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A Man’s Taste Buds

by Jon Stonger on 22 November 2009


Describing a man’s taste in food is simple if you follow the stereotypes.  Men like large slabs of meat cooked over a fire, with some form of potato nearby and a beer to wash it down.

There are a few problems with this.  While a steak on the grill is a great place to start, it’s certainly not the only food that I enjoy.  Secondly, that description of a manly meal isn’t even close in other parts of the world.

Living in Korea, one thing that is immediately noticeable is the difference in food.  Much of Korean food is spicy, with red chili peppers being a common ingredient.  Kimchi, the national dish, comes in many varieties, but is usually based off fermented cabbage and red pepper.

Koreans love kimchi so much, that they took it with them when they fought in Vietnam.  More recently, they took it to space.

After millions of dollars and years of research, South Korean scientists successfully engineered kimchi and nine other Korean recipes fit for space travel.

The other space food Koreans created include the national instant noodle called ramyeon, hot pepper paste, fermented soybean soup and sticky rice.

As a long time consumer of meat and potatoes, adapting to a completely different range of flavors and textures has been a challenge.  I notice that even when Korean restaurants serve Western food, they still do it with a Korean style.

Of course, the same thing is true for foreign food in America.  Anyone who has been to Italy can tell you that Italian food is not the same in Italy and the United States.  The same is true of food in China.  You won’t often find chicken’s feet and fried duck’s head on the menu in America, and I didn’t once see Egg Foo Young in Beijing.  The same is probably true in Mexico (I’ll find out one day).

As we become more global, we import more and more foods from around the world.  Each culture then takes the new foods and changes them, to suit the local palate.

Are human taste buds really that different from region to region?  I always knew taste was personal, but there seems to be a cultural element to it as well.

Here’s another example.  Almost every country I’ve lived in seems to have one food that the locals love that I just don’t.  In Spain, they had a ham called jamon serrano, which reminded me of ham jerky.  It wasn’t bad in small doses; the locals build footlong sandwiches with it.  In Korea, they have kimchi, the indispensable national dish, served with every meal.  I’m not a fan; they took it to space.  In Turkey, they have a drink called ayran, which is a yogurt drink, mixed with salt.  Locals love it; I can barely drink it, even though Turkish is one of my favorite cuisines.

On the other hand, the few foreigners I’ve talked to who have tried peanut butter react in much the same way: they don’t like it.  To me, peanut butter is one of the tastiest foods on the planet, and one (along with macaroni and cheese) that I miss the most when I’m overseas (although they have it in Korea, which is nice).  Americans love peanut butter; much of the world does not.

How can anyone not love peanut butter and macaroni and cheese?  On the other hand, how can anyone love jamon serrano or ayran or kimchi or any of the hundreds of other local delicacies that make traveling such a culinary adventure?

And then I found the answer, oddly enough, while reading an article about the eating habits of children.

Ever wonder why some youngsters approach food as an adventure and others insist on mono-meals of mac ‘n’ cheese? Turns out kiddie palates don’t happen by accident. Studies show that children prefer the flavors they experience early on, including while they’re in the womb.

That makes sense.  Children often choose one or two foods that they like and will eat nothing else.  The significance of the article to my particular query didn’t hit me until I read this:

A fetus in the second and third trimester has highly sensitive taste buds that, through “practice meals” of amniotic fluid, get to experience whatever Mom is eating. Fetuses remember flavors from this time in the womb and seek them out after birth. This process explains why adopted infants, when swept off to a new culture, years later innately prefer their native cuisine – even though they may never have actually eaten it in the conventional sense.

Children prefer the flavors that their mothers eat while they’re in the womb (and while mothers are breast feeding).  So when Spanish mothers eat jamon serrano, their children learn to love it.  Turkish mothers drink ayran, Korean mothers eat kimchi, and American mothers eat macaroni and cheese.

[As a side note, when I was in Ireland they told me that after giving birth, the new mother is given a glass of Guinness to restore her strength.  I wonder if that gets passed on as well.  At least that's a local item I can appreciate.]

As each mother eats the local food, she passes on a preference for those flavors to her child.  This brings on a kind of cultural-culinary evolution.  Those flavors that are common in the culture are passed on to the next generation, who grows up with a preference for them, eats them as an adult, and again passes it on to the next generation.

Food preference is not just about you; it’s about where you were born, and what your mother liked to eat when she had you.

So don’t blame me because I don’t like kimchi.  Blame my mother.

This article also appears on Heretical Ideas.

About Jon Stonger

Jon Stonger is a novelist and short story writer. His first book, The Adventures of the Delineator: The Slimy and the Sentient, is now available. He currently resides in Suwon City, Korea.

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