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?