Why Western Food Tastes Bland (Science)

Circles are common ingredients, lines between are the number of shared compounds, ie flavors. From Nature.

In Asian or Sri Lankan cooking, we put a lot of diverse ingredients into a dish. Salt, chili, curry leaves, coconut milk, onions, garlic, green chili. That’s just the base for many Sri Lankan recipes, before you start adding distinctive stuff. In western food, by contrast, the base is less, and less diverse. This seems apparent anecdotally, and also now scientifically. A chemical study has shown that Asian dishes incorporate more diverse flavors than western ones.

North American and Western European cuisines exhibit a statistically significant tendency towards recipes whose ingredients share flavor compounds. By contrast, East Asian and Southern European cuisines avoid recipes whose ingredients share flavor compounds. (Flavor network and the principles of food pairing)

Flavor Pairs And Contrasts

Of the graphs I understood, this stood out. Shows the number of shared compounds compared to what you’d expect from a random shuffle.

I read the report but not too deeply. There’s an article in Gizmodo that explains it more casually.

From what I could follow, it seems that a really rough approximation of how similar tastes are is the amount of chemical compounds ingredients share. Cooking is an art as much as a science, so they admit this is an approximation, but still one that useful for comparisons. What’s striking is how obvious the difference between western and eastern cooking is. Western cooking seems to trend towards combining like items (even in molecular gastronomy, consciously using this type of analysis). I would call this overall effect bland. Eastern cuisine, on the other hand, seems to actively avoid flavor combinations, striving for contrast. I would call this spicy.

Ordinary Breakfasts

Take a breakfast order. You can get the western breakfast, which is mainly straight sweet and salty, breads, jams, milk, eggs, bacon. Stuff is seasoned not at all or with salt and pepper. A Sri Lankan breakfast, by contrast, would be bread, fish curry, purippu, pol sambol, egg, all intensely seasoned. Try ordering just an egg and toast at an outstation guesthouse. They have to douse it in pepper. I’d venture that western breakfasts have a greater contrast between sweet and salty (we don’t seem to eat sweet breakfasts much in SL), but on a molecular level, it seems that the Asian breakfast is more diverse.

What’s Better

I use the pejorative term ‘bland’ to refer to western food, but I’m just joking. It’s really just a matter of taste, and what you’re used to, and what mood you’re in. When I (rarely) go abroad I wish I’d brought a jar of chili with me, but when people come here they might wish they’d brought a firehose (to get the burning fiesta out of their mouths). Different strokes for different folks. I also crave something normal and comprehensible sometimes, but I think chili has addictive properties of its own.

It’s just interesting to see, on a chemical level, that contrast is valued in eastern cuisine while complements seem valued in western cuisine more. Cool cool.

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2011-12-19 19:57:05

I think that eastern savoury food beats western savoury food hands down (except for Italian food). But nothing can approach western desserts. Eastern cuisine totally sucks in the dessert department.

Also on another note Japanese food is totally different to Indian/Sri Lankan food. Japanese cuisine seems to emphasise the actual flavour of the ingredients (a sort of minimalism) while the latter douse it in spices.

2011-12-21 02:04:33

Er no. Sri Lankan deserts suck (sorry). You’ve got your wattlapam and your caramel pudding and that’s about it. Asian deserts are varied and complex. Try having Pakistani/North Indian deserts and you’ll see the difference. If you get a chance visit Bombay sweets in Pettah (if they are still around) to sample some of the sweets from my part of the world.

2011-12-21 12:28:46

What is Pakistani food really? Nothing but an extension of Indian (Punjabi) food. Like I said, the savoury dishes rock but the desserts totally suck. I’m sorry but Gulab Jamun and Jalebi don’t cut it when compared to western desserts both in taste and variety (even when you include the ones stolen from the Middle East/Turkey). Just for starters – sponge cake, chocolate cake, black forest cake, cupcakes, cheesecakes, eclairs, cream puffs, custard, puddings, tarts, tiramisu, panna cotta, creme brulee, souffle, are all western desserts/sweet food — don’t even bother comparing them to crappy “Pakistani/North Indian desserts.” Please.

(Comments wont nest below this level)
2011-12-21 20:07:57

You two seem to think there’s a right and a wrong to taste. It’s as funny as watching a debate on whose sister is uglier.

2011-12-22 06:57:54

It’s a matter of taste of course, but personally I agree with OMR . The only Indian sweet I like is Soan Papadi (did I get that right?) Gulab is OK, in small portions.

2011-12-19 20:13:16

The weird thing is, with booming tourism, hotels have to re-look at some of their buffet offerings, ensuring that the food they serve is right for Europeans. A fortnight back I happily served myself only to find the food bland – I am not joking; it’s food for dead people cooked by dead people – and completely off putting. Thank fuck there was a dedicated Sri Lankan section for breakfast the next morning. I’d have gone insane otherwise.

2011-12-19 20:30:16

European breakfast food is in general bland (for Sri Lankan tastebuds). However, I don’t think many in the west can stomach curry/pol sambol for breakfast – even many of the ESEs in Sri Lanka would balk at the idea.

2013-05-01 01:17:01

I would like to share why Indian food majorly spicy. Most of the things in India, you could find its root would be based on the religion/or the ancient culture and not just the case today. Indian Food style in ancient days were having more medicinal values with in it. Few ingredeints are good antibiotic as such and was used in the food. Those ingredeints were mostly spicy but they had good flavour in it too.. Well before thousands of years our ancestors were very knowledgeble on what we have to eat to live a healthy and longer life.
Turmeric, Pepper, Garlic, Ginger, Jeeragam and so many… This is in today medicinally advanced period, it is proved.
Majority of the Indians don’t like the raw smell of non vegetarian items, so innovation of mixing the spice to get rid of the raw smell and increase the apetite for food with a very good flavour. But now with lot of cultual mixing from western and europeans they style tend to drift away.

2013-05-02 19:03:23

Wrong as usual Blacker. Take the case of your sister (assuming you have one) and the sister of any Italian. Your dark skinned sister will obviously be uglier, always.

Similarly , Italian food is better than Sri Lankan food for the simple reason that they are more “advanced” than us. An “advanced” civilization will obviously have better more tastier food than a less advanced one. Everything is related. And for your information, the “English Breakfast” is the No 1 breakfast in the world. Ask anybody and they will tell you. We of course don’t have a “breakfast” dish like the English.

2013-05-02 21:50:47

Wow, it took you two years to think of that one?

As for sisters, your sister will of course be uglier than mine, simply because you are you and I am me. Refer to my previous comment two years ago on the right and wrong of taste.

If you think English food is the No 1 anything, I must say you should put that tongue to better use. Try helping your sister out.

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