This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal

Ever wondered what makes Indian food Indian? Or Greek Greek? Thai Thai? Often, a single ingredient can set a cuisine apart. (Mustard oil, feta cheese, and galangal in the cases above.)

The data and economics blog Priceonomics has tried to quantify that most distinctive ingredient for the cuisines of the world. It trawled 13,000 recipes, tagged by cuisine, from the recipe site Epicurious. Here were the most characteristic ingredients for the 26 cuisines listed on Epicurious up until late 2013:

Most distinctive ingredients

CuisineIngredient% of recipes that use"¦ African Caraway 8% American Apple 5% Asian Sesame Oil 30% Cajun/Creole Okra 8% Central/South American Avocado 13% Chinese Peanut Oil 16% Eastern European/Russian Egg Noodle 7% English/Scottish Currant 10% French Tarragon 5% German Sauerkraut 15% Greek Feta Cheese 31% Indian Black Mustard Seed Oil 5% Irish Whiskey 8% Italian Romano Cheese 5% Japanese Katsuobushi 9% Jewish Apricot 7% Mediterranean Feta Cheese 10% Mexican Avocado 15% Middle Eastern Roasted Sesame Seed 9% Moroccan Caraway 10% Scandinavian Herring 8% Southern/Soul Food Corn Grit 9% Southwestern Black Beans 8% Spanish/Portuguese Saffron 11% Thai Galangal 11% Vietnamese Thai Pepper 14%

Yep, that's right. For Irish cuisine: Whiskey.

Those percentages vary widely because they identify ingredients that are disproportionately common, in order to exclude common ingredients used quite pretty similarly around the globe, such as butter, onion, or cayenne pepper. Those items are listed as "distinctive" only if they're used in an unusually large amount. For example, "peanut oil is the most distinctive ingredient of Chinese cuisine, because it is found in 16% of Chinese recipes, but less than 2% of the non-Chinese recipes," Priceonomics explains.

The blog did crunch the numbers for the most common ingredients, too:

Most common ingredients

CuisineIngredient % of recipes that use... African Onion   53% American Butter   44% Asian Soy Sauce   50% Cajun/Creole Onion   70% Central/South American Garlic   57% Chinese Soy Sauce   66% Eastern European/Russian Butter   60% English/Scottish Butter   67% French Butter   49% German Butter   56% Greek Olive Oil   76% Indian Cumin   58% Irish Butter   59% Italian Olive Oil   66% Japanese Soy Sauce   61% Jewish Egg   59% Mediterranean Olive Oil   80% Mexican Cayenne Pepper   71% Middle Eastern Olive Oil   60% Moroccan Olive Oil   73% Scandinavian Butter   53% Southern/Soul Food Butter   58% Southwestern Cayenne Pepper   81% Spanish/Portuguese Olive Oil   63% Thai Garlic   57% Vietnamese Fish Sauce   78%

As Priceonomics notes, there's a caveat: Because Epicurious is an English-language site that draws recipes from American food publications, its perspective on international cuisine is Western-centric. The results might be quite different with recipes in each cuisine's native language. What's more, the list doesn't account for the potency of these ingredients: Being used more frequently doesn't mean that an ingredient will dominate the recipe, let alone the taste palette of an entire cuisine.

So take the data with a dash of salt.

Reprinted with permission from Quartz. The original story can be found here.

Most distinctive ingredients

CuisineIngredient% of recipes that use"¦ African Caraway 8% American Apple 5% Asian Sesame Oil 30% Cajun/Creole Okra 8% Central/South American Avocado 13% Chinese Peanut Oil 16% Eastern European/Russian Egg Noodle 7% English/Scottish Currant 10% French Tarragon 5% German Sauerkraut 15% Greek Feta Cheese 31% Indian Black Mustard Seed Oil 5% Irish Whiskey 8% Italian Romano Cheese 5% Japanese Katsuobushi 9% Jewish Apricot 7% Mediterranean Feta Cheese 10% Mexican Avocado 15% Middle Eastern Roasted Sesame Seed 9% Moroccan Caraway 10% Scandinavian Herring 8% Southern/Soul Food Corn Grit 9% Southwestern Black Beans 8% Spanish/Portuguese Saffron 11% Thai Galangal 11% Vietnamese Thai Pepper 14%

Yep, that's right. For Irish cuisine: Whiskey.

Those percentages vary widely because they identify ingredients that are disproportionately common, in order to exclude common ingredients used quite pretty similarly around the globe, such as butter, onion, or cayenne pepper. Those items are listed as "distinctive" only if they're used in an unusually large amount. For example, "peanut oil is the most distinctive ingredient of Chinese cuisine, because it is found in 16% of Chinese recipes, but less than 2% of the non-Chinese recipes," Priceonomics explains.

The blog did crunch the numbers for the most common ingredients, too:

Most common ingredients

CuisineIngredient % of recipes that use... African Onion   53% American Butter   44% Asian Soy Sauce   50% Cajun/Creole Onion   70% Central/South American Garlic   57% Chinese Soy Sauce   66% Eastern European/Russian Butter   60% English/Scottish Butter   67% French Butter   49% German Butter   56% Greek Olive Oil   76% Indian Cumin   58% Irish Butter   59% Italian Olive Oil   66% Japanese Soy Sauce   61% Jewish Egg   59% Mediterranean Olive Oil   80% Mexican Cayenne Pepper   71% Middle Eastern Olive Oil   60% Moroccan Olive Oil   73% Scandinavian Butter   53% Southern/Soul Food Butter   58% Southwestern Cayenne Pepper   81% Spanish/Portuguese Olive Oil   63% Thai Garlic   57% Vietnamese Fish Sauce   78%

As Priceonomics notes, there's a caveat: Because Epicurious is an English-language site that draws recipes from American food publications, its perspective on international cuisine is Western-centric. The results might be quite different with recipes in each cuisine's native language. What's more, the list doesn't account for the potency of these ingredients: Being used more frequently doesn't mean that an ingredient will dominate the recipe, let alone the taste palette of an entire cuisine.

So take the data with a dash of salt.

Reprinted with permission from Quartz. The original story can be found here.

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.

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