A Cook's Diary

Cultural differences and acquired taste

For readers of this food blog who do not read my other blog, I write a twice-weekly op-ed column for a broadsheet. Cultural differences and acquired taste was my column yesterday.

Cultural differences and acquired taste

As expected, after the column about the American blogger who went to the Texas branch of Barrio Fiesta for a Fear Factor experience, Americans made it a point to post comments in my Web log describing Filipino dishes in very colorful terms. “Stinky” was a favorite adjective.

To put this entry in context, I have to say that the comments came from long time readers who absolutely hate my guts. These Americans read my Web log and posted comments regularly to bicker with me and other commenters, but now limit themselves to reacting on entries that make no bones about my views on the modern-day version of American imperialism. In other words, while it is probably true that they do not particularly like Filipino cooking, it is also true that the use of words like stink was merely meant to annoy me. But, I am not an immature kid who regards every negative criticism against my culture as a personal affront — unlike them who take as a personal insult every disagreeable word written about their beloved country.

Knowing they will read the online version of this column (love me or hate me, they read me anyway), I feel the need to discuss the issue of cultural differences in an adult manner. See, a mature adult with a modicum of intelligence knows that there are no universal standards for a good cuisine. There is badly cooked food, yes (some fastfood junk come to mind), but there are no bad cuisines as a whole. We may not like the cuisines of other countries but that has nothing to do with their being inferior or superior. It has everything to do with their being different and our being unfamiliar with their aromas and flavors. That’s how an intelligent adult will see it.

For instance, I am not particularly fond of Indian dishes with their strong spices. But I have come to love lamb biryani almost as much as I love adobo. I find American steaks and burgers downright plain and unimaginative yet I enjoy the Creole rice dish jambalaya just as much as our own paella. I like Italian dishes in general but I still find some Italian dishes not as attractive. Japanese cooking is an all-time favorite yet I have not mustered the guts to try what would be considered the most exotic of their dishes — not yet, anyway. In short, I have acquired the taste for some foreign dishes but not for all the food in any particular cuisine. If I say that I don’t like them because they stink means that I am suffering from a very bad case of cultural superiority complex and have totally no respect for anything that is different from the culture that I know and am a part of. In a way, the ability to acquire the taste for food has to do with a person’s ability to assimilate a culture.

When I posted a recipe for bulalo steak (cooked like bistek) in my food blog, book author and agriculturist Tom Hargrove (of the Proof of Life fame) e-mailed me to say I must have used specially cut bulalo for the dish because it was too meaty. Tom lived in the Philippines for 19 years and was a habitué of Batangas bulalo joints which he described as more like “truck stops”. When I told him that I used machine cut cross cuts of beef shank to make the bulalo steak, his response was amusing and endearing at the same time. It made me smile:

“But I also see losing a lot of the romance (???). And I have to wonder, some of the flavor. I mean, can you enjoy eating bulalo in those small and often not-too-clean Batangas roadside joints without being paranoid about choking on a bone shard that was left when the butcher hacked the shank apart by machete? That’s sort of like going to war, knowing that no one will shoot at you. Or beer with no alcohol.”

Tom’s reaction perfectly illustrates my next point. The “acquired taste” for food goes beyond a taste bud experience. It has a lot to do with what a person associates the food with. In Tom’s case, the love for bulalo is associated with his love affair with Batangas and Taal Volcano (he wrote and published The Mysteries of Taal: A Philippine Volcano and Lake, Her Sea Life and Lost Towns). Similarly, many of us find our mothers’ cooking (father’s, in my case, my mother couldn’t cook if her life depended on it) incomparable. We compare everything with “how Nanay cooked it”. But that isn’t necessarily because our mothers were the best cooks but because we associate their cooking with the warmth and comforts of home.

It is the same when we try dishes from a foreign cuisine for the first time. It is the same when we find ourselves in places and circumstances very much different from what is comfortably familiar. We balk. We reject. We declare them unacceptable. A wise person will open his mind and his heart and widen his horizons. He will integrate the new experiences with the old familiar ones. In short, he will choose to grow as a person. The not too wise will continue to judge everything new and unfamiliar based on the limitations of what is familiar, and lose the chance for growth.

So, will I learn to love the less familiar but more exotic Japanese dishes and the unpronounceable Indian dishes? If I can get the chance to become more familiar with them, I’m sure I will, in time.

***Note: You might be interested in the separate discussion on this column in The Sassy Lawyer’s Journal.

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