Science Explains Why Asian Food Tastes So Different from Western Food

As cuisine is influenced by the cooking practices and traditions of a specific culture, Asian foods and Western foods have naturally evolved distinctly different in many ways.

Asian cuisine is known for the range and sheer variety of flavors. In the continent’s varied regions, common ingredients such as seafood, rice, garlic, sesame seeds, onions, soy, and chilies are cooked in varied methods such as stir frying, steaming, and deep-frying, depending on the culture’s preference.

Western cuisine (North American and Western European), on the other hand, is characterized by the prominence of meat and poultry products. Similar to Asian cooking, however, Western food also favors the use of condiments and seasonings.

While cultural influence may probably be enough to distinguish the two cuisines, there are actually deeper factors affecting why Western and Asian foods taste so different. According to the study “Flavor network and the principles of food pairing” published in Scientific Reports in 2011, this is due to the way they pair ingredients.

International researchers led by Yong-Yeol Ahn and Sebastian Ahnert analyzed 381 ingredients used around the world and 1,021 flavor compounds found in those ingredients and linked them according to the ‘flavors’ each ingredient shared. They then compared the information with 56,498 recipes from different international food sites to determine which cultures paired flavor compounds that ‘matched’ each other most frequently.

The image below illustrate the structure of the flavor network: “each node denotes an ingredient, the node color indicates food category, and node size reflects the ingredient prevalence in recipes. Two ingredients are connected if they share a significant number of flavor compounds, link thickness representing the number of shared compounds between the two ingredients.”

Image via Indiana University

As it turned out, Western cuisines tend to include ingredients with similar flavor molecules together in one recipe, while Asian cuisines tend not to. It was found that in Asian kitchens, the more flavors two ingredients share, the less likely they would be paired together. 

“Western cuisines tend to use ‘pairs’ that share many flavors,” the paper noted. “But east Asian cuisines tend to avoid ingredients that share them. This investigation opens new avenues towards understanding culinary practices.”

Image via Scientific Reports

Asian recipes tend to produce distinctive flavors with ingredients that bristle or even contrast each other, while ingredients in Western recipes overlap and deepen each others’ constituent flavors. The study pointed out that such “discovery of patterns that may transcend specific dishes or ingredients” may create new opportunities to cook food. 

Effectively challenging the Western ‘food pairing’ techniques, the findings were then seen as an opportunity for new avenues of experimental cooking, with the interrelation of the taste and preference providing inspiration for more food preparation ideas.

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