Do you ever think about how diverse food is when you think about in the vast context of the world? I do, every morning when I struggle to decide whether I want tea or coffee for breakfast. I also think about it at family dinner parties every weekend where my cousins and I would exchange weird looks because some of us eat rice with chopsticks (the “Recently Imported” kids), some eat rice with spoons (the “Made in USA” kids), and others eat spaghetti with chopsticks (the “Assimilated” kids). None of us tried spaghetti with spoon. Awfully inconvenient, that. And for those of you who wish to know, I am on the spaghetti with chopsticks side. Which means I prefer Italian food over Asian food, but I am more skilled with a pair of chopsticks than a fork. Yet, I bet the same thought that runs through our heads, no matter what we chose to eat or what we use to eat with, when we stare down each other from across the table is “what is wrong with you?”
I was born in Vietnam though my mother’s family is Cantonese, while my father’s side is Vietnamese-Taiwanese hybrid. So every day I would be eating random, weird and somewhat gross stuff like fried coconut larvae or jellyfish salads or even baluts aka boiled duck embryos. I kid you not, these stuff are all real, and they were part of my everyday life. Sadly not anymore. Since I have been in America for the last ten years, I discovered that I like American and European foods just as much, though I still have sudden cravings for those native treats.
My childhood, and my constant struggle to mediate between the “Newly Imported” kids and the “Made in USA” kids, make me think about what makes Western and Eastern food taste so different. I have come to the conclusion that while utensils and manners are different simply by traditions, the foods have their own scientific reasons for being different as well. I have discovered that recently, a research published by a group of researcher at Northwestern University has been published where researchers have analyzed “381 ingredients, 1021 ‘tastes’ and 56,498 recipes” (Ahn et al) in order to decipher the difference between Asian and Western cuisines, and it all comes down to one thing, food pairing. The idea of food pairing is not new or unfamiliar, at least to Western chefs. As a matter of fact, chemically analyzing foods to see which flavor compounds they share has led Western restaurants to pair unlikely foods such as “white chocolate and caviar” (Ahn et al). Who would have thought? And if you think this is gross, come back up to the larvae and the baluts. So the research does not mention this, but I personally think that’s why it’s harder to taste the ingredients in Western food. To me, there is always this underlying sense of content and wholeness where everything just meld together in a Western dish. I think of it like living in America where everyone look and speak differently, different ingredients, but are fundamentally similar, all residents living in the bowl of USA soup.
Asians actually takes an entirely opposite approach. This newly discovered phenomenon is dubbed “negative food pairing” (Ahn et al). I think this phrase is slightly misleading because it could easily be read as “bad food pairing”. In reality, “negative food pairing” means that Asian chefs try to avoid using foods that match in terms of flavor. It is not “negative food pairing” when no food pairing actually occur. I think the theory behind this is like Yin and Yang, where you have two things that are totally different, but still goes together in the sense that one enhances the other’s good aspects and covers its less desirable qualities, so that they can still be harmonious without blending. This fundamental difference in styles explains why the foods from different sides of the world taste so completely different. How cool is that!
Though there is a definite trend in the cooking style of the two culinary worlds, there are always the exceptions that prove the rule. While Western chefs have famously perfected their food pairing cooking styles for the last century, bringing us all sorts of fabulous dishes, there are actually outliers that has been implied, but not mentioned in the research. Like hamburgers, the symbol of fast food, is actually an example of negative food pairing when you look and the ingredients of meat, grain, and a slew of different vegetables. Another example would be the shrimp salad, in which the shrimp is a clear standout in terms of flavor from the rest of the ingredients. How do I know? The research presents a connected web of ingredients in which the bolder the lines that connect them, the more flavor compounds they have in common.
There are a bunch of others, but I am going to leave them to you to figure out as an invitation to play my newly invented “guess what’s in your food” game.
On this side, Russia, though part of Asia, is a sort of hybrid that can swing both ways of the spectrum. They eat caviar and bread like the Western Europeans (Kubilius), but they also use beets as base for their beef soup, which may sound weird to Westerners (Kubilius). This is most likely because the country is connected to both Europe and Asia. As a matter of fact, though the trend of negative food pairing runs throughout Asia, no other country is as extreme and complicated as India (Castillo). Often times, their recipes contains mostly of spices (Castillo). The reportedly most extreme in flavor compound ones are “cayenne, green bell pepper, coriander, garam masala, tamarind, garlic, ginger, clove, and cinnamon” (Castillo). These are the most prominent ingredients “whose presence bias flavor sharing pattern of the Indian cuisine towards negative pairing” (Castillo). Now you know why curry tastes good. It is not the meat or the vegetables, but the many spices that goes into the soup.
Whether the food comes from the East or the West, I still think it is beautiful and fabulous because difference is what makes the world interesting and colorful. And to my family, perhaps, nothing is wrong with any of us. Perhaps, it is the foods that is crazy, but if you are going to embrace the foods. Then perhaps, you can try to embrace the people that invent them, too.