes that away (in terms of perception, the same way that adding sugars changes the perception of how acidic something is). I believe (by which I mean this is what I think, with no evidentiary basis whatsoever) this is a learned response, but I could very well be wrong.

The pairing of acids with fish, however, does have a scientific basis. According to the bible:

"Acid conditions cause heavy-smelling aldehydes, which accentuate the fishiness of TMA, to react with water molecules and become nonvolatile, so that lighter alcohols dominate the aroma."

(2004 edition, p. 238, hardcover)

  • Thanks for the great answer. I know it's off topic, but would you mind elaborating on how sugar changes the perception of acidity?
    – Neil G
    Commented Mar 2, 2011 at 2:44
  • 1
    Sweetness, while it does not change the underlying acid level, tricks our brains into thinking things are less acid than they are (see also salt and how it tricks us into tasting flavour that isn't there; try salted and unsalted chicken stock for example). To test this for yourself, eat a slice of lemon. Now dip another slice of lemon in sugar and eat that. The latter will appear to be less acidic.
    – daniel
    Commented Mar 2, 2011 at 3:55

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