10 Differences Between Eastern And Western Eating Habits

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.

Different foods, different ways of eating.

Different foods, different ways of eating.

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

1. Utensils

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.

There's something unique about each dish.

There’s something unique about each dish.

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.

Often time and thought goes into the making of every dish.

Often time and thought goes into the making of every dish.

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.

7. Drinks

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.

Some meals are bigger in portion than others, a reason to share.

Some meals are bigger in portion than others, a reason to share.

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.

9. Flavours

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.

10. Dessert

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.

We all have our own comfort foods.

We all have our own comfort foods.

*  *  *

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.

There are some dishes we will always love.

There are some dishes we will always love.

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.’

We are what we eat.

We are what we eat.

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?

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252 thoughts on “10 Differences Between Eastern And Western Eating Habits

  1. Your post made me ravenous and longing for SE Asia. But things aren’t so bad here in Madagascar where we are dining on yummy zebu steaks and pastries flavored with Madagascar grown chocolate and vanilla.

    It also made me think of our time in Hawaii where a unique cuisine developed because the laborers on the pineapple and sugar plantations from China, Korea, Japan, The Philippines, Puerto Rico Portugal and Hawaii used to share their foods over lunch and in their communities. The western element of the cuisine comes from the owners and missionaries.

    And I was surprised not to see any mention of Mr Wobbles inspired cuisine from his diet of bananas, chocolates, cupcakes, and pancakes in this post. Those are my favorites too 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • It sounds like you are around very good food in Madagascar, especially that locally grown chocolate and vanilla. Eat up, eat well.

      It is interesting to read of cuisine in Hawaii, and it reminds me of Spam and many around the world love it. Mr Wobbles is hibernating this winter, concocting new things in the kitchen. He is one busy monkey 🙉😃

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “[The study] 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.” Wow! This was so interesting to me.

    I love that fruit-for-dessert aspect of Asian cuisine that you mentioned. Feels much healthier than our ice cream, brownies, cupcakes, etc., that we often have here in the U.S. (And when we go out to eat, creme brulee, cheesecake, hot fudge sundae, etc. Heavy!)

    One thing we have done recently in our home is to make the meal preparation more of a shared ritual. We pick out new recipes that might be from a slightly different gastronomical background than our own (European-English-Irish-American), such as curry, stir-fry, or Indian-style food, and then we work on preparing it together. A few years ago one of our food writers in this city published a recipe for pot stickers from her family’s Chinese cooking tradition, which I cut out of the newspaper and saved, and we made those pot stickers over and over and over. It’s a hugely time-demanding process, compared to cooking a chicken and some vegetables, for instance, but always tasty. From the outside it’s hard to know how to make a dish from a different cuisine than your own, and when someone explains it or shows you, all of a sudden it doesn’t seem so mysterious.

    Thanks, Mabel! Another fun article. One day it might be fun to read an article talking more about the position of elders in Eastern vs. Western cultures, if you were up for it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • In a way fruit is healthier than sweets such as ice-cream, cakes and so on. Fruit isn’t processed but a natural food source and many Western desserts are processed. However fruit is also saturated with sugars and it can be easy to overeat fruit – any bit of sugar does contribute to calories and our diet.

      It is lovely to hear that in your home there is a shared ritual when it comes to eating. Trying new recipes sounds very adventurous, making cooking quite the challenge like how making the pot stickers took a while to make. I hope they turned out amazing and am sure they did as you made them over and over 🙂 It’s great that there’s YouTube today and if you’re ever unsure of how to cook something, you can look it up on YouTube. Admittedly I’ve done that more times than I can count lol.

      Actually the position of elders in Western and Eastern cultures is such a good idea. Might actually put that down as a topic to write about next year. Thank you so much, so kind of you to suggest such a thought-provoking topic, and reflecting on this piece 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mabel, thank you for your as-always thoughtful message! You are right about fruit and sweets in our diet. The pot stickers were made many times, though always more successful as a group effort, one person to make the filling, one person to make the wraps, one person to fill the wrappers, and the last to cook the dumplings. An all-afternoon project, eh? Good reminder about the YouTube videos on cooking. That’s so true! I sometimes forget about that!

        I’ll look forward to your article next year on elders! Have a great weekend!

