Taste Re-Born

For my birthday every year, I asked my mom to make the same meal—turkey roast, cheesy hash browns and her famous lemon JELL-O “salad.”  Only in the upper Midwest of the United States are “JELL-O” and “salad” in the same sentence.  When you ask someone to bring a salad to a party you better specify if you mean an actual lettuce salad, because you might end up with an assortment of things that constitute a dessert. Have you heard of “Snickers Salad”?  Yeah, Snickers candy bars are chopped up in a “salad” of apples and whipped cream–but I digress from my story.

The JELL-O salad–I mean dessert–was served at birthdays and holidays, and when that slab of goodness was put on my plate, the celebration felt complete.  It wasn’t until I was older that I realized my friends didn’t feel the same way about that wobbly confection.  They thought it was strange, actually.  How could it possibly be bad?  It starts with bright yellow lemon JELL-O with bananas cut into it.  Then it is topped with baby marshmallows and finally a topping of lemon pie filling and whipped cream.  I mean, come on! It’s amazing stuff!  It is somewhat healthy with the addition of bananas.

Many of our childhood and family favorites aren’t questioned until someone from the “outside” comes and sits at our table. They don’t even have to be from another country to think it’s strange either, although those differences are usually more acute.  From nibbling on some Mongolian aaruul, dried curds, to the potent-smelling durian fruit of Southeast Asia, I have encountered things that have made me pause and ask, “How can you eat this?!”

There will always be certain things that I just cannot stomach no matter how much exposure I have to them, but since moving overseas after my college days, I have discovered a whole world of flavors.  In each country I have lived, I have had to have my taste buds “re-born”, in a sense, in order to appreciate the local cuisine. For me, it wasn’t an automatic love, but one that had to grow out of necessity.

I grew up on a farm in Iowa, the heartland of the United States not necessarily known at the time for its diverse cuisine.  Our regular fare was meat and potatoes and if we were feeling the need for a bit of excitement, we would have tacos.  I didn’t have Chinese food until I was in college.  My standard diet throughout college was bagels, popcorn, and Macaroni and Cheese.  To say my move overseas was a leap in my culinary experience, is putting it quite mildly.  I was a picky eater from a very young age.

God worked me slowly into different flavor profiles.  Mongolian food is a pretty basic diet of root vegetables and meat, although prepared in ways that were at times unsavory.  It wasn’t until I moved to Cambodia that I was truly stretched.  My husband, who grew up eating Cambodian food, couldn’t quite understand how hard it was for me.  Then we spent a year in northeast China, in the Korean Autonomous Region, and I had to learn even more foods (and smells!), and it was here that my husband got to experience the process of having his own taste buds “reborn.”

I have found that food is like language.  You can speak the basics and get by okay, but when you start to learn and try more, you discover how much you have been missing out on.  To sit at someone’s table and be served a food in their own heart language deepens your experience and understanding of them and their culture.  When I could sit with my language tutor and drink milk tea and eat buuz (Mongolian dumplings) while she nursed her babies, I felt at home.

Now that we live back in the United States, the food I crave is the food that was once served to me across Asia. Our weekly menu plans include panang curry, Kimchi jigae (kimchi and pork stew), spring rolls, butter chicken with naan and many other amazing foods.  The process of re-training our taste buds can be hard for some of us, but it is not impossible.  I admit that there are still things that I will not eat, but I am forever thankful that God lifted me out of my meat and potato life and showed me what a colorful and flavorful world it is.

Where have you had to have your taste buds re-born?

What foods do you miss when you are back in your home country?

What foods do your national friends find strange?


  1. Karen February 28, 2017

    I totally had my tastebuds reborn when I moved to Asia … I remember being so worried about the food, and now I love it. I see it as a reflection of the deeper work God has done in my heart several times of totally changing my heart to love people and places I didn’t think I could like.

