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  • Zoya B.

Language, Texture, and Taste

I had an ex-boyfriend who fancied himself a gourmand but was one of the pickiest, fussiest eaters I have met in my time. Everything had to be smooth, creamy, and fully edible. Expensive ingredients reigned—despite both of us both having very little money for grass fed meats and organic vegetables—and cooking was always in service of bringing out the natural flavors of the food. My stuffed cabbage had "too many strong tastes" going on. Our Drunken Noodles takeout was "so spicy it hid all the other flavors." Cilantro "ruined" any dish. And yes, he was white, with some kind of Anglo Christian background (in case you had any doubt).

I remember bringing home a pomegranate for a salad, and his negative reaction to it—how do I eat this? What do I do with this? Are you going to remove the seeds?—made no sense to me. Why doesn't this special seasonal fruit, imbued with flavor, texture, and symbolism, appeal to him? (There may be a Freudian answer here, but I won't go there). If you remove the seeds from the pomegranate, there isn't anything left!

For me, the texture of pomegranate seeds is desirable. They add crunch like nuts and pop like fish roe. Their bright color brings life to any dish they garnish. Aside from their culinary merits, they also hold the symbolic qualities of representing the new year, the harvest, and fertility. They are one of the seven species of the land of Israel. It became clear throughout our relationship that his distaste for spice and grit, for learning to enjoy new flavors and textures, for appreciating food the supremacy of French-influenced "New American" cuisine, expressed a fear of difference, including me. I was too sour, bitter, gritty, spicy, wild, "exotic."

I share this story as an entry to a discussion about the ways that the English language and its White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP), Puritan origins in the United States has shaped the ways that Americans approach many food textures and tastes with negative biases. Though my knowledge of languages is limited to English, Russian, and some Hebrew, even this limited diversity of food language has shown me that language frames the way we recognize and appreciate taste. For example, Russian distinguishes between pleasant sour taste from tart fruits and fermentation (кислый, kisliy), something that has become overly sour or "turned" (прокисший, prokisliy), as well as a separate word for sourness of leavened things (квашеный, kvasheniy).

Sour has a negative connotation in English. Though tart tastes are popular as a balance to sweetness, as in cocktails and berries, "sour" comes with all the baggage of describing negative moods and attitudes and the idea that something has "gone bad." "Tart" is a more gentle word, specifically used for sweet-sour fruits. The single word "sour" encompasses the taste and smell of: vinegars, lemons, limes, cranberries, pickles, kimchi, kefir, yogurt, rotten meat, rotten milk, and sourdough bread. It is mostly appreciated when combined with sweet tastes. Yes, Russians love their sour fermented tastes. So do Chinese, Indonesians, Filipinos, Koreans, Burmese, Lao—the list goes on. Salty-sour is of course the primary taste of most pickled things. It is common in many southeast Asian countries to eat young fruit that is still sour, treating it more like a vegetable. Hot and sour combinations figure prominently in Indonesian, Chinese, Taiwanese, and Korean cuisine. In Myanmar, the national dish is made from fermented tea leaves, which have an incredible sour-bitter-umami taste unlike any American ferments I have had.

Bitter is another word and taste framed negatively in English. It is used to describe negative emotions and extremely cold winters in addition to forceful flavors. Coffee and tea are bitter tastes that have found their way into Anglo-American palates. But it is shocking to me how averse many people are to foods as common as eggplant due to their "bitter" taste. I will admit here that I think I have a genetic predisposition to enjoy, or not recognize, bitter tastes except in the most extreme examples like wormwood and bitter melon (which I still enjoy). Some foods described as bitter: bitter melon, eggplant, caraway, galangal, turmeric, licorice, anise, fennel, radishes, turnips, grapefruit, ginger, liver, artichokes, raw onions, mustard greens, gin, horseradish, arugula, radicchio, endive, cilantro. In France, there is a strong appreciation for bitter lettuces. Turnips and radishes are eaten quite commonly, often fermented, in many cuisines including Russian, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cuisine. Eggplant is a favorite vegetable across the Middle East, Central Asia, and Southern Europe. Jews from all over seem to love eggplant. Bitter melon, which has a very pronounced bitter flavor, is eaten in many Central, East, and Southeast Asian cuisines. Eastern and Northern europeans love their bitter-infused liquor—Swedish Besk and Aquavit, Czech Becherovka. Cilantro and raw onions, as well as chocolate as a savory ingredient, are intrinsic to the flavors of Mexican food. In Spain, France, and Italy, you'll find all forms of bitter vermouths, amaros, digestifs, and aperitifs. Bitter tastes are so common to many cherished foods across cultures, but the quality they share is framed as undesirable in English language and the American cultural context. "Too bitter" is one of the most common complaints I hear about foods.

Slimy is a truly repulsive word used to describe creepy crawlies and all things yucky. Yet English does not really have a word for things with a pleasantly slimy mouth feel. Glutinous and slippery come close, but they aren't quite apt—slimy is something between the two, both sticky and slippery at the same time. Slimy foods include: okra, eggplant, phoenix claws (chicken feet), steamed pork belly, tteok (rice cakes), lychee, boba, caviar, raw fish, tapioca, pudding, custard, starch-thickened sauces, zucchini, udon, oysters, tendon, escargot, gefilte fish, jello/aspic, seaweed, mushrooms, silken tofu. "Slimy" seems like a particularly difficult culinary attribute for Americans to appreciate unless they grew up eating them. Like "sour," it seems that "slimy" is more palatable if is it sweet than if it is savory. Many food cultures don't just tolerate slimy textures—they relish them. I grew up eating lots of eggplant and mushrooms, and it was a bit surprising to me to learn that some people consider the texture too slimy. So much of what we enjoy about food has to do with familiarity. I wasn't crazy about seaweed or oysters when I first had them, but I learned to enjoy their natural textures. And if you are totally fine with mussels but cringe at the idea of snails or conch, think about why that is. Then eat some snails.

Chewy is another word that often connotes a poorly cooked or otherwise undesirable piece of meat but that is prized among some culinary traditions. Some "chewy" foods are: cold chicken, skin-on pork, toffee, tteok, mochi, tripe, concord grapes, some varieties of mushrooms, Turkish delight, conch, abalone, snails, glass noodles. I will also add "takes work to eat"as part of this category because I think the aversion comes from the inability to enjoy the pleasure and/or messiness of working through food. My beloved pomegranate seeds are not chewy, per se, but you have to chew the seeds after you have already eaten the soft fruit. Artichokes require a peel, eat, and discard process. So do bone-in meats, small fruits with pits, olives, sunflower seeds, pistachios. Perhaps some people do not like to be reminded that the plants and meats we eat were not created solely as a food source. Having refuse at the table, not knowing what to do with it, putting food in your mouth and then removing it, and making noise when you eat are at odds with the Puritan heritage of British/American politeness. I argue that these acts prolong the social aspect of dining and create a level of intimacy built around that. Table manners are culturally constructed, and in the US, that is at the expense of cultures that spit out parts of their food, that make noise when they eat, that eat with their hands, etc.

Even if you never develop a taste for phoenix claws, I ask you to consider how you ascertain culinary quality. What foods are you used to eating? What do you aspire to achieve with your cooking? What do you look for in a positive culinary experience? What qualities are desirable in food, and what qualities are undesirable? How can we change our approaches to food and eating and learn to appreciate tastes and textures beyond what we are familiar with and/or what the cultures around us have conditioned us to value?

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