        Like

        • That is amazing you made pot stickers as part of a group. Quite often in Chinese restaurants, they are made by a number of chefs, never just one. Cooking is also quite the communal affair in Chinese culture. Hope you get to make them again at some point 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yes, it’s a task! Funnily enough, a few years back when I was part of a public speaking club, one of our members, a doctoral student from China, brought in some partly- and fully-made pot stickers as his visual aid for a speech on making pot stickers when he was a child. He told us it was the tradition that it took his whole family to do it. Each family member had their own job, making the wrappers, rolling them out, making the filling, putting the filling in the wrappers, cooking, etc. It dawned on me as I heard him speaking that the way we were doing it was just as his family had! Sort of, “the right way” to do it – each person with their own task! 🙂

            If you would like to take a look at the work of the food writer that first published the recipe we use, she has now created her own book of Chinese “soul food” recipes. I just bought a copy in April when my daughter and i went on that independent bookstore tour. Hisao-Chin Chou, “Chinese Soul Food”, http://mychinesesoulfood.com/

            Reminds me of your blog post article on dumplings so long ago. The first one I read! 🙂

            Like

            • What a heartwarming story, Theresa. The more I get to know you, the more you come across as someone who is incredibly open-minded and welcoming 🙂

              What a treat to have that doctoral student from China visit you and show everyone the art of making dumplings. You and your family really do sound you have nailed making them 🙂 I had a look at Hisao-Chin. Wow, what an accomplished Chinese soul food chef and I’m guessing you will make many dishes created by her 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

              • Thank you again, Mabel! Your kinds words make my day. – We all loved eating the pot stickers that the grad. student brought, I can tell you! Thanks for looking at her site. She seems to be doing great. She was a journalist at one of our city papers, the Seattle P-I, which shut down its printing operation and exists only online now. She totally turned around her career and seems to be in an accomplished new direction now!

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  3. I enjoy and appreciate the variety of food and cooking techniques offered by different cultures/countries and try to sample a bit of most foods. I think that is one of the biggest pleasures of travelling. In France recently, I finally tasted snails and was pleasantly surprised. Asian food chicken feet is something I haven’t conquered yet.

    At home, I mostly choose easy to cook or ready-prepared meals, regardless of origin. The time involved to cook and clean up is a big factor. In shopping malls, dumplings and ramen are my favourites.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agreed, trying different foods while you travel is very much pleasurable and usually not a dull experience. Sounds like eating escargot wasn’t all that intimidating for you 🙂

      Cooking and eating is one thing, and cleaning is another. Unless you are really into cooking, many probably just want cooking and cleaning over and done with at home.

      Like

  4. I am so pleased I have already eaten, for your wonderful pictures would make anyone’s taste buds tickle,

    Such an in-depth study of cuisine, I can see you enjoy dinning out, do you also enjoy cooking meals dear Mabel.? Forgive my short reply today Mabel. but I am on a late night marathon as I endeavour to do some catching up a little..
    Have a beautiful rest of your week my friend.. And I do enjoy the odd Chinese meal now and again.. 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Yet another beautiful post from you, Mabel 🙂

    Reading the whole post, what I could understand is how closely Indian and Chinese cultures are matched as far as food and dining habits are concerned.

    Now a days, there is a tendency to foolishly mimic the western style of food and dining habits, which started causing lot of health issues here in India.

    How people eat and what they eat is very much related to the place they live in, the climatic conditions and what’s available to them locally, right? and that’s works well for them as well.

    I like experimenting all different food over weekends from restaurants of different style but try to stick to our traditional food habits as much as possible.

    Images in this post are irresistible and thank god, I read it after my heavy dinner, rice and fish 🙂

    Like

    • True, Indian and Chinese dining habits can be similar, in that both cultures tend to share food and eat together.

