They say that when two people fall for each other too fast and have a real intense, passionate relationship at the very start, the couple will, more often than not, break up. This sort of relationship is just a flash in the pan. On the other hand, relationships that start off slower – with some caution or uncertainty, are the ones that last. I don’t know if this is true, but I know that some of my favorite foods didn’t start as love at first sight.
Some foods just don’t taste great the first time you try them, but slowly grow on you over time. Why is this? Could it be that the mind needs to be conditioned to them as being normal and safe? Do we get bored with familiar flavors after years of the same food and seek tastes that are out on the fringe? In college and graduate school I ate Frosted Mini Wheats for breakfast almost every day and spaghetti with meat sauce made from frozen balls of hamburger I kept in the freezer. I’ve long departed this comfort food zone to become known among my friends and family as an adventurous eater having ingested such joys as fish eyes, ba-sashi (raw horse-meat sashimi) and uni. Yet I wouldn’t consider most of these to be an acquired taste; there’s a distinction. (For the record, I don’t really like fish eyes or ba-sashi, but I’m glad I tried them).
What is it that makes us reject a taste? One theory has it that bitter tastes are a survival mechanism that prevent us from eating poison. Fortunately most poisons taste bitter or vial so your reflex is to spit it out. Herbivores evolved with a fairly tolerant pallet – less sensitive to bitter tastes – but with big livers. Think about a deer grazing on any leaf or seed she finds without worry because her liver will deal with the occasional poison. By contrast, carnivores, have smaller livers and a keener sense of taste. We humans are picky eaters! Or at least early humans were.
So here’s my unscientific theory: modern humans, being the rational thinkers that they are, subconsciously realize that they didn’t die from the brussel-sprouts poison the first time, so if they are hungry enough, they try it again. “Wait, the brussel sprouts didn’t kill me the second time either despite their vial sulphurous odor, maybe I can learn to like these smelly yellow-green balls.” Not me, but brussel sprouts makes it on my list of the World’s Most Famous and Infamous Aquired Tastes:
10 – Brussel sprouts – In defense of these infamous vegetables, they are a very healthy choice with 1/3 of calories coming from protein, they are loaded with vitamin A and calcium and they may help fight cancer with the phytochemical, indole, not to mention good old antioxidant vitamin C. So, if you haven’t tried them, you’d be smart to give these mini-cabbages a whirl on your fork. The verdict: they’re not for me but everyone should try them twice!
9 – Sushi – There are many people that just won’t do sushi – whether it’s the concept or the taste, I don’t know, but these folk will probably only go so far. I believe sushi may be an acquired taste in that if you are willing to eat some of it, you eventually branch out into more and more adventurous variations like Ikura and Uni (sea urchin). But it’s not an acquired taste in the sense that we are reacting to bitter tastes. Rather, it’s more of a psychological thing for westerners – simply the idea of eating raw fish. If we were introduced to the concept at a young age and not told that it was something strange, there would be no problem. Take as proof my son, Kenji. At age 2, we gave him ikura – glistening orange-pink spheres of salmon roe that pop in your mouth releasing a glorious burst of salty-fishy liquid. Here he is happily eating an (obviously) home-made ikura nori roll. In terms of health, I would say sushi is at least neutral, but I have haven’t studied it much. In general, fish is a healthy food, but avoid eating too much of the big predatory fish such as tuna since mercury tends to concentrate at the top of the food chain. Keep everything in moderation and life is good. The verdict: I’m on the fence as to whether sushi is an acquired taste at all or just a cultural pre-disposition that you need to work around. Sushi is a wonderful break from the day-to-day monotony of beef and spaghetti, so yes, let’s eat more.
