Thursday, December 29, 2011

Asian Food vs. Western Food

Though it presents all sorts of ancillary problems, sometimes it's useful to deal in huge, sweeping generalizations. A study recently published in Nature found good use for these sorts of generalizations when it explored why Western food and Asian food taste so different (see Gizmodo for a summary of the study in less technical language). Of course "Western food" and "Asian food" are extremely loose terms that gloss over the incredibly rich diversity within these hemispheric regions, but for the purposes of this study it's a fair enough distinction--these regions' foods do tend to taste fundamentally different.

Now, I was a philosophy major--I haven't read a lot of scientific studies--but as I understand it, it appears that the main difference between the culinary styles is that Western food tends to pair ingredients that share flavor compounds (the ingredients of the ingredients), whereas Asian foods typically avoid matching ingredients with overlapping flavor compounds. For the visual learners out there interested in knowing more about how these flavor compounds connect, here's an entertainingly dense chart showing how different foods relate:

Who knew that Jamaican Rum and Parmesan Cheese shared flavor compounds?

This research apparently flies in the face of some of the recent ideas about chemistry-informed cooking that suggest using seemingly unpairable ingredients (e.g. chocolate and blue cheese) because they share flavor compounds. Obviously--as several millennia of Asian cuisine can attest--this approach is not the only way to develop interesting dishes. 

Anyway, I was glad to come across this study (thanks, Rachel!). It's a great reminder that there is no one way to make good food. The world is full of different ways to please our tongues and bellies, and for that I am grateful.


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