Food is incredibly regionally specific, and cuisines have been refined over millennia based on what ingredients have been available and what local cooks have come up with. Even though global trade has made the same spices and other flavor staples available virtually anywhere in the world, Mexican food still tastes radically different from Chinese food, and Italian food from Irish food. We know this intuitively—few of us pick up a bottle of soy sauce thinking we’ll use it in a traditional Italian pasta dish—but it’s still fascinating to see a breakdown of just which ingredients certain cuisines have cornered the market on, as you can in these charts.
Nathan Yau of FlowingData visualized the most-used ingredients in 20 different cuisines, using data on ingredients from Yummly to figure out what distinct flavors and ingredients country-specific cuisines gravitate towards.
Across the world, salt is king. It’s the most-used ingredient in 75 percent of the cuisines Yau looked at, and the only cuisine in which it doesn’t appear in the top five most-used ingredients is Korean food—but, like in other Asian cuisines, Korean recipes use soy sauce more than any other ingredient, and that in itself is very salty.
Because so many cuisines rely heavily on the same ingredients, like soy sauce and salt, Yau also calculated the ingredients most specific to each cuisine: the ones disproportionately used in one country’s traditional cuisine. This is where you start to get a picture of the kind of ingredients we associate heavily with particular regionally specific dishes. Mexican food relies on tortillas; Greek food, feta cheese; Korean, kimchi; Thai, lemongrass; Russian, beets; and Cajun, andouille sausage. Some ingredients may come as a bit of a surprise, though. Southern cooking in the U.S. uses vanilla extract more than other cuisines do, and the French love shallots. Cajun cooks are big fans of celery ribs, and somehow, though numerous cuisines use onions heavily, Brazilian cooks use them slightly more than anyone else.
The data relies on Yummly recipes, so the results are limited to what the recipe recommendation site has available. It's possible that home cooks working in each cuisine do something slightly different that might move the data in another direction. But, since Yummly currently has more than 2 million recipes available, it seems like a relatively large snapshot of cooking options.
Explore the interactive graphic and learn more at FlowingData.