There are different ways of dining all around the world. Different cultures, especially eastern and western cultures, have different ways of eating, cooking and serving food.
Eating both Eastern and Western cuisine was a part of my childhood in Singapore, Malaysia and Australia. Growing up I had many friends and family from Asian and Western backgrounds and we constantly ate each other’s cuisines. Evidently there were noticeably different eating habits and food preferences between each other’s cultures.
When we speak of Eastern or Asian cuisine, we usually think of dishes originating from the Asian region, maybe rice and noodle dishes. When we speak of Western cuisine, dishes such as bread, potatoes and pasta commonly come to mind. That said, for each cuisine there are a multitude of varying dishes in between as this world is so diverse.
Long-held traditions and stereotypes often influence how we eat, dine and drink. Other times our eating habits are simply shaped by the eating practices and types of food that we are familiar and comfortable with.
Eastern vs Western Eating Habits
Eating with fork and spoon is the norm in Western cultures, and so is eating with a knife when a good chunk of meat is served. There can be a unique utensil for each course of a meal, such as in French dining. While many of Asian background eat with fork and spoons, many also eat with chopsticks or eating with just their hands. For instance, it’s common for Muslims to eat with their right hand and this in line with their faith. For some Indians it’s a mark of respect (especially to the host) to physically touch the food one is eating – joining all fingers together and picking up food to eat, in a way creating a spiritual connection with what one is eating.
When I was a kid, my Chinese-Malaysian parents first taught me to eat with fork and spoon, and later taught me how to use chopsticks. These days I use chopsticks whenever I eat Chinese food; it just feels natural (probably from having watched my family eat Chinese food with only chopsticks as a kid). Never had trouble picking up rice with chopsticks (which is baffling to some, but the trick is to put the rice bowl close to your mouth so rice doesn’t fall everywhere). There’s also hearsay in Asian cultures that placing cutlery upside down invites spirits to dine with you (not sure where this came from).
2. Cooking techniques
Steaming, boiling and stir frying are popular Chinese cooking methods. Popular and staple Chinese dishes include soup and pan-fried dumplings, steamed veggies with oyster sauce and simmered bone broths. In contrast many popular Western dishes in Australia tend to be on the fried or baked side: fried chicken, pizza, fish and chips, parmagianas, meat pies and lamb roast. Notably in Asian culture dishes are more or less served warm or hot and rarely raw and cold (sushi would be the popular exception). On the other hand, salads, yoghurts and cheeses are popular ‘cold’ gastronomic choices among many Westerners.
3. Table and seating configuration
Dining at round tables is common in Asian cultures and encourages inclusivity no matter where one sits. Dining at a round table, everyone can see each other – it encourages everyone to chat and connect with each other (one can see everyone at the table face to face), it’s convenient to pass food around on a Lazy Susan in the middle of the table. Also, the eldest or most senior person usually takes the seat facing the entrance, symbolic of hierarchical respect.
Eating at rectangular tables is more common in Western cultures. One might not get the chance to chat with every single the person when seated at this kind of table but might be highly encouraged to make small chat with the person beside or right in front of them.
4. Sharing vs individual dishes
In Chinese culture most dishes are designed to be shared over rice or noodles, and rice and noodles are supposed to be eaten along with other dishes. Growing up in Malaysia and Singapore, whenever the folks and I went to a Chinese restaurant, each of us had a bowl of white rice and three to four dishes placed in the centre of the table – everyone gets to try everything and this is synonymous with the virtues of sharing and being a part of a team, virtues revered in Chinese culture.
Individual dishes are more common in Western cultures and it’s not surprising for someone to order one dish and have it all to themselves. Time and time again in Chinese restaurants I’ve seen Westerners doing this (like eating a whole plate of oyster sauce veggies by themselves), which strikes me as unusual as there is only so much nutritional value gained from eating one kind of food. Not to say there aren’t individual dishes in Chinese culture – for example duck noodles and Hainanese chicken rice are dishes that one would have to all themselves. But many if not most Chinese dishes are really meant to be shared.
On the plus side, when everyone orders a dish for themselves, it can be easier when it’s time to pay the bill: everyone eats their own share, fair and square pays for their own dish, no need to fight over the bill.
5. Balance and variety
There is usually a starter/entrée, main and dessert when it comes to having many a Western meal. Sometimes this includes a salad and cheese course. While multicourse meals are also part of Asian dining, balance is key here: there is usually a soup, a base of rice or noodles and a vegetable and meat dish served. With Asian cuisine, there is a focus on optimising meals for digestion – aligning with the concept of yin and yang – rather than stuffing oneself and feeling satiated and even more satiated.
