"Time to Taste the World": thoughts on expanding my food tastes as an adult

This evening, right after work, I attended an event called “Time to Taste the World”, organized by Carnegie Mellon University’s Modern Languages Student Advisory Council for the Department of Modern Languages. It was an informal event featuring some food selections followed by a German film that I opted not to watch, since I needed to go home.

There were three tables of food, one for “Asian”, another for “Mediterranean”, and another for “European”. Obviously, only a very tiny fraction of the world was actually represented in this event, and the selections were mostly not very exciting, but it was interesting and even jarring going from one table to another.

Mediterranean

Asian

European

Note that standard CMU catering cookies were also provided.

I did try a bit of everything, including stuff I less frequently encounter. Unexpectedly, the experience of hopping from one table to another, and sampling every single item, led me to reflect on how unfamiliar some of these items were to me until later in life, and how my taste in food has expanded considerably in my 30s and 40s.

Linking my history of eating to “Time to Taste the World”

Most of what I like to eat now is what I never ate or knew existed before I was 30 years old.

This probably goes against most people’s eating histories, but heck, I’m a late bloomer, because for various reasons, I had very limited life experiences until my 30s and even more so, my 40s.

For fun, I decided to think back about when it was that I first ate or even encountered, each of the items I sampled in “Time to Taste the World”.

Mediterranean table

Pita bread: OK, I suppose I probably encountered this first in college, when the dorm cafeteria provided it and I used it to eat with tuna fish.

Grape leaves stuffed with rice: first time encountered and eaten was as a grad student at CMU in 1997, age 27, from Sree’s food truck, actually.

Hummus: also discovered in Pittsburgh upon arrival in 1997.

Baba ghanoush: also discovered in Pittsburgh upon arrival in 1997.

Today, I still love grape leaves and hummus. Baba ghanoush I still find a bit harsh and biting, but happily eat it in small quantities at a time. By the way, I should note that I discovered olive oil in 1997 also. At first its strong taste and appearance were confusing to me, but I got used to them, and have been using olive oil since as part of my everyday cooking, in fact.

Asian table

OK, my parents were immigrants from Taiwan, so these foods have never been unfamiliar to me!

Spring rolls: my mother makes them sometimes, and of course much better than the commercial frozen ones.

Chicken wings: some of my favorite childhood food memories involve my mother’s chicken wings with soy sauce and ginger. Still my favorite flavor of wings!

Noodle dishes: again, my mother makes this stuff.

Note that our initial food tastes are actually formed in the womb.

European table

OK, this is the stuff that I’m least familiar with, find overall least appealing, and still encounter surprises.

There was some gorgonzola cheese appetizer thing that I’ve had before, and I had some here, but it’s not really my thing. I don’t think I ever ate something like this until my 30s. The taste and texture is interesting. Not my favorite thing to eat, but I could have a little bit now and then.

There was also prosciutto wrapped around some cheesy stuff, something I think I never tried until my 40s. Again, it still tastes weird to me, but I can eat it if I have to. It’s not revolting.

The main thing is that I have historically fundamentally disliked all dairy. I emerged into the world seemingly hating milk: I don’t like the taste, I don’t like the smell. I was forced to drink milk as a toddler and basically accepted that I was supposed to drink it, and that it was the only thing to go with cereal, so I tolerated it all the way till I went to college. Then in freshman year in college, I came down with severe puzzling health problems, and finally found out by accident (upon missing breakfast for a couple of days) that cutting out my usual breakfast cereal with milk completely solved my problems: I was simply lactose intolerant. I cut down significantly on dairy consumption (which for me was only milk for cereal, and cheese on pizza).

At some point in my late 30s, I found that my lactose intolerance had let up, and with care I could eat some forms of dairy without having problems. Cheese on pizza is OK, if it’s not “extra thick”. Cheese in a serving of lasagna is typically not OK, in the quantities provided. Also, in my late 30s I began developing a taste for hard cheeses, which smell less bad to me, and happen to also have far less lactose, and so I do enjoy eating some hard cheeses occasionally: my favorite is Gruy√®re.

There is some food awkwardness at home, because I’m married to Abby, who comes from the dairy-loving peoples. I’m perpetually having to tolerate the odor of dairy of all kinds at home. This is quite difficult for me, but such is life.

Notes on more recent food adventures

I explored a tremendous amount of new food when I went vegetarian (for several months) at age 29, and got serious for the first time in my life, about cooking for myself. All kinds of bean, lentils, unfamiliar nuts, spices, herbs, vegetables such as kale, etc. Although I didn’t stay vegetarian long, that phase of my life resulted in the biggest explosion in my food taste diversity ever.

However, I didn’t even touch beets until my mid-30s, when I was “forced” to because they came in my farm subscription box. A whole bunch of other unfamiliar vegetables have come my way through my annual subscription since I began it. The latest was celeriac, which I had never even heard of until it started showing up in our farm box last year. I figured out stuff to do with it, and I like it! It’s fantastic continuing to discover new stuff to cook and eat. Life is not boring.

I’m even learning to eat Brussels sprouts. My initial experiences in my 30s made me want to vomit, but there are ways to cook these to make them much more palatable, and in the past couple of years, I have enough tolerable experiences that I can see myself trying them more.

Cookies

I did eat some cookies at the event, but only three, in accordance with my recent findings about how many I should eat at a time.

Cookie 1

Cookie 2

Cookie 3

Conclusion

It’s never too late to try new foods. You might be surprised and enjoy something new. And if you don’t like it, you don’t have to keep eating it.

I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to try new foods now and then, and add to my enjoyment of life.

Many thanks to the Modern Languages Department at CMU for sponsoring this little event! I hope many of the students attending it got some exposure to new foods that they will remember for the rest of their lives.

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