I find food aversions frustrating and curious things. The different examples of deep distaste for ingredients and types of cooking represent, in my mind, ill-fated afflictions that people weirdly cherish and champion. These personal scars, often grounded in some unfortunate incident in their childhood, produce intriguing and ridiculous backstories that would not hold up in rational conversation, and yet are still respected and accepted as a matter of fact. It is a rare occurrence indeed, for me to acknowledge a food aversion as something more than a mental food block or a childish tantrum.
Saying this, however, I find it equally bonkers for someone to say that they love and appreciate all food. The first thought I have when anyone makes such generalisations is to ask them what they’ve tried, whereabouts they have come to experience all the world’s cookery, and then to explain, for instance, that a katsu curry is not all of what constitutes cooked Japanese cuisine. In an age of snap judgements and blitzkrieg oversimplification, we should not be surprised that the same disease has infected the global food culture. There are some who claim to have tasted sushi because they’ve picked up a tray of ‘sushi’ at Tescos, to know Mexican food because they’ve made Old Eld Paso fajitas, or to have eaten the best of Caribbean food because they’ve been to Turtle Bay. The desire to be cultured and in the know comes before true experience and actual due diligence, which is a pity because these places that introduce multicultural cuisines do not consistently, if ever, bear the responsibility of authenticity and honest flavour well enough.
To eat a tikka masala, a korma or a rogan jhosh does not justifiably give you the right to pass judgement on a gargantuan culture of food with a myriad different dishes and styles of cookery. Imagine the ignorance of saying you do not like Chinese food after only ever having Chinese takeaway. Have you ventured far beyond sweet and sour chicken, curry sauce, chips and chow mein? If your local takeaway is shite, have you tried others? Has anyone told you that Chinese cuisine is just as much a multiverse as Indian food is? That the country has eight regional cuisines from the Sichuan to the Shandong, and that is even before I mention their combined flavours with places like India, Malaysia, Singapore and other parts of the world during migrations? It is actually rather insane, the vastness and scope of it all.
I’ve been watching this incredible show on Netflix called Flavourful Origins as a sort of morning meditation. It is a docuseries about the food and culinary traditions of the Teochow people of Chaoshan, China, a place I didn’t even know existed, but whose food inspires and interests me. Some of the stuff on there, I must admit, does not look particularly attractive, but I find myself growing even more curious when I acknowledge that the thought of eating fermented bean paste makes my stomach shrivel and the idea of deep-fried oranges exceedingly odd. Such instances are important to think about because understanding why we feel certain things, both negative and positive, towards food even before ever trying it may help us unlock doors into more profound personal discoveries.
Much of what we feel about food comes from social learning, from what our friends and family felt about food growing up. We react against and subscribe to the different eating habits of those around us in an attempt to be rebellious or to conform to the status quo. Some vegans become so because of their families’ blatant disregard for the sources of meat they so disrespectfully devour; some become adventurous or cautious with new food after having grown up only eating spag bols, roast dinners and shepherds pies their whole life; and there are others who cannot fathom moving beyond the spices and sauces of their cuisine to try recipes that valorise simplicity and the essence of individual ingredients over complexity. It goes broader still, because there are whole cultures and societies that eat in strict accordance with the restrictions of their religion and social customs. Their palates adapt to these traditions of eating, becoming familiar and comfortable with even the most unconventional of things, to the extent that, as V. Greenwood writes, even nauseatingly malodorous fermented tofu becomes a delicacy and something as prevalent in the western world as cheddar cheese may astonishingly evoke thoughts of abomination. Different aspects of cuisine are exhorted and maligned by different cultures, and the gaps between each tribe can be reason enough for separation and alienation. It is hard to look at someone who delights in something you find unpalatable without a feeling a sense of otherness, especially if they look dissimilar and have divergent beliefs.
Stepping closer, focusing the lens a little, the aversions of people have been studied to the nth degree: Neophobia (fear of newness) in children, that sometimes remains well into adulthood, is an innate disposition that protects against the dangers of an unknown natural environment but also falsely vilifies nutritious and tasty ingredients that do not look particularly appetising. As aforementioned, claustrophobic culinary customs in social bubbles hinder exposure to culinary variety for the sake of cultural self-preservation and self-righteousness. Food experiences are riddled with mistaken associations, where for example, you attribute the reason of your upset tummy to a gloriously succulent oyster because you didn’t realise you ate some undercooked chicken earlier in the day, or worse still, you start to hate hummus because you were eating a bowl full when your pet parrot passed away. Scientific inquiry suggests that disliking sour, bitter and spicy flavours is natural not only because they do not naturally cling to sensibilities like savouriness and sweetness, but also because poisons tend to be bitter and ill-tasting. Our imaginations exacerbate the issue by creating distorted examples of what a dish might taste like in our minds, despite the fact our library of taste is limited and we have no real idea what certain combinations of flavour and mouthfeel might actually be like. Often times we mistakenly brainwash ourselves into repugnance.
Inclinations towards specific cuisines and foods behave similarly. We imbue the most simple and rustic of dishes with heaps of nostalgia and positive emotion that such ordinary dishes like ratatouilles and grilled cheeses are transformed into instances spectacular. When a group of people we admire start to drink their coffee black, and wax poetically about acquired tastes, some of us might find it in us to will ourselves into enjoying a beverage we previously considered liquid death – and then realise after a while that perhaps it was not so bad after all. Exposure has always been the key to escaping the clutches of food aversion but it is rarely a simple process. Some palates are more open to experience than others, and despite their surroundings and influences, have a strong desire for gastronomic wandering and adventure. They are willing to try everything once and approach the exploration of cooking with an open mind -these are my people.
I sympathise with eaters who are picky and find it difficult to find things they want to eat. I cannot understand those who only eat for nutrition, and not for the hedonistic ecstasy I chase for in every plate of food. There are those as well who have formed this irritating and masochistic infatuation with their culinary aversions such that any attempt at broadening their horizons are doomed to failure – too much energy is wasted on them. While it should be clear by now that I comprehend the individual nature of experience and how something as seemingly innocuous as mood and the weather can adversely taint one’s relationship with food, I will always encourage people to take baby steps towards newness and the uncomfortable. There are so many incredible, life-altering and thrillingly orgasmic tastes and textures waiting for us just beyond the veil of aversion that it is one of life’s tragedies that some will never be brave enough to pull it aside and walk right through.
**I would recommend the following articles as a deeper dive into the nuances of food aversion. These were some eye-opening resources: