Difference in Eastern vs Western Culture: Part 2- Food and Other Habits

posted on: Saturday, 15 April 2017

Hello everyone!
 After reading Part 1, you're probably amazed that I have even more to talk about. Today's topic makes me excited already because its one of my favourite things in the world: food. Some people view food as their enemy, some view it as a guilty pleasure, and some view it as merely sustenance. I believe that without good food, life is meaningless.

In Eastern cultures, there's a huge focus on food and eating. A common greeting across all Asian cultures is "Did you eat?" We say it like "hello" but we answer it as a legit question. If my aunt calls, she'll say "Did you eat?" and I'll reply, "Yes, I had lunch just now. Mom cooked goat" and counter with the same question. I don't think there's an equivalent in the West that I can try to compare this with. Good food is what life is about in eastern cultures. Indian cuisine takes a very long time to cook because it's so packed with flavours and ingredients and it can only be made and eaten fresh. Asian cuisine has a lot of vegetables, most likely because vegetables and affordable. Meat is kind of a luxury in eastern countries. I know in Japan and Korea that meat is quite expensive, like $50 or more for a few cuts. However, the quality is amazing. My mom goes to an Pakistani butcher and watches him hack up a goat leg off the animal and buy it for $45.
I love how humble and normal Korean celebrities are. They get paid like everyone else, and so they're just as frugal and thrifty as we are. 

In Europe, food is also incredibly important. I think many European national identities are centred around food and its quality. In this sense, I'll distinguish Europe from America.

I think its in America where the quality of food is not really important. That's not to say that Americans don't enjoy good food, it's just that its not as central in culture. I mean, it's the country that invented fast-food. The grocery stores are filled with all sorts of imitation meats and an assortment of vegetables that are, frankly, over priced. I get green onions from the Indo-Pak grocery store for like 50 cents for a small bundle (about the same at Korean grocery stores) but at Whole Foods is like $2. My family gets our vegetables from the Indo-Pak store simply because their price reflects how frequently ingredients are used (and because they're fresh, of course). Growing up, I rarely ate frozen food (I still don't) so I've noticed I'm able to tell if food is frozen and microwaved.  There's a certain taste that's just ughh. Gordon Ramsay would be proud.

More about the culture differences:
In the West (mainly America, as I've pointed out the distinction with Europe earlier), eating food is seen almost as an inconvenience. School lunches are served because they're super cheap and affordable for public schools, despite the terrible quality. Many people eat on the go (fast-food), or to sustain themselves (frozen dinners, microwave meals, etc...), or to lose weight (vegan, gluten-free, fat-free, etc...). The one real good meal is supposed to be dinner.
In Japan, schools home-cook meals and children are taught not only how to cook, but how to cook nutritious and well-balanced food. They have a period designated with children going to the kitchen and helping the staff, bringing the food to the class room, setting up their tables, eating, brushing their teeth, cleaning up everything and taking them back to the kitchen. It's not like that in India, but many Indian children take "tiffin" or the American equivalent of "brown bag lunches" to school.

Eating: More is Good
There's also a focus on eating. It's seen as good and healthy if Asian children eat a lot of food. Eating well is cherished because it reflects a healthy appetite. I know this is something that's causing trouble in China and India now as obesity is on the rise due to lifestyle and socioeconomic changes (they're experiencing what America did several decades ago). The quality of food decreases, but the mindset that it's good to eat more prevails, leading to increased risk of metabolic diseases like diabetes. India has the highest percentage of people with diabetes because Indian food can be unhealthy if a person is sedentary. Indian people are generally active in their day-to-day life, walking everywhere, doing laundry by hand, and so on. So the high carb foods match activity well. However, as people become more sedentary and the food doesn't change, it's the perfect recipe for weight gain. Rice is a "side dish" that accompanies almost every dish (if not, it's naan or roti) and ghee is a favourite "topping" to add to food to make it buttery and delicious. My uncle is diabetic and one factor could be he eats an unproportionate  amount of rice to curry. In many Asian cultures, rice is a staple but its eaten not as a main dish, but as a side dish to complement the main meals. In Korea, rice is served on the side to balance really salty or really spicy foods like kimchi or nori. Its a similar case in Japan to have rice on the side to balance flavours.