    But probably my most infamous moment was one trip “back” to the U.S. In my defense, I was jet-lagged, and it was my first day back in the U.S. But my mom took me to an enormous grocery store, told me she was off of work that day, and she wanted to cook me anything I wanted. I looked around the grocery store and burst into tears. I think I managed to hide this from my mom, but the only thing I could think was, “You don’t know how to cook anything I want to eat.” This must also be hard for my sweet family … they have “losses” to grieve too, when we change.

    On another, unrelated note, my co-workers have taught me to bake American desserts with one-half to one-third of the sugar, when cooking for local (Asian) people. I have to say, in most recipes it seems to turn out fine, still sweet and dessert-like, and our friends seem to eat a lot more.

    1. Danielle Krouch February 28, 2017

      Thank you for sharing, Karen! I hadn’t fully considered the losses our families grieve when we change so much. I appreciate you bringing that up because it is true. Thankfully, I still enjoy many of these foods I loved as a child–so my mom can still make her lemon JELL-O salad for me. ?

      And good advice to lower the amount of sugar in desserts. That was the biggest “complaint” we got from our Asian friends–they thought our food was much to sweet!

    2. Heidi March 1, 2017

      Yes, I ALWAYS cut the sugar in US-based recipes. The other flavours of the recipe can then come alive, as they are no longer being suffocated by sugar.

      1. Danielle Krouch March 1, 2017

        “Suffocated” by sugar ? How true!

  2. Annalisa February 28, 2017

    I think I was somewhat fortunate that I grew up in somewhat culinarily diverse family. First, there were the family vacations every summer when we drove all over the United States and we pretty much ate whatever the locals ate. Then, there were the adopted cousins from Korea who did eat American food but also liked Korean food. Chinese all-you-can eat buffets, while perhaps not at all authentic, also gave us something that differed from the norm. And then my brother married an Iraqi woman, and that brought an entirely different taste into our family potlucks. So, I think when I moved to Guatemala, my taste buds avoided a re-birth. Admittedly, I did not like avocados when I moved here, and now I have learned to enjoy them.

    I never visit my folks to really miss the foods here. I have tried making some of my Guatemalan food for them, but it’s sometimes complicated to find the ingredients I need.

    I remember when I made “porcupine meatballs” for my now-husband (a local) which was one of my favorite dishes growing up. I was very excited that my mother had sent me a pressure cooker, and porcupine meatballs was the first thing I wanted to make with it. I talked about it non-stop for a week. The day he was going to come visit, I made up the meatballs and put them on to cook so they would finish right about the time he would arrive. He was late. (Now, you must realize that that isn’t necessarily strange for him or even Guatemalans in general.) I asked him if he was ready to eat because dinner had finished cooking a little while ago and I didn’t want it to get cold. He said that he wasn’t hungry, that he had gone out to eat with some of his schoolmates after classes. I was a little upset because we always ate dinner together every other Saturday, but I tried to stay cheerful. I said, “Well, I haven’t eaten yet because I was waiting for you. Do you want to sit with me while I eat? And maybe try a meatball or two? They’re a childhood favorite, and I was really looking forward to sharing them with you.” He agreed to sit with me while I ate, and I finally got out of him what the problem was. He’s no vegetarian, but eating porcupine was about where he drew the line; that’s why he ate before he came to see me. Once I explained (and promised) that porcupine meatballs were not made from porcupine meat, he conceded to try one, but we haven’t had them since. He has, however, fallen in love with apple pie.

    Recipe taken from http://allrecipes.com/recipe/232185/porcupine-meatballs-in-tomato-sauce/
    1 pound ground beef
    1 cup instant rice
    1 white onion, chopped
    1 egg
    1 (28 ounce) can tomato sauce
    28 fluid ounces water

    Mix ground beef, rice, onion, and egg together in a bowl with your hands; shape into tennis-ball sized balls.
    Stir tomato sauce and water together in a large pot; bring too a boil. Gently lie meatballs into the sauce, place cover on the pot, and reduce heat to medium-low.
    Cook until meatballs are no longer pink in the center, about 35 minutes. An instant-read thermometer inserted into the center should read 160 degrees F (70 degrees C).

