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Why does Food Taste Different Around the World?

Imagine you've been traveling through Asia for two weeks. You've sampled all kinds of local cuisine from Pad Thai to Pho, but on this particular day, all you want is greasy, cheesy pizza. You find a restaurant that serves Western fare and order a Margherita pizza, but to your dismay, it's nothing like you expected - the sauce is different, the crust is cracker-like, and there's not nearly enough cheese. What gives?

When you travel, you will quickly find that food simply tastes different in other countries due to a wide variety of factors. Scientifically speaking, much of these preferences come from what people eat while growing up, and they develop a perception of what is "normal." A number of cultural and environmental factors also influence cuisine by making certain ingredients and dishes more available or desirable. Cooking methods also differ from place to place, and dishes will acquire different flavors when cooked on an electric grill as opposed to a charcoal one. Therefore, even if you order a dish from home, it won't be exactly the same because locals prefer different spices, ingredients, and flavors.

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The Science Behind Taste Preferences

Genealogy and palate formation heavily impact a country's preferred cuisine. Across the world, people's bodies have adapted to different gastronomical palates and cuisine choices, and we become programmed to perceive particular flavors and textures as normal. 

The Role of Genetics

Our genetic makeup contributes largely to our culinary preferences. Evidence indicates that our genetic makeup influences the composition of taste receptors on our tongues, which directly impacts our preferences. We have varying amounts of receptors for basic flavors like sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami, and each individual's receptor composition varies depending on their DNA. Therefore, a person who hails from one part of the world may be more sensitive to particular tastes than others from different regions.

Consumption habits can also influence genetic makeup over time. In many parts of Asia, for example, dairy is not a major dietary component, so over time, that region developed higher rates of lactose intolerance. Similarly, research on American obesity has found that genetics can impact a person's salt and fat intake.

Palate Formation

A person generally forms their culinary palate based on the tastes that surround them from the womb through early childhood. Fetuses and breastfed children essentially eat what their mothers eat, so they develop early inclinations toward certain flavors common in their mothers' diets. Once we can eat on our own, we quickly develop conceptions of quality cuisine based on how we are taught to enjoy and consume particular foods.

Therefore, these cultural differences are not only a matter of ingredient availability but also ingredient use. Vanilla, for example, is often associated with sweets in America or Europe, but in Asia, the spice is generally used in more savory dishes. Additionally, notions of "pairing" ingredients with similar flavors are often distinctly Western; many cultures combine flavors differently or avoid combining similar flavors altogether, so dishes that seem delicious to an American may disgust a Sri Lankan or Nigerian and vice versa.

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Environment and Culture

Different recipes and styles of cooking developed due to environmental and cultural factors. Environments influence ingredient availability and effective cooking methods, and cultural traditions dictate perceptions of quality cuisine.

Environmental Influences

Environmental factors foremost impact ingredients available in a particular region, which directly affects the composition of traditional dishes. In the US, for example, mass production of corn has led to widespread use of high fructose corn syrup for flavor, which is uncommon throughout the rest of the world. Seafood's role in cuisine composition is also a matter of availability; areas with large coastlines that harbor plentiful marine life will feature seafood in dishes more often than those that are landlocked.

The environment also impacts taste in more complex ways. States in hotter parts of the world, for example, tend to have spicier national cuisines because spice helps mitigate environmental heat by protecting from microbes and parasites associated with meat spoilage, causing sweat that cools consumers off, and stimulating appetite as the heat suppresses it.

Cultural Conceptions

"Good food" is often a cultural construction. Various cultures value different aspects of food, such as texture or sweetness. Sea cucumber exemplifies this phenomenon. In China, it is an expensive delicacy, but most Westerners consider it to be bland and rubbery. This dissonance occurs because Western cultures generally prefer flavorful dishes with simple textures, but Chinese cuisine values textural intricacies. Therefore, to a Chinese person, a sea cucumber has a rich, delightful "mouthfeel" whereas a French person thinks they've eaten flavorless rubber.

Different cultural perceptions of what constitutes a healthy diet also impact cuisine. Though fruits and dairy are often considered an essential component of a healthy diet in the West, Japan places them on the lowest rung of their dietary hierarchy. Therefore, in Japan, a healthy meal would often consist of grains, vegetables, and proteins, but in the US, fruit and yogurt are considered a common healthy snack. Safety issues also impact these health perceptions. A "raw" diet that consists of primarily uncooked goods is all the rage in the West, but in developing regions with lower water quality and handling standards, thoroughly cooking most meals is essential.

Cultural traditions and conceptions of politeness also affect the way food is prepared and eaten, which often impacts the food itself. In many parts of India, tradition dictates that it is polite to eat with your hands because your fingers and thumb come together to form a "Mudra" - a gesture of great spiritual value - while eating. Therefore, many traditional Indian dishes, like Samosas, are explicitly designed to be eaten by hand. Similarly, Western foods are made to be eaten with a knife and fork, and many East Asian dishes are designed for chopsticks. In sum, these small genetic, environmental, and cultural conditions blend to create a range of diverse flavors across the globe.

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