When I was visiting Shanghai, I learned to avoid a certain alley on my walk to the underground system. It always smelled incredibly, almost unbelievably bad – like there was an open sewer on the sidewalk. But I could never see any evidence of the smell's source. And then one day, I realised where it was coming from. It was the scent of the bustling snack shop at the alley's entrance. Their specialty: chou doufu, tofu fermented for months in a slurry of meat, vegetables, and sour milk.
For many Westerners like me, it's hard to believe you could get the stuff anywhere near your mouth without gagging. But the shop had a long, long line. And I've since learned that many Chinese people have the same feeling of disgust when they consider the habit of eating cheese.
Though eating dairy is becoming more widespread in China these days, letting milk go bad and then adding salt and extra bacteria into the mix still sounds pathological. Even very mild cheeses like cheddar or jack cheese are considered basically inedible, it seems – melting them on bread can help, but they rank very low on the taste totem pole, my Chinese friends tell me.
Such strong differences of opinion about what's delicious and what's disgusting crop up whenever you begin to compare the way different cultures eat. Is Vegemite something you look forward to slathering on your toast in the morning? Or is it a salty, bitter mess that “tastes like someone tried to make food and failed horribly”, as one American child reported? Is beef tripe a savoury street food best eaten over noodles, or inedible rubber, tainted with a whiff of the latrine?
In a sense, these contrasts shouldn't be that surprising: we learn from those around us what's worth eating and what should be avoided, and those categories vary between regions. But somehow, the reminder that taste is so very relative, and so very learned, never fails to shock.
In trying to characterise the broad differences between cultures' palates, nutritionists refer to sets of tastes that they rely on – the spices and flavourings that feel like home. The combination of tomato, garlic, oregano, and olive oil feels distinctively Italian, and a dish with dried shrimp, chilli peppers, ginger, and palm oil feels Brazilian. For Germans, it’s dill, sour cream, mustard, vinegar and black pepper. Chinese: soy sauce, rice wine, and ginger. Those tastes seem to describe a safe zone for eating.
Chinese tourists in Australia, surveyed on their meal preferences, remarked that eating non-Chinese food was often unsatisfying. “I hope I can have soy sauce,” remarked one study participant. “Then, even if I can’t stand the food, I can add some soy sauce to go with the rice.” When foreign ingredients were cooked in a Chinese style, they felt better.
But these are general categories, describing what's most comfortable, not what's edible. At the more extreme end, cultural variations do sometimes describe a wholly different mode of understanding what makes food good. Fuchsia Dunlop, who writes about Chinese food and cooking, points out in her memoir Sharks' Fin and Sichuan Pepper that quite large realms of Chinese gastronomy have little intrinsic appeal to even an adventurous Western palate. Goose intestine and sea cucumbers, for instance, when cooked just right, have no flavour and a texture like rubber tubing.
然而，这只是笼统的分类，描述的是令各种文化最舒心的味道，而不是他们所能下咽的食物。从更加极端的角度来看，文化差异有时候描述的是一整套对美食的理解模式。曾经撰写中国饮食和烹饪方法的伏霞·邓禄普(Fuchsia Dunlop)在她的回忆录《鱼翅和四川辣椒》(Sharks' Fin and Sichuan Pepper)中指出，中餐里面有很多食材的做法令人望而却步，就算是某些颇具冒险精神的西方文化，也难以认同这些口味。例如，鹅肠和海参就是典型的例子，这两种食材完全没有任何味道，口感更是像皮筋一样劲道。
Yet sea cucumber is a delicacy that can cost more than $100 (£70) each and at least some of that has to do with the fact that people genuinely enjoy it. Dunlop puts her finger on one particular factor in all this: “The sea cucumber itself only makes sense,” she writes, “in textural terms.” She goes on to describe the importance of ‘mouthfeel’ in Chinese cuisine and the kaleidoscope of words for what English speakers can only call “rubbery” or “gelatinous”.
“A Chinese gourmet will distinguish between the bouncy gelatinous quality of sea cucumbers, the more sticky, slimy gelatinousness of reconstituted dried squid, and the chewy gelatinousness of reconstituted pig's foot tendons,” she writes. You can certainly learn to enjoy such foods primarily for their texture, as Dunlop herself has. But there is no denying that it's not the first thing on a Western gourmet's lips.
A matter of taste
As lighthearted as comparing tastes across cultures can be, there is more at stake than entertainment. Finding that what someone else consumes with abandon you cannot even bring to pass your lips can open a kind of void between you. “The difference between the realms of edible and palatable is perhaps most clearly seen in how we use them to evaluate other eaters,” writes food folklorist Lucy Long in her book Culinary Tourism. “The eater of not-edible is perceived as strange, perhaps dangerous, definitely not one of us, whereas the eater of the unpalatable is seen as having different tastes.”
虽然对比不同的文化的确颇具娱乐性，但实际上，除了娱乐之外，还有一些更加重要的问题有待探索。如果你发现自己难以入口的东西却是他人眼中的美食，那就有可能在你们之间形成某种隔阂。“在我们评判其他食客时，‘可以食用’与‘美味可口’之间的差异便会显露无疑。”饮食民俗学者露西·朗(Lucy Long)在她的《烹饪之旅》(Culinary Tourism)一书中写道，“如果我们认为某种事物不可食用，那么当其他人敢于吃这样的东西时，我们就会认为此人很奇怪，甚至有点危险，至少与我们不是同类。然而，如果我们认为某种东西不够美味，那么当其他人吃这些东西时，我们只会认为此人与自己口味不同。”
Perhaps that void can be bridged if we confront the fact that a lot of what we hold dear is not particularly natural. For instance, the current thinking is that bitter taste receptors evolved to warn us off bitter things, which can be poisonous. New babies have an immediate negative response to bitter tastes, a far cry from their response to sweet things. And yet, many people have learned to drink coffee every day, and dark chocolate's a favourite for gourmets.
Charles Zuker, a biologist who researches taste receptors at Columbia University, has said that he thinks that our current taste for bitter foods comes from a search for excitement and novelty – perhaps even danger. Paul Rozin, a psychologist who studies what he calls “benign masochism,” lumps bitterness in with hot peppers and watching movies that make you cry. All of these things fool your body into thinking it's in peril, but you get a special kick out of knowing consciously that no harm can come of it.
专门研究味觉受体的哥伦比亚大学教授查尔斯·扎克(Charles Zucker)曾经表示，我们现在之所以喜欢吃苦味食物，是为了寻找刺激感和新鲜感，甚至危机感。心理学家保罗·罗津(Paul Rozin)称之为“良性受虐”。他认为，有的人喜欢吃苦味食物，还有的人喜欢吃辣椒，更有一些人专门去看让人落泪的电影，这其实都源自相同的心态。这些事情都会让你的身体误认为它们是危险的，但你却知道这不会构成任何伤害，因而可以从中获得独特的感受。
Many tourists already sample foreign cuisines while they travel. But could more extreme taste tourism become possible in the future? Would you go on a tour where you intentionally ate things that seemed absurd at the get-go?
Maybe a Thrill-of-the-Month club model would have more success; if you ate one odd new thing for a few days every month, you might surprise yourself at what can become normal, and perhaps even tasty.
It might give you cause to reflect, as you watch someone else enjoying a meal you'd turn away, on the enormous plasticity of human taste and that the same species can gleefully eat stinky tofu and Vegemite and sea cucumber and even – horror for our Chinese friends – cheese.