    To this day, I still haven’t found a single source for porcupine meat in Guatemala. (Opossum meat, yes, but I can’t say I’ve considered eating it. 😉 )

    1. Laura Ajibero March 1, 2017

      That is too funny! The things we don’t think about when we call things by the name we are used to, and it makes no sense to the locals. My now-husband, also a local like your story, can’t figure out how banana bread is bread. Sweet bread is a foreign thought here, so I’ve just quit calling it bread and call it cake! (And half the time I make it in a cake pan anyway because it’s easier than the bread pan.)

      1. Danielle Krouch March 1, 2017

        Laura, I think banana cake sounds way more accurate!

      2. Annalisa March 1, 2017

        My husband dislikes hamburgers because he doesn’t like bread (the bun), but so true that he will eat banana bread, apple bread, peach bread, cornbread, chocolate cherry bread, etc. Must be he has it in his mind that they’re cake. (Although, the vocab here for them is “pan” = bread; it’s a food they’re familiar with.)

    2. Danielle Krouch March 1, 2017

      Oh my! “Porcupine” meat would sound a little scary! ? How funny! Also, how wonderful you grew up eating such diverse food. There are so many great foods to enjoy, right?

    3. Annalisa March 1, 2017

      Oh, man…I meant to say that I never visit my folks *long enough* to miss the foods here. Sorry for the omission, ladies. Longest continuous time I’ve spent in the US since coming down here was 40 days, and that was just once. Normally it’s just 2 weeks.

  3. Hadassah March 1, 2017

    I work on an academy campus. And our staff is an international lot. We try to eat together every Friday night to give our volunteers a home cooked meal at least once a week. Sometimes organizing these nights is a whole lot of work, but I love to see how food can bring so many together! Every home has its own foods they like to serve. At our house, we enjoy to make up a big pot of chili and cornbread. At first, I’d make baked beans. But too many of the non-Americans found sweet beans weird. And for the past two years, we’ve hosted Thanskgiving at our home. Last year, we had over 60 people!!! It’s so great to see (and taste) the multicultural cuisine at a traditionally American feast. When I posted pictures, a friend commented that she hadn’t realized they celebrated Thanksgiving in Egypt;). Hehe! But, after living here, I realize just how much food can bring us together. My girls find it strange that their grandmother has never shared a meal with her neighbors! I hope they always will!

    1. Danielle Krouch March 2, 2017

      How fun! And yes, eating with neighbors is not natural here in the United States. It’s something you have to be intentional about. Your girls are blessed to have had that experience.

  4. Phyllis March 2, 2017

    I think our tastebuds have been reborn in the opposite direction. Ukrainian food is very good, but rather plain. My husband especially used to love spices and sauces and tons of pepper on everything. But then, the last time we were in the states, the spices were overwhelming. My husband can’t eat his father’s famous salsa anymore. Our kids thought lasagna was too spicy. We’re very happy with potatoes and borsch. 🙂

    1. Ellie March 2, 2017

      Haha Phyllis, I know what you mean. Spaniards aren’t into spice either. I used to laugh that in my Spanish cookbook recipes in general call for “six cloves of garlic, three tablespoons of salt and six tablespoons of olive oil” as the starting point for just about anything – I can’t handle spice well anymore and I’m adding what seem like crazy amounts of salt to stuff now we’re back in the UK!

    2. Danielle Krouch March 2, 2017

      I had not thought about it in that way! But I can totally see how this would happen!!

  5. Monica F March 2, 2017

    I love this idea of tastebuds re-born!!! Asia definitely created a new world of flavor for me and the rest of my family!

    1. Danielle Krouch March 2, 2017

      Don’t you just love it?! ❤

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