Math surrounds us, from every day transactions to the structures that provide richness to our world, but how often do we look to our plates for mathematical stimulation?
For most of us, the answer is rarely, and yet examples of some of the most important mathematical theories and concepts are portrayed in what we eat. Here are 5 mathematical foods from around the world to get your brain ticking.
1) Infinity Pretzel, Germany
The infinite German pretzel. Photo by oskay.
Derived from the Latin word infitinits, meaning unboundedness, infinity is a mathematical concept that refers to something that has no limit. In ancient cultures infinity was more of a philosophical construct but the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers are thought to have stumbled upon the mathematical idea relative to numbers.
When it comes to food sources, the Germans have infinity solved with their popular pretzel. Baked from dough, the soft bread is twisted with the ends of the dough curled back and intertwined to form a continuous and infinite loop. Glazes, seeds, salt and sometime sugar are used for decoration. Pretzels are a popular accompaniment to beer and form the substantive food source as many German festivals and celebrations.
2) Steak & Ale Pi, UK
Pi demonstrated in a Steak & Ale pie. Photo by Trent Strohm.
Pi is the name of the fascinating mathematical fact that the circumference around a circle can always be divided by its diameter to produce the same number. That magical number starts 3.14159. The fixed circumference to diameter radio was known to ancient civilizations and applies regardless of the size of the circle. Equally fascinating is the calculation of the number of digits of Pi. In September 1999 a Japanese supercomputer spat out 206,158,430,000 digits and the counting quest continues.
Sharing the same name (but different spelling), pie is an extremely popular food choice in the United Kingdom where round pastry cases are stuffed with delicious fillings before being baked. Pastry types can range from flaky puff pastry to rich short crusts but it’s the fillings that provide the most diversity from sweet apple to wonderfully named stargazy pie, baked with pilchard heads peaking through the crust. Steak & Ale pie is one of the most popular, filled with beef and soaked in thick gravy made from some of the country’s finest ales.
3) Pythagoras Samosas, India
Pythagoras’ samosas. Photo by star5112.
Pythagoras’ Theorem is named after its mathematical discoverer and has been defined as follows: In a right-angle triangle, the square of the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.
The theorem can be displayed as an equation: a2 + b2 = c2, but can most deliciously be explored with a taste of Indian samosas. Triangular in shape, samosas are made from frying or baking pastry that is packed with a heavily spiced mixture of meat, potatoes, peas, onions and lentils, and is eaten as a snack. Although most famously associated with India, samosas can be found at street food stalls through the Indian subcontinent.
4) Symmetry Farfalle, Italy
Perfect symmetry in Italian farfalle. Photo by avlxyz.
The Greek word symmetría means ‘measure together’ and is the word behind the concept of symmetry. In mathematical terms, symmetry is the well-established notion of patterned self-similarity and one that can be proven through geometry. There are several types of symmetry including reflection symmetry where one half of an object is the mirror image of the other half.
Italian pasta farfalle illustrates the mathematical concept of symmetry with clarity. Commonly referred to as bow-tie pasta, one side of the farfalle shape is the mirror image of the other. Named after the Italian word for butterfly, this pasta was originally popular in northern Italy and can be traced back to the 16th century. Complemented by most Italian sauces, the pasta also comes flavored with tomato and spinach providing interested red and green colors.
5) Archimedean Pain au Raisin, France
Archimedean spiralling pain au raisin. Photo by gorgeoux.
Archimedes, the Greek mathematician from the 3rd Century B.C. was behind the Archimedean spiral. In a formal sense, the spiral is created using a uniform motion that progresses in a fixed direction, taking the motion of a circle whilst applying a constant speed and is characterized by three rounds with equal distance between them.
Although represented via equations in mathematical terms, in the science of food they are best demonstrated in France’s pain au raisin. Popular at breakfast, pain au raisin comprises butter pastry curled into a spiral, dotted with plump raisins and filled with crème pâtisserie. Enjoy with fresh, French coffee for a true cosmopolitan feel.
Can you think of any other examples of mathematical foods? Let me know in the comments below.
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Main photo: Math on a plate, by Rofi.