Thursday, April 10, 2014

The world is full of awesome flavors! (If you give them a chance...)

"If a food is going to help forge a cultural identity, it must be an acquired taste, not a universal one."
(Michael Pollan, Cooked)

A package of kugua (bitter melon) from an Asian market in Arlington: a sight not beheld in most local supermarkets.

Coffee or baijiu?
Bitter melon or grapefruit?
Cheese or stinky tofu?

Which of these foods and beverages have you consumed? Which do you like? Which wouldn’t you even try?

While in China, I watched my wife gain a fondness for coffee, black coffee to be precise. Most in China only drink the heavily sugared and creamed versions. She long ago acquired a taste for cheese. I don't mean pizza, but cheese, real cheese. Just a few days ago, she remarked that she now enjoys grapefruit, and plain grapefruit at that, which may be more my influence than US cultural influence.

As for me, among many other tastes, I’ve acquired a taste for baijiu, a very strong flavored Chinese liquor that averages around 110 proof and is largely panned by non-Chinese. Kugua (bitter melon) is a vegetable I don’t really dare make for most Americans, but it’s a diet staple I miss now. Stinky tofu was never my favorite, but it's not bad, and I must admit to loving the packaged stinky tofu packets people sent us from China.

One of the more intriguing (and frustrating) ideas I’ve encountered, both in China and the US, is the idea of “not liking” a food. Specifically, not liking a food that is fairly common in another culture but not in that culture. The reality is that people generally don’t really dislike any food, even strongly flavored foods; they have merely not acquired an appreciation for it.

Foods with strong flavors, especially in the sour and bitter realms, and foods with strong aromas are all acquired tastes. Coffee is not something most people naturally like. People in China routinely remarked, “Oh, it’s too bitter,” when I decline sugar or cream. Nor is baijiu a natural preference, as Westerners routinely metaphorically compare it to paint thinner or worse. At least, I hope they aren't actually drinking paint thinner on the side.

Whether it's cheese for western folk (and these more European than American), stinky tofu for Chinese, kimchi in Korea, or hákarl (rotten shark) in Iceland, these are foods that aren't automatically enjoyed. These are tastes and textures, flavors and fragrances that have been acquired as people grow up in their cultures. They aren't universally enjoyed, like french fries. They aren't easy on the palate like birthday cake. They are difficult, yet acquirable. And they can be acquired by adults, if only we let ourselves.

Watching my wife acquire new tastes, I can’t help but love her more. She’s gastronomically adventurous. When we were first married, the idea of eating steamed carrots sans salt or oil was bewildering to her. She thought they were tasteless. Eventually, she started tasting the natural sweetness and now loves them.

It bothers me when I meet non-Chinese who continually speak negatively of baijiu after having it once or twice (or even a dozen times). It bothers me when Chinese try whiskies or tequilas and automatically pronounce them “no good”. In general, it bothers me that people say they “don’t like” something and therefore don’t eat it, especially if they say it a lot. I understand having preferences. I understand declining foods for health reasons, which I often do, as long as I'm not someone's guest. But rejecting a food or drink, especially one made for you, that seems both ill-mannered as well as ignorant of how taste preferences can and do evolve.

Why would anyone choose to limit their palate?

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