      Very sharp of you to notice some Asian cultures like Indian culture imitating Western food styles. For instance, fried foods are becoming so popular these days… Definite, what we eat depends on where we live and the climactic conditions, and how much we can afford. Sounds like you like to eat well and appreciate the different dishes around you 🙂

      I had so much fun taking some of these images…and even more fun cooking some of these dishes 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I enjoy both, Mabel. What I liked most about this post is that I learnt so much from it. Placing knives and folks upside down to invite spirits to dine with you is comply new to me. I’ve never heard that before. I love the thought of peanut soup, and also those custard tarts, too. I do agree that Asian desserts are sweeter than western desserts. As a big fan of desserts, I usually avoid a starter before the main course, but I know many that prefer a starter to a dessert. I usually miss out on dessert because of this, as most seem to go for a starter, and I dislike eating dessert alone.
    I do like eating with just my fingers, especially fish and chips. For some reason, it seems to make the food taste better.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for reading and reflecting, Hugh. Peanut soup is hard to make – there’s a technique to it to not make the soup curdle and turn hard. I should learn to make it and tell all of you the recipe.

      Such an interesting observation, that many prefer a starter over a dessert. I think that’s very true, but I wonder why. To be honest, if I had dessert I wouldn’t mind eating dessert as an entire meal 😀

      That remind’s me of the KFC phrase, ‘Finger licking good’ 😀😀😀

      Like

      • Yes, please, share that recipe with us, Mabel. I have Peanut Crunch for my breakfast every morning during the summer months, and I love bars of peanut brittle. Can you tell I’m a fan of peanuts? 😀

        Like you, I could easily have a dessert as a main and as a dessert, but oh all those calories. Still, who’s counting? 🤔

        Like

        • It does sound like you love peanuts very much, Hugh. Happy to treat you to a peanut and peanut butter coated sundae if we ever meet 😀

          I think dessert as a main once in a while is perfectly okay 😀😀

          Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Mabel! You made me hungry with those great pictures and mentions of food. Growing up we didn’t have any drinks with our food because it was believed to interfere with digestion. We could drink water or juice an hour after eating. Also, if the food was cooked it had to be served hot (like soup, rice or meat) but if the food was prepared (like yogurt, peanut butter & jelly sandwich) then it’s okay to serve cold. Very interesting post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • So interesting to hear that growing up you didn’t have drinks with food. Without drink, in a way you learn to focus on food and savour what we eat. Cold foods like the spreads you describe there can often be served with warm foods – like toasted peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Thank you so much for stopping by, Vashti 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This is such an interesting post on food and you’ve so rightly pointed out that food habits of people in different places reflect the virtues valued in the culture. The practice of sharing three or four dishes with rice or flatbread is common in Asian cultures, as it is supposed to make a balanced meal but ordering for individual dishes is prevalent in western cultures that place a high emphasis on individual choice.
    When we go out to dine, we generally have a combination of one or two shared dishes and one individual dish. At home, I love to have conversations while eating while others prefer to watch the TV. 🙂

    Like

  9. Very great post and spot on. We usually eat everything from Aslan to Western food. I usually cook at home and I cook different food every night, from Thai, Japanese, Chinese, western, etc. When we travel mostly we try to eat local food and experience the difference flavour. When we come back home I try to cook the food we have eaten while travel:)

    Like

    • Sounds like you are quite a cook, cooking quite a few dishes! Always nice try local food when you are traveling – something different and you might find a new food you’ll want to eat again and again 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • I can say I am a good cook, ha.ha.. seriously.. I learn how to cook:) My husband is smart, he took me to the best restaurant in the world and then he asked me to cook that at home. oh boy….what a task. How about you?? do you like to cook?

        Like

  10. Mabel, this was an interesting and reflective article. I admire the a Chinese value of sitting at a round table and sharing all of the dishes served. I like the way this creates community and participation of all. I always learn something new from you.
    Although I have grown up and lived by whole life in the U.S., my favorite food is in the Asian category. I love pho, salad rolls, and spicy stir fried veggies. I have always disliked hamburgers.
    I think that food is a great way to bring people together. Thanks for another great share.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Ali. There is certainly an emphasis on being together when it comes to eating in Chinese culture. So lovely to hear you are a fan of Asian, and you don’t like hamburgers 😞 I guess each to their own 😃 Hope you get to eat more delicious Chinese and Asian cuisine in the future.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi, I love your post. I recently completed an Blog Post on storing meat. I like to make my own food for Christmas!. We will be making a basic ice cream to go with it. The teenagers will be on holiday and I am positive they are going to love it.

    Like

    • Thanks, Wyatt. That is amazing to hear you like making your own food for Christmas, and you make your own biltong too. Hope your ice-cream turns out to be a great treat…and may you make it again and again.

      Like

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