8 – Natto – Let’s stay with Japan for one more. Even the Japanese are split on about natto. If you were speaking Japanese English, you might say “the flavor and texture are, well… a little bit difficult.” Natto is simply soy beans fermented along with a specific bacterium. The process results in smelly mixture of beans and paste. When you draw it up to your mouth, long strings form between your chopsticks and your dish. It’s usually eaten for breakfast over rice. I spoke to an older Japanese gentleman who told me that when he was a boy, a “natto man” came through the neighborhood early every morning with a wood box of natto on a on a bike. He’d yell out through the neighborhood “Natto! Natto!” and this became the boy’s alarm clock. Of all the Japanese people I’ve polled on natto, about 30% like it and 70% don’t, but then there are the health benefits. There are unique compounds in natto that are thought to reduce blood clotting and aid in the prevention of Alzheimer’s. I think as more Japanese people age, they will come to acquire a taste for natto. The verdict: I hated it at first, but now when in Japan, I eat it for breakfast over rice and love it mixed with some maguro sashimi. Since it’s perfectly polite to bring the rice bowl up to your face in Japan, you can use this trick to get around the long strings. Try it. It’s good for you.
7 – Blue Cheese – Some people are turned off by classic favorites such as Stilton, Gorgonzola and Danish Blue cheese due to their strong flavors and aromas. But there’s nothing like some Stilton on a cracker with a glass of deep garnet, full-bodied red wine – a Cabernet or Shiraz, perhaps. If you are ever in Paris, try the Roquefort salad at a small place called Le Petit Chatelet right next to Shakespere and Company and across the street from Notre Dame. You can sit at small outdoor tables almost on the sidewalk and watch the people pass by as you enjoy this delightful, simple dish. OK, but how about the health benefits? Cheese is rich in calcium and calcium from food is more effectively absorbed than calcium from a supplement. So take your calcium as food rather than a pill. Sure, there are non-dairy ways to get calcium from food such as kale, broccoli, almonds, sardines and tofu, but cheese is fun. Too much fat is not the best thing, so enjoy this delicacy in moderation (there’s some debate recently about whether fat is the villain that it’s made out to be – a complicated topic that we don’t have time to deal with here yet, but let’s just say you need a little of everything in your diet, so don’t leave out the fats altogether). The verdict: blue cheese in moderation probably won’t change your lifespan one way or another, but if you learn to like it, just think what a wonderful life it will be.
6 – Red Wine – I meet many people, mostly women, who drink only white. It’s true that red wine is chemically more complex than white and may trigger allergies and headaches in some sensitive people (if this is you, don’t despair – there are nine other things to taste on this list)! One thing that distinguishes a truly acquired taste vs. something you simply discover you enjoy, is the work you need to do to discern differences and subtleties. Enjoying wine is about comparing and appreciating the differences in body, color, nose (aroma), fruitiness, tannins, approach (early tastes), finish (what you experience after you swallow), etc. There are endless possibilities; that’s what makes wine fascinating. I’m convinced that some people are turned off by red wine because they were served wine as a cocktail when that particular wine really needed to be paired with food. Drinking some full-bodied reds by themselves can feel like being assaulted by tannins and astringency. Wine-food pairing can completely change the experience. Next time, try drinking with someone who understands wine-food pairing or visit a restaurant with an experienced staff that can advise you. There’s plenty of information on the web on wine-food combinations, although that might take a little experimentation on your part. If you think of wine as food rather than a cocktail, it will greatly enhance your enjoyment besides leading to a healthier habits. If you drink wine only as part of a meal, you’re more likely to be moderate about your drinking and the alcohol will be absorbed more slowly so you’ll be more likely to remember the flavor the next day, week, month…. The verdict: I can’t with good conscience recommend any form of alcohol to everyone. If you already drink, then the health benefits of red wine in moderation have been well publicized. The usual recommendation from the FDA is up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. Consider that each individual is different, so the “right” level might be less for you. In the end, wine can add an extra dimension to meals leading to infinite combinations with food.