Many Korean people will start a meal by saying "I'll eat well" which really reflects how you should eat food in Asian cultures. I'm not familiar with all the Japanese and Chinese eating customs, like never crossing chopsticks or placing them across the bowl and such. Indians mainly eat with our hands. There's an Indian joke that goes like this:

There's an Indian man in America eating at a restaurant. When the waiter serves the food, the Indian man gets up, washes his hands, and returns. He then begins to eat with his hands, much to the shock of the waiter and staff.
The waiter said "Sir, please use the utensils. Eating with your hands is barbaric"
The Indian man replied, "I will eat with my hands. It's much better than using your utensils"
The waiter asked "Why do you say that?"
The Indian man said (lol this is the punchline) "I don't know where your utensils come from or how they've been cleaned. I know I washed my hands and they are clean"

Eating with ones' hands is not savage or barbaric. Indian people enjoy the texture and warmth of food with their hands. Lately, I've gotten into Japanese and Korean cuisine so I've been using chopsticks a whole lot (simply because I want to eat the food as its meant to be eaten). I will, however, eat roti and naan with my hands. I remember going to an Indian restaurant in Atlanta with my family a while back and it was a hip and suave Midtown restaurant with a lot of American customers. The owners were Indian though. It was hilarious when we were served by an American waitress who tried to tell us the specials were "Naan, an Indian bread, and daal, which is type of Indian curry". Naan and daal are like the bread and butter of the West so we found it amusing. The portions were incredibly small compared to what the price suggested but we ordered anyway. When we got the naan, me and my parents begin to eat with our hands as usual and my brother was like "Don't be so obvious" because all the Americans around us were using their utensils.

I want to note that with all the Korean television I'm watching, I've noticed how central food is through variety shows. Often the prizes for winning games are like, beef sets or tteokbokki (rice cake) sets or even cooked food itself to be eaten on the show. In the most recent episode I've seen of a show called Knowing Brother, the prizes in a skit-segment were a box of two dozen eggs and a bag of rice. You can really feel the love Korean people have for food.

Vegetables in eastern cultures take on a variety of forms and flavours. There are so many dishes you can make, each with their own flavour. I've noticed that in the West, the vegetable dishes are unappetising and bland. If they are seasoned, it's limited to tossing on some salt, pepper, and other blends of oregano, tarragon, basil, thyme etc...  Asian cuisine is way more varied in type and taste. "Eat your vegetables" is not really something that needs to be said. In fact, I always wondered why I kept hearing it at school growing up. I realised why after school meals of bland boiled broccoli and tasteless steamed carrots. And even if they were "seasoned", it was with some dry seasoning sprinkled on. Obviously eating healthy would be harder if the options are limited to bland food. Of course, nowadays Americans are eating a lot of varied foods due to the multicultural nature of the country. I love this awareness that's been spread around about international cuisine, like when people tell me they like Indian food! Americans are experimenting more now with different type of food, so its a great improvement!

One thing I noticed that always got me curious was how Western people separate their food/ingredients on a plate. Take, for example, a stereotypical plate of American dinner: peas, mashed potatoes, and meat. The peas will have their own section on the plate, the mashed potatoes in the other half, and the meat separated as well. With Indian food, everything is mixed together. Same with Korean and Chinese food: all the ingredients and blended together in a dish that complements them. So if I were to eat the stereotypical American dinner, the peas and meat would be mixed with the mashed potatoes and eaten together, not separately. I was at a banquet with my AMSA (American Medical Student Association) and we were eating Moe's catering. All my Indian friends had mixed the rice, beans, and veggies together and one of them asked to the group "Do you all like mixing your food?" and I replied "Are you asking that because Chris isn't?" Our red-head friend Chris had everything separated and it spurred a conversation. The main reason we all mixed our food was taste. "If you separated food, you'd just be eating ingredients" one friend said. It's true, isn't it? Food is delicious when mixed with other flavours and ingredients.

Across many Asian cultures, dessert is often fruit. After a good spicy or savoury meal, eating a refreshing piece of fruit is the best. I myself prefer mangos when they're in season. Other Asian cultures will also cut up fruit after dinner. Having baked desserts like cakes, pies, or cookies is not done often except for special occasions.  There was a time where my family got obsessed with ice cream and we'd have that after dinner but it was a short-lived obsession. We returned to fruit shortly after. As evidence, I think we still have a tub of ice cream in the freezer that no one's eaten in like, a year. I think it's in there as a sort of memorial hahaha. I know in the West, dessert is associated with chocolate, baked goods, and sugar-sweetened treats. I love baking cakes and cookies but I don't do it often. When I do, I often have leftovers for weeks because no one will eat it, even if its tasty. It's just not as pleasurable to me as fresh, juicy fruits. I'll mention I loooove chocolate and I eat that all the time. After a meal, I'll cut mango, melon, pears (anything in season) and, if I have any, a few pieces of chocolate. I think this custom of having fruit for dessert is not only healthy, but way more enjoyable. Perhaps I've been obsessed more recently because its mango season and mango is may favourite. I've got two boxes downstairs and since they all ripen at around the same time, I can't wait for "Peak Week." It's a different sort of satisfaction.

