19 July 2005

Food preferences


I remember being in a restaurant in Shanghai in 1983, where I asked for the house specialty by using one of the few useful phrases in the official government phrasebook. The phrasebook was so bad that when I pulled it out on trains, people would snatch it out of my hands and flip to their favorite phrases and show me so we could all have a good laugh. One of the "everyday phrases" was "how are the pandas doing?", and another was "thank you very much for showing me the Great Wall, but what I'd really like to know is how the entrance to the Ming Tombs was discovered".

But I digress. The Shanghai restaurant served me a wonderful soup, and it was only after I'd eaten down a ways that I discovered that it was made from chicken feet. Now, I'm not sure that would have put me off, had I known beforehand — I have tried chicken feet by themselves since, and don't much care for the texture — but this researcher assumed that everyone in his experiment (conducted in Australia) would regard chicken feet as "awful morsels".

I suppose every culture has some food that others find repulsive. Those things change over time, too. For instance, when I was a child, non-Americans found the whole idea of peanut butter utterly repulsive, but it has now become at least accepted many places. Mention a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, though, and they'll start gagging. The same with root beer, or breakfast burritos. Non-Australians react the same way to Vegemite — and no, it's not because we're "not eating it right" (every Australian will tell you this when you say you don't like it). Cambodian food has several foods that are off-putting to foreigners, including spiders, but the most extreme reactions are prompted by pro hok, a fermented fish sauce — there's a typical reaction here.

But in general, I think it's worth giving these things a try. You might discover something you really enjoy. If I'd followed my gut instincts, I would never have discovered that I like işkembe çorbası (Turkish tripe soup) or sheep brain (best with garlic and lemon).