There are a lot of differences between the food in Europe and the food in Asia. In the East, you’ve got crunchy spring rolls, sushi, egg fried rice, steamed prawns, soy sauce, nuoc mam (a type of fish sauce), Peking duck, caramelised pork, chicken noodle soup, etc. In the West, you’re more likely to find pasta, fondue, fish and chips, rack of lamb, etc.

We’re not going to argue which food is better since it all comes down to taste. Nevertheless, it’s important to note the key ways in which Chinese, Vietnamese, and Japanese food, for example, can differ to western dishes even when the ingredients, like seafood, fish, chilli, and honey, are the same.

Culturally speaking, Asian food tends to use opposing flavours in dishes, like mixing salty with sweet or sweet and sour together while a Western dish often focuses on a particular type of flavour like savoury or sweet.

Throughout this article, we’ll be looking at the interesting ways in which the two differ.

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Opposing Culinary Cultures in Terms of Condiments

Culture and identity are often reflected in a place's culinary history and is best displayed on a plate. By analysing the culinary landscape, you’ll see what we mean.

Where can you get ingredients for Vietnamese food?
Need some coconut milk for a marinade? You can find it here on a boat! (Source: Quangpraha)

Between the West and East, you can see a huge difference in terms of culture. While in the UK, you'd expect to get salt and vinegar with your fish and chips, you'll see that sushi usually comes with soy sauce, sliced ginger, and wasabi.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about a single Asian culture and a single western culture given how many countries there are in Asia (China, Vietnam, India, Laos, Korea, Cambodia, etc.) and Europe (United Kingdom, France, Spain, Italy, Hungry, etc.).

While each country has different food, the condiments don’t differ too greatly from country to country.

  • There's an Asian market culture which isn't as prevalent in the West. It's not as common for people in the UK to visit local markets when there's a massive supermarket just round the corner.
  • In Southeast Asia, in particular, it’s not uncommon to find a huge variety of different markets anywhere, any time. This culture has influenced the cuisine, especially when it comes to the vegetables used in Chinese food and the spices used in Indian cuisine.
  • While seasoning is often used in European food, Asian food, which regularly uses a large variety of spices and seasoning, seems to have mastered it. This is one of the biggest differences between European and Asian dishes.

Additionally, while Asian food is often built around rice, European dishes tend to favour wheat or, in American food, corn.

The Way Different Ingredients Are Cooked

The methods used to cook food can be vastly different between Asia and Europe. While woks are becoming more popular in the West, they’re far more common in Asia.

How do you prepare meat for Asian dishes?
Meat is cut very different from place to place. (Source: Tomwieden)

If you look for cooking classes Glasgow, you can learn all the ways they can be used to cook tasty food, including:

  • Using a high heat for stir fried food
  • Stewing food at a low heat
  • Marinating meat in a sauce, broth, or soup until tender
  • Steaming food using a bamboo steamer

While steaming is also used for some dishes in the West, it’s far more common in the East. It’s a great way to lock in the nutrition from ingredients without having to add fats and oils.

When googling "cooking classes near me" you will find that, in the West, we tend to use saucepans, frying pans, and ovens. We also enjoy barbecuing or grilling meats and fish, which is very common in Korea but not in many other places in Asia. Of course, food tastes different depending on how it’s cooked. This can make all the difference.

The differences between cooking in the West and the East can also be seen in the way food is cut, like in Japan, for example, where it’s become an art form.

Meat in Europe tends to be cooked in its entirety whereas meat in Asia is often cut into smaller pieces. Kobe beef in Japan, for example, is often served as fine slices whereas you’d be pretty annoyed if your steak arrived like this in the West.

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Differences in Taste

Cooking in Asia and Europe is different due to the way we use the five main flavours: salt, sweet, sour, bitter, spicy. The Japanese also consider there to be a sixth flavour, umami, which literally means “delicious”. This flavour came about through dashi, a stock commonly used in Japanese soups.

If you remember studying tongue maps at school (which were proven not to be true), you'll remember that there were only 4 main flavours: sweet, bitter, salt, and sour.

How much spice should you add to a curry?
It's very important to use spices carefully. (Source: Taken)

Thai food is often praised for the balance it finds between the different flavours. That said, you could say the same for a lot of different Asian food, be it Japanese, Indian, Vietnamese, or Chinese.

Western food tends to focus on either sweet or salt and uses bitter or sour flavours much less. The differences in the ways these flavours are used is another key way in which Asian food differs to European food.

Have you ever had a curry from your takeaway that was a bit too spicy for you? Western food rarely reaches the levels of spice that some Asian food can.

Soy Sauce Versus Olive Oil

With the exception of South Korea, where frying with olive oil is quite popular, your typical recipe for Asian food will call for soy sauce over olive oil.

Can you use olive oil for Asian cuisine?
In Europe we prefer olive oil to soy sauce. However, in Asia, it's the reverse. (Source: Couleur)

This difference can be explained due to the fact that olives have been grown for years in Mediterranean and Egypt where the oil was used in the local funeral rites.

Olive oil quickly became “green gold” and a choice ingredient for a number of different meals.

The popularity of the Mediterranean diet in the 1960s, which includes a lot of olive oil and vegetables, helped boost the popularity of green gold. It also helps that the life expectancy in the Mediterranean is really high. You've probably seen adverts on TV for olive oil spreads promoting the benefits of this kind of diet.

The use of soy sauce in Asia also has historic roots. In Ancient China, soy sauce originated from a conserve known as “jiang”. This sauce was made from fish, seafood, or cereal. The abundance of cereal and soybean shoots, in particular, meant that most “jiang” were made from soy. Soy sauce spread to other countries in Southeast Asia and to Japan.

While there are western dishes that call for soy sauce and Asian dishes that use olive or vegetable oil, you can see that there’s a preference for one over the other in both parts of the world. Using one more often than the other has greatly influenced the tastes in both regions.

In short:

  • While there are a lot of ingredients in common between these two culinary families like peppers, bananas, garlic, or crab, western and eastern food differ greatly in the ways they use flavours. If you gave the same ingredients to Chinese chefs and British chefs, they’d probably make completely different dishes.
  • The differences are as cultural as they are historical. Culture and history are generally responsible for the foods eaten by people all around the world. Certain ingredients have been grown in Asia for many years and were inaccessible to the West. For example, Chinese cabbage like bok choy doesn't look much like the cabbage you'll be familiar with.
  • While you’re more likely to use a frying pan or saucepan in Europe, the wok is commonly used in Asia for frying, steaming, and sautéing.
  • While Asian food tends to frequently use rice, European food favours wheat.
  • Olive oil is far more common in the West whereas soy sauce and sesame oil are used in Asia.
  • European food focuses on either salt or sweet, Asian food adds sour, bitter, and spicy tastes to the mix.

It’s not a question of which food is better. You can’t really say one is better than another since they’re so different.

While everyone will have their own opinion, there’s nothing stopping you from enjoying them both.

However, since Asian cuisine is so varied, it'd be silly to dismiss entirely. With options like stir fry noodles (such as chow mein and lo mein), chicken satay skewers with a peanut dipping sauce, shrimp pad Thai, Korean barbecue, and vegetarian options like lentil Dhal, there's bound to be some authentic Asian food you like!

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As an Englishman in Paris, I enjoy growing my knowledge of other languages and cultures. I'm interested in History, Economics, and Sociology and believe in the importance of continuous learning.