Adapting to Exotic Foods

New foods are an adventure. As a rule, people may not like them the first time around, but in time — and with patience — what once seemed strange can become just another dish at dinner.

Exposure to different people and cultures often expands your taste horizons. Some taboos — horsemeat, snake, dog — may simply be too emotion-laden to be overcome. Others with no emotional baggage fall to experience.

Most people hate very salty, very bitter, very acidic, or very slippery foods such as caviar, coffee, Scotch whisky, and oysters on first taste, but many later learn to enjoy them. Coming to terms with these foods can be both physically and psychologically rewarding:

  • Many bitter foods, such as coffee and unsweetened chocolate, are relatively mild stimulants that temporarily improve mood and physical performance.
  • Strongly flavored foods, such as salty caviar, offer a challenge to the taste buds.
  • Foods such as oysters, which may seem totally disgusting the first time you see or taste them, are symbols of wealth or worldliness. Trying them implies a certain sophistication in the way you face life.

Happily, an educated, adventurous sense of taste can be a pleasure that lasts as long as you live. Professional tea tasters, wine tasters, and others (maybe you?) who have developed the ability to recognize even the smallest differences among flavors continue to enjoy their gift well into old age.

Although your sense of taste declines as you grow older, you can keep it perking as long as you supply the stimuli in the form of tasty, well-seasoned food. In other words, as they say about adult life’s other major sensory delight, “Use it or lose it.”

If you’re lucky enough to live in a place that attracts many immigrants, your dining experience is flavored by the favorite foods of other people (meaning the foods of other cultures). In the United States, for example, the melting pot is not an idle phrase.

American cooking literally bubbles with contributions from every group that’s ever stepped ashore in what President Lyndon Baines Johnson used to call the “good ole U. S. of A.” Table 2 lists some of the foods and food combinations characteristic of specific ethnic/regional cuisines.

If Your Ancestors Came From You’re Likely to Be Familiar with This Flavor Combination
Central and Eastern Europe Sour cream and dill or paprika
China Soy sauce plus wine and ginger
Germany Meat roasted in vinegar and sugar
Greece Olive oil and lemon
India Cumin and curry
Italy Tomatoes, cheese, and olive oil
Japan Soy sauce plus rice wine and sugar
Korea Soy sauce plus brown sugar, sesame, and chile
Mexico Tomatoes and chile peppers
Middle Europe Milk and vegetables
Puerto Rico Rice and fish
West Africa Peanuts and chile peppers

A. W. Logue, The Psychology of Eating and Drinking, 2nd edition (New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1991)

Imagine how few you might sample living in a place where everybody shares exactly the same ethnic, racial, or religious backgrounds. Just thinking about it is enough to make me want to stand up and shout, “Hooray for diversity at the dinner table!”

Of course, enjoying other peoples’ foods doesn’t mean you don’t have your own special treats. Table 3 is a flag-waver: A list of made-in-America taste sensations, many created here by immigrant chefs whose talents flowered in American kitchens.

This Food Item Was Born Here
Baked beans Boston (Pilgrim adaptation of Native American dish)
Clam chowder Boston (named for la chaudière,a large copper soup pot, used by fishermen to make a communal soup)
Hamburger Everywhere (originally called a Hamburg steak, except in Hamburg, Germany)
Jambalaya Louisiana (combination of French Canadian with native coastal cookery)
Potato chips Saratoga Springs, New York (credited to a chef at Moon’s Lake House hotel)
Spoon bread Southern United States (adapted from Native American corn pudding)
Vichyssoise New York (Ritz Carlton Hotel; created by a chef born near Vichy, France)

James Trager, The Foodbook (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1970)