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On Food: An unfamiliar food might be tasty or terrible, but there’s no way to know without trying

On Food: An unfamiliar food might be tasty or terrible, but there’s no way to know without trying

At our recent Culinary R&D conference in Los Angeles, a sponsor asked me if there was any food I wouldn’t try.

In this age of the fussy eater, when people tout like badges of honor their determination not to eat red meat, their disdain for mollusks, their sensitivity to tree fruit, I maintain my determination to try any food that is put in front of me.

Obviously if consuming an ingredient will make a person double over in agony, they should avoid it. If an allergy to it is so severe that it will make individuals swell up and die, they should take a pass. If it’s important to keep a dietary tradition that a culture has maintained for generations, I suppose that’s what a person has to do. But otherwise, I don’t understand the drive so many people have to restrict what they eat.

I prefer to view chefs as artists, and to enjoy their performances unfettered. Can you imagine going to a concert and asking the conductor not to use the flutes?

“The high pitch hurts my ears,” you might say.

Would you go to a museum exhibit and say you’d prefer not to see anything with the color blue in it?

I said something like that to the supplier, and he said something like: “Yes, all right, but is there anything you wouldn’t eat twice?”

I don’t think there are. But there are plenty of things I wouldn’t eat three times.

Back when I lived in Bangkok, Thailand, I took a trip to the northeastern Thai province of Sakon Nakhon specifically to sample dog.

I hired a motorcycle taxi driver to take me around the town of Tha Rae to the dog merchants, but he also took me to the home of his brother, who had just whipped up a batch of salted, roasted beetle.

“How do you eat them?” I asked my guide.

“With your teeth,” he said, like I’d asked him to explain how feet and walking went together.

I avoided the big bulging beetles, but I tried some smaller ones, which were salty and crunchy on the outside, but mushy on the inside.

Two was enough.

Then there was the trip to Iceland when I tried a national “delicacy” called hákarl. To make it, they bury large chunks of shark in the surf for six to eight weeks and then hang them for another six to eight weeks.

Sharks have an unusual way of keeping themselves from dehydrating in the salty ocean water. They saturate their flesh with urea, the same substance that is in urine. By burying the flesh in salty ground and then hanging it, the urea concentrates. Taste it, and you wonder if someone peed on it.

I tried hákarl twice because I couldn’t believe how bad it was the first time.

I was a guest in a sushi restaurant in Niigata, Japan, where they honored us by serving us salted shrimp brain—ganglia really, as shrimp don’t have brains. It was just a little bit, smaller than a pea, poised at one end of a nigiri-sized lozenge of sushi rice, but wow. How, I wondered, could so much salty fishiness be found in such a small place?

I was one of two Western journalists at the sushi restaurant and the other, a beverage writer, looked at me and said, “I can’t.”

Of course we couldn’t insult our hosts, and so I ate his, too. Chased with ice-cold saké, it actually wasn’t bad the second time.

But I don’t need to try it a third time.

There’s a Southeast Asian fruit called durian that is banned in Singaporean subways. It smells like an open sewer and tastes like sweetened sulfur.

I’ve had it unadulterated twice. I’ve also had it one or two other times in ice cream, but not on purpose.

I’ve had dog twice.

There’s a Japanese ingredient of fermented soybean called natto. The beans are stuck together by thin strands that I swear look like human saliva. Just thinking of it, I have to wipe the corners of my mouth.

I’ve had it twice.

And right up there with all of those is raw tomato.

But I can’t stop twice at raw tomatoes. I have to eat them again and again because when a chef sends out a lovingly prepared plate of freshly picked heirloom tomatoes in season, I can’t just nibble politely. I have to finish them or insult the chef.

Where’s a salty shrimp ganglion when you need one?

Read more from Bret Thorn

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