6. Serving size
Portions tend to bigger when it comes to Western cuisine, more food per serving. Perhaps the most famous kind of portion is the supersize options in many fast food outlets in the States, portions that are known to contribute to obesity.
From what I noticed, the portions for Asian cuisine here in Australia are much bigger than what you get in Asia. That said, in Chinese culture eating until you are full is encouraged and many Chinese festivals such as the Chinese New Year and Dragon Boat Festival revolve around food. Even breakfast in Asia can be quite a big affair portion-wise, just as big as lunch and dinner: dim sum, fishball noodle soup, coconut rice, century egg congee were breakfasts I had at hawker centres on weekends in Malaysia and Singapore.
Having an alcoholic beverage for lunch or dinner is pretty common in Australia. Beer is always on the drink menu when it comes to eating at many Asian restaurants here in Melbourne. But when I lived in Asia this wasn’t always the case; in many Halal restaurants in Malaysia there is a no alcohol or BYO policy. Warm tea is usually the first drink to be offered when dining Chinese and in many Chinese eateries I’ve patronised in Australia, tea is offered for free. Soy bean milk, milk tea and sugarcane juice are also drinks many Chinese like to order with their meals. Interestingly, water isn’t usually served with Asian cuisine as it is believed to cause upset stomachs.
8. Setting and ambience
There’s the common conception that eating in a Chinese restaurant is a crowded, dark and dim affair. From my experience, this is the case with quite a few dumpling joints in Melbourne…but I’ve also been to Chinese restaurants where fluorescent white lights shine down from the ceiling and you can clearly see what you are eating. When it comes to dining Western, if it’s a romantic meal for two chances are it might be a dim dining affair in a secluded cozy corner booth – at least that’s what many movies are inclined to let you believe.
Many Asian dishes are bold and aromatic in flavour. It’s the ingredients used that bring out these flavours, ingredients such as vinegar, five spice powder, cooking wine, hoisin sauce and soy sauce. Ginger and garlic are also staple ingredients in many Chinese dishes, and there’s usually the option of added chilli too. Compared to Asian cooking, Western cuisine might come across as more bland. Chilli isn’t served with every meal and many chilli dishes in Australia aren’t as spicy as dishes in Asia. Processed sauces seemed to be served more with Western food. Tomato sauce, mustard, mayonnaise, barbecue sauce are some popular sauces one finds with American, European and Australian cuisine.
Fruit is a popular dessert option in Asian cuisine. Watermelon, papaya and rockmelon were some of the desserts I remember being served to me and my extended family after we finished ten-course celebratory banquet meals. Some popular Asian desserts include sweet sticky rice pudding, peanut soup, egg tarts and lotus seed paste balls. On the other hand, ice-cream is always a popular dessert option at the end of a Western meal, and so is the choice of brownie and cake. Not sure how true this is, but Asian desserts seem to taste sweeter than many Western desserts.
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Over time our food preferences and eating habits might change. We might prefer eating different cuisines at different times of our lives depending on how we’re feeling or where live or travel. We might go through phases of fads and diets if we’re wanting a lifestyle change or wanting to be a bit more adventurous with what we eat.
For reasons I still don’t know, as a kid I preferred eating Western food over Chinese food. Friday night was fish and chip night at home, and I would eagerly anticipate my mum taking the battered fish and salted chips out from the oven. Though my parents bought Chinese duck, roast pork and dim sum on the weekends, somehow I always wanted pizza. These days it’s a bit of a different story. While I’ve never liked eating pork and still don’t eat much roast pork, I love eating a good roast duck, will jump at the opportunity do yum cha and eat at a hawker centre. That said, I still love a good pizza anytime.
Perhaps we like eating the food we eat because of how our brains are wired. Research published in the Journal of Food Sciences looked at how colour impacts our perception of food. It proposed that we may be more inclined to eat food that match our memories and the brighter a certain food is such as cake, the more intense in flavour it was perceived to be.
Also, in 2011 a study on complex systems explored why Asian and Western foods taste differently. It found Western cuisines tend to use ingredients that shared matching flavour compounds – or matching chemical tastes – while Asian cuisines tend to avoid using ingredients with same flavour molecules. Certain foods might be comfort foods to us, acquired tastes from our upbringing or life experiences over time – and it is these foods we have gotten to know so well that they are now an extension of ourselves. On knowing food, loving food and sharing it all round, chef and author Anthony Bourdain said:
‘People are generally proud of their food. A willingness to eat and drink with people without fear and prejudice…they open up to you in ways that somebody visiting who is driven by a story may not get.’
Given each cuisine is unique, what we eat forms part of our identity. As the saying goes, we are what we eat. Sometimes we eat the foods we’ve always eaten to really be who we are. And then we share that with the rest of the world.
Do you prefer eating Asian or Western cuisine?