We've all been there. Throwing together the last two ingredients in the fridge, and stumbling upon a combination of culinary genius. As you eat that strawberry dipped in a jar of Indonesian sambal, you wonder if you might just be the next Heston Blumenthal.
Heston had a similarly euphoric moment when he put white chocolate and caviar together for the first time. The unlikely pair was so wrong, and yet so right, he went to a scientist in search of answers.
What he discovered was that foods with similar molecular compounds work well together – and even though they may not seem an appetising pair, science could predict if they would be.
But flavour is also a hugely subjective concept, and what we deem to be acceptable combinations are entirely relative. Your Vegemite and cheese is an American's peanut butter and jelly, my Sri Lankan grandfather's salt and pepper on a mandarin, or that university mate's hankering to eat Krispy Kreme donuts dipped in McDonald's sweet and sour sauce.
It's a young Mitch Orr (these days, hatted chef of Acme), crushing up Weetbix and eating it on a sandwich with tomato sauce. "Thankfully I've grown out of that, though it is bringing back fond memories now that I think about it," he says.
It's your birthright to add Vegemite to anything. Photo: Michele Mossop
To get creative in the kitchen, you often need to look beyond preconceived rules about classic pairings: chefs use molecular science or a sound understanding of flavour principles as their guide, while the rest of us tend to rely on an empty pantry, a supermarket special, or a drunken binge – to mixed results.
Niki Segnit set to solve this with The Flavour Thesaurus, a cooking bible that takes 99 common foods and suggests 4,851 possible pairings among them, from the safe to the downright weird. It's the ultimate resource for free-styling in the kitchen. "What I needed was a manual, a primer to help me understand how and why one flavour might go with another, their points in common and their differences," explains Segnit, who wrote the guide with home cooks in mind.
Similarly, website Food Pairing promises users that culinary genius is just a click away – type in your ingredient, and it will suggest strange bedfellows you might not have considered determined on the basis of science.
Here are a few of our favourite strange combos that work, some crafted by chefs, others the product of a happy accident or a desperate fridge raid.
Vegemite in a martini (or anything)
Spread, not stirred. Kensington Street Social's Vegemiteini. Photo: Nikki To
Vegemite is a divisive yeast spread, and so when Sydney's Kensington Street Social introduced the Vegemiteini – a martini with vegemite and a vegemite shard – it understandably met mixed reactions. But if you pare it back to basics, vegemite has the same salty, umami qualities of a brined olive, which, according to Segnit, "brings the gin's aromatics alive". The weird-but-good combinations with Vegemite truly are endless – it's your birthright as an Australian to whack it on anything.
Soy sauce on ice-cream
A serving suggestion on Kikkoman's website is to drizzle soy sauce over a scoop of ice-cream. If you think Gelato Messina has some crazy specials, Japanese ice-cream manufacturer Hirota even sell the flavour pre-mixed. Banish thoughts of sashimi and consider instead the underlying flavour profiles of sweet versus salty, a common element in the most addictive desserts. Honourable mention here must also go to olive oil on ice-cream, and the rite of passage that is McDonald's French fries dipped in a soft serve.
Peanut butter and kimchi
Belfield on Botany's pork burger combines peanut butter and kimchi. Photo: Belfield on Botany
Much like Vegemite, peanut butter is another weird-combo champion. But you can do one better than PB&J, and pair peanut butter with kimchi on a sandwich. Sydney joint, Belfield on Botany, combine the two in their pork burger (they also do a Vegemite mayo). "We've got a lot of chefs coming in to try it, it's definitely our most popular burger among industry people," says Michael Veran, who explains he and his business partners grew up in western Sydney's Belfield (neighbouring Campsie) with a strong Korean population. It really shouldn't come as a surprise that this pair works so well together, because the flavours of sweet/sour, peanut and chilli aren't at all unfamiliar to us – it's the definition of pad Thai.
Bacon in a milkshake
Bluebonnet Barbecue's smoked maple & bacon ice-cream sandwich. Photo: Supplied
Australia is gaining something of a global reputation for whacky shakes, and Melbourne's The Grand Trailer Park is fuelling the fire with their salted caramel shake with maple bacon. While their version comes with a crisp, caramelised rasher on top, other online forums advocate blending the maple bacon into the shake, and we're not so sure about that. But bacon is no stranger in our desserts: there's Dan Hong's signature Stoner's Delight 2.0, Gelato Messina's Kevin Bacon special and plenty more. A pregnant friend craved bacon on a Maxibon, and North Fitzroy's Bluebonnet Barbecue enabled the masses with their bacon & smoked maple ice-cream sandwich.
Popcorn and milk
Drown your popcorn in cold milk and eat it with a spoon, says the internet. Sounds weird, but it's really no different to eating a bowl of cereal. Which is also a bit weird, when you come to think about it.
Salmon and licorice
Licorice isn't just for dessert.
Another Fat Duck brainwave, Melburnians were last year treated to smoked salmon poached in black licorice gel. While this dish has Heston's outlandish touch, the oily fish and anise flavour combo is actually an age-old one – think fennel-flavoured fish stews, or even Tetsuya's classic confit of ocean trout with fennel salad.
Blueberry and mushroom
These two don't seem like they'd be friends, but blueberry and mushroom are a common pairing in Northern Italy, where they are often served together in risotto. "The fruit flavour contrasts with the mushrooms' meatiness," advises Segnit.
Two-minute noodles and Kraft singles
Cheese is another weird-combo heavyweight, and we've got Korea to thank for this strangely excellent combo. Budae jjigae (army base stew) is the result of American army base ingredients meeting classic Korean cooking. For a simple two-minute-noodle hack at home, just melt some cheese over your instant ramen. It's got the comfort factor of mac'n'cheese, with an addictive chilli hit.