5 – Scotch – In Edinburgh Scotland, you can tour the Scotch Whiskey Heritage Museum right in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. Here you learn all about the process and history of Scotch while riding in little oak-barrel train cars. When I took the tour ten years ago, I honestly felt a little silly as an adult sitting in what feels like a kid’s amusement park ride, but I was rewarded at the end with a guided Scotch tasting. This was probably the first time I had tasted decent Scotch. Predictably, it was all lost on me. Although I’m still not a Scotch drinker, I have learned to like it, especially once I heard it does pair well with chocolate. So last night I decided to tested this out with some Aberlour Single Highland Malt (aged 10 years) paired with Vintage Plantations 75% Dark (I know I said I’m not a Scotch drinker, but we bought this bottle for our great uncle Ray to enjoy when he visits and since he lives 2000 miles away, it’s been sitting half-empty on the shelf for six years). What I found was the the chocolate didn’t enhance the Scotch as much as the Scotch enhanced the chocolate. Against the backdrop of the super-dry, grainy Scotch, the chocolate seemed more sweet (despite the 75% cacao content) and some of the fruit notes and fruit acidity sang out louder. It also seemed that the Scotch had a pallet-cleansing effect so that each new bite of chocolate seemed more fresh similar to how eating crackers or bread allows you to taste different wines without getting your tongue too confused. The verdict: again, I can’t recommend alcohol to those who don’t already drink it. If you drink Scotch, try it with chocolate.
4 – Grappa – I have to commend the Italians for being frugal. I’ve always wondered if grappa was invented like this: some wine maker got tired of throwing away all of the skins, seeds, twigs and other fibrous matter left after pressing the grapes and said: “hey, how about we distill these dregs and make a sort of brandy at about 75-120 proof. We can put the clear liquid into fancy tall bottles and charge a lot of money.” Huh? Have you ever tasted this stuff? I can be rough. Wait, remember that acquired tastes are about finding the nuances and comparing the differences among food and libations. In the case of grappa, one can, in theory, discern the variations in grape variety and flavor though all that alcohol and heat. There was a grappa craze sometime around 1995 and I tried repeatedly to like this drink since it was a cousin of wine. No luck. Some of you out there may love this grappa – let’s call it a cult following, but I’ve decided to pass. The verdict – if you are not already a grappa lover, I see no reason to start.
3 – Coffee – one clear test of an acquired taste is to ask the question, would most children like this food or drink? If the answer is no, you’re probably faced with an acquired taste. I once offered a 12 year old some chocolate-covered espresso beans (upon her urging). She immediately spit it out onto her plate as her face went into contortions. Case closed. Yet, coffee is obviously wildly popular among adults and people go to great lengths to satisfy their personal preferences. Those nuances of flavor again. A quintessential acquired taste. The Verdict: Coffee is in the top 3 for a reason. I can’t argue against it’s ubiquity around the world. Just don’t over-do it with the caffeine.
2 – Dark Chocolate – You knew this would show up somewhere on the list, right? But why should it be an acquired taste? Like with red wine, I still fine many people who stay in the comfort of the milk-chocolate arena. If this is you, consider starting out small – try some 50% or 60% dark and see if there is something you like there. The health benefits of dark chocolate have been much publicized in the last few years including the discovery that dark chocolate is high in disease-fighting antioxidants. If you eat chocolate with a high cacao content (say over 70%), you will get more of the desirable favinoids and less sugar. I decided to practice what I preach and push my own limits by trying some Lindt Excellence 90% Cocoa Supreme Dark. Ninety percent! Check out the deep dark color in the photo. It’s intense but smooth. Almost no sweetness to be found really, just some creaminess from the cocoa butter and hint of vanilla (contains vanilla beans). I’ve had Lindt’s 99% bar too. In my opinion, this last one is best used as a topping on ice cream or other treats. Update: Theo Chocolate has a great 91% cacao bar that’s organic and single-origin Costa Rica. Surely this will be the target of a future tasting and post. The Verdict: slowly eat your way up the % cacao scale and you will find fantastic full favors and experience a greater diversity of chocolate styles.
1 – You tell me – what’s your #1 acquired taste?
Remember that aquiring a taste is not pretending that you like something because it’s trendy or your friends enjoy it. It’s about searching for diversity of flavors that you eventually find rewarding. Try something new and most of all, enjoy the search.
Disclosures: I paid for this chocolate myself.