Other Habits
It was in elementary school that I remember talking with a few friends about brushing our teeth. I mentioned that I did it in the morning and at night and one friend, Nathan Palmer, said to me "Isn't that pointless? You'll eat breakfast and your teeth will get dirty again." I noted that it was kind of true. Why did I brush my teeth first thing in the morning? Nonetheless, it was a habit that was hard to break. My parents said it was because the mouth is full of germs and stinky in the morning.  Back then, in the mornings I would come downstairs for breakfast and the first thing my parents would ask was "Did you brush your teeth?" I didn't realise this was a common thing across many Asian cultures like Korea and Japan (the ones I know for sure). It's a hygiene issue more than a food issue.

Digestion is also a focus on eating habits in Eastern cultures. My Dad always told me not to drink water during a meal, and if I had to, only take small sips. Only later on did I realise it was a Asian custom, not just something my Dad preferred. My whole family just doesn't drink anything with meals. If something is particularly spicy, I'll have to get up and fetch a glass of water. Yet it's so customary in America to serve water or cold drinks with every meal. I noticed at restaurants with friends, the servers will always be refilling their glasses but mine wouldn't be touched.
I think something else is also drinking water first thing in the morning and right before bed. I just got into the habit of doing it because I was always told to, but I looked it up and its also an "asian digestion" thing. Not really sure if it's true or works, but like I said, habits are hard to break.

Eastern Asians drink lots of green and white tea to improve digestions. Indians just drink chai as something to warm you up or invigorate oneself. It's had as an afternoon or evening snack and definitely for breakfast, but not really for the sake of good digestion. I think the American interpretation of tea is terribly misguided. Microwaving or electrically boiling hot water and then sticking a tea bag in it does not constitute tea. And the tea selection here is terrible! Bigelow tea tastes stale, like cardboard. And the tea they make at stores like Starbucks is equally disgraceful. I sampled every Teavana tea at Starbucks one day, from that white Youthberry tea to the Emperor's Mist tea. Nothing was good at all. Teavana tea likes to brand itself as a quality, exotic tea brand but you can buy relatively inexpensive tea in bulk at foreign stores that's 50 times better. Teavana just blends a ton of shit together and labels them, but for daily enjoyment, the staples are best.

Sitting/Sleeping on the Floor
This is considered normal/acceptable, though there's still the notion that if a couch is available, it's respectful for the more esteemed person to take it.
At large family gatherings, Indians take out all the blankets, comforters, and bed sheets and spread it on the ground. If there are beds available, the elderly, moms, and dads take those. Kids always sleep on the floor. In Japan and Korea, it's customary to sleep on futons and cushioned blankets spread on the floor as well. My mom considers it something to do on vacation and I myself really enjoy sleeping on the floor in the summer time. It's generally cooler and breezier on the floor you know~

Taking off Shoes
Many Americans don't wear shoes in their house. However, when guests arrive, Americans don't mind if they wear their shoes. At dinner parties, everyone has shoes on! Asians take off their shoes either outside the front door or in the front entry to the house. Large gatherings are especially interesting when people have to find their shoes again. It's a custom that I think makes the most sense: why bring dirty shoes all over the house? It's a matter of cleanliness. I think Indians in particular like the feeling of having bare feet. I don't remember wearing shoes all that often growing up. If I went to the park in front of my house, my front yard, or my back yard, I never wore shoes. Even if the tar street separating my house from the field of green was hot from the sun, i would just leap across with light steps. My whole family, I noticed, don't really use shoes unless absolutely necessary. When I went out with my cousins at family gatherings, our shoes were the last thing we'd think of. Once, my brother was driving us all back home from Ohio when he exclaimed "Shit, I forgot my shoes"
In other Asian cultures, I think the barefoot principle applies as well.

I hope you enjoyed this post! I'll update it whenever I think up something else!


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