By Veronique Greenwood
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 Shark's 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.
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.
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."
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.
1. alley: 小巷，小街。
2. sewer: 下水道；sidewalk: 人行道。
3. scent: 气味；bustling: 热闹的，喧闹的。
4.他们的招牌菜是臭豆腐，就是把豆腐放在肉、菜和发酸的牛奶的混合液中发酵几个月。ferment: 发酵；slurry: 浆体。
5. gag: 作呕。
6. disgust: 嫌恶。
7. dairy: 奶制品；bacteria: 细菌；pathological: 病态的。
8. 我的一位中国朋友告诉我，似乎连口味非常清淡的奶酪（如切达奶酪或蒙特利杰克奶酪）都让人觉得难以下咽。把奶酪抹在面包上似乎好一点儿，但尝起来还是不太好吃。mild: 淡味的；inedible: 不能吃的；totem pole: 等级。
9. disgusting: 令人厌恶的，动词原形为上文的disgust；crop up: 突然发生或出现。
10. Vegemite: 咸味酱，是澳大利亚特色酵母将；slather: 厚厚地涂抹。
11. beef tripe: 牛肚；savoury: 可口的，开胃的；rubber: 橡胶；taint: 使沾染；whiff: 一阵气味；latrine: 公共厕所。
12. category: 分类。
14. characterize: 描述……的特征，描绘；palate: 味觉；nutritionist: 营养学家；spice / flavouring: 香料，调味品。
15. garlic: 大蒜；oregano: 牛至，可用做调味品；olive oil: 橄榄油；distinctively: 特别地；dried shrimp: 干虾；chilli pepper: 红辣椒；ginger: 姜；palm oil: 棕榈油。
16. dill: 莳萝，外表似茴香，多用做佐料调味；mustard: 芥末；vinegar: 醋；black pepper: 黑胡椒。
17. soy sauce: 酱油；rice wine: 米酒。
18. ingredient: 原料，成分。
19. variation: 变化。
20. memoir: 回忆录；shark's fin: 鱼翅；realm: 领域，范围；gastronomy: 烹饪法；intrinsic: 本质的，固有的。
21. goose intestine: 鹅肠；sea cucumber: 海参；texture: 质地，口感；tubing: 管子。
22. delicacy: 佳肴。
23. put one's finger on: 明确指出。
24. mouthfeel: 口感；cuisine: 烹饪，菜肴；kaleidoscope: 千变万化；gelatinous: 胶状的。
25. gourmet: 美食家；bouncy: 有弹性的；slimy: 黏滑的；reconstituted: 再造的，这里指加工过的；squid: 鱿鱼；chewy: 难嚼的；foot tendon: 蹄筋。
26. lighthearted: 随意的，漫不经心的；at stake: 利害攸关。
27. 了解哪些食物是别人大快朵颐而你却避之唯恐不及，可以将你们区分开来。with abandon: 尽情地，恣意地；void: 空间，空隙。
28. palatable: 美味的，下句中unpalatable为其反义词；evaluate: 评估；folklorist: 民俗学者；culinary: 烹饪的。
29. plasticity: 可塑性；gleefully: 快乐地；stinky: 发臭