Do you favor foreign flavors?
July 7th, 2011
04:00 PM ET
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Food says so much about where you’ve come from, where you’ve decided to go, and the lessons you’ve learned. It’s geography, politics, tradition, belief and so much more and this week, we invite you to dig in and discover the rich, ever-evolving taste of America in 2011. The week will culminate with a Secret Supper in New York City, and Eatocracy invites you to participate online starting Monday July 11th at 6:30 p.m. E.T.

The first time I ate matzo ball soup, I was sure it was the most exotic thing I would ever put in my mouth, so long as I lived. To Jewish people since time immemorial, it's been the homely stuff of a family kitchen - filling, grounding, comforting and totally quotidian.

To me, a thoroughly unworldly girl celebrating the occasion of her First Holy Communion at a Jewish-French restaurant in Cincinnati, Ohio, it was like a bolt of lightning in the dead of night, suddenly illuminating a previously unseen city in the distance.

Even now, I can instantly recall the pleasing heft and creamy grit of the solitary tennis ball sized sphere adrift in a mug of clear, carrot-flecked broth. I'd consumed constellations of canned Campbell's Chicken & Stars and vast oceans of school cafeteria chicken noodle, but never in my nearly seven and a half years on Earth had I tasted soup that had so much care, love and character to it.

Upon moving to New York some 15 years later, I dated a solid string of gentlemen fated to eternal disappointment in the matzo ball soup offerings from the city’s delis and restaurants. I sampled each and every one of them – often trading whatever I’d ordered in exchange for their soup after they’d inevitably laid down their soup in exaggerated disgust. They were, to a bowl, perfectly fine and often excellent renditions of the dish. They just weren’t their Bubbe’s.

I didn’t grow up with a Bubbe – or a Nonna or Memama or Oma – cooking up wonder in the kitchen. Grandma K. was a solid maker of American staples, and excelled at Christmas cookies (to this day no one can equal her Swedish Gems). Grandma R. was...not an enthusiastic follower of the culinary arts. Had either of them been – and been Jewish rather than Sicilian or Welsh-Irish-Canadian-French-somethingorother, I may have been happily indifferent to the charms of that first bowl.

But I wasn’t. I was smitten. I’d taken a chance on something wholly other than my square, stolid diet and been rewarded. I tagged along with my Dad to Cincinnati’s International Folk Festival, selling little dragon flags and shirts at the Welsh Society booth so I’d be in close proximity to the food booths when my breaks came around.

I spent my allowance money on those days studying the subtle distinctions between Cantonese, Vietnamese and Cambodian eggrolls. I shocked my sinuses with an unadvertised wasabi glob nestled in a dragon roll (and spent the next 10 years assuming all sushi was brutally spicy) and learned quite quickly that even if the cream cheese is an extra $.50, a dry bagel is indeed, no bargain.

Despite any culinary missteps, I didn’t – and I don’t to this day – ever stop hoping that the next miraculous matzo ball, haggis, larb, souse, 'nduja or mangosteen is right around the corner. It may not be from my culture, but it feeds the ever-ravenous kid inside me.

soundoff (100 Responses)
  1. Ann

    I was always pretty willing to eat what I was given as a kid, although I obviously had preferences. It wasn't until adulthood that I ate Indian (my mother would make curry on Friday and give my brother and I something else), though, and my first experience with Chinese food nearly made me ill. Now, there's pretty much nothing I won't eat, even really crazy things. (On my general dislike list are pineapple and cheap hot dogs.)

    My brother, on the other hand, wouldn't eat most foods without Tabasco or English mustard to hide the taste. There was hardly a thing he liked. Now, he's really into cooking–he cooks from scratch, even dinner rolls. He made his own wedding cake.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:23 pm |
  2. MNinGA

    My mom was always open to new foods but we never had the money growing up to try too many new things. When I got older I constantly tried new foods and have found several favorites. Wild game is great (bear, venison) and I love seafood, even squid and gator are delish when they're prepared right. I work with several people from India and they have gotten me addicted to Indian food! Chicken biryani, tikka masala, and the sweets! Boori, boondi, galub jamun... yum!

    July 17, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  3. Janks

    My Baubie makes the best Matzo Ball Soup EVER. She always has a pot of it on the stove when we come over! If you have never had it before you need to experience one of the best foods in the whole world! :)

    July 12, 2011 at 9:55 am |
  4. shawn l

    Kids are only picky eaters if you allow them to be picky eaters. Provide a variety early in life, and teach them to enjoy different foods. My mother presented us with dinner, and if we didnt want to eat it we didn't eat that night. Forced you to open your mind to new foods.

    July 8, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
  5. TI

    sushi all the way baby!

    July 8, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  6. hehe101

    Gotta love how the photo is of Matzo Ball Soup. If you've lived ANYWHERE in the states where you had a "Jewish" deli, you've had Matzo Ball Soup. Of course, I am coming from a Jewish background, so that's a dish I grew (and still and growing) up with.

    July 8, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  7. Ben Feist

    The only things that I don't like are liver, lake fish, and salmon. As long as something doesn't contain these things I'm game to try it. I always like trying something different.

    July 8, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  8. Evil Grin

    No. I'm a boring eater. I'd never try... say... cicada ice cream or anything. Nope. All I eat is oatmeal. Not even any honey. Don't you know where that comes from?!

    July 8, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  9. morrigan

    How can people prepare their foods from a box? Yes it's fast but why sacrifice taste and nutrition? Why sacrifice adventure!

    When I was growing up there was always at least one home cooked meal a day and it was never the same food twice. It could be made with the same basic ingredients but it would he cooked a different way or spiced a different way. Oatmeal was a favorite of mine while growing up but my relatives who made it for me, each had their own special way! One even went so far as the use special fresh ground pepper corns in theirs, delicious. And there were so many variations on the families BBQ sauce and who had the best one. By the time I was 5 years old, there wasn't any kind of food I haven't tried or didn't like and because of the different ethnic groups in my family and the people I made friends with growing up, I've had the pleasure of sampling the best of the best from all around the world: Real Italian from a family of friends straight from Italy. Korean and other Asian ethnic foods from a family of friends with a background in nearly all of the Asian countries. Australian and New Zealand BBQ; Imported liquors, wines, brews, and spices; exotic meats, fruits, and veggies from places in Africa, India, and South America! Fish and seafood from all around the world.

    And I learned so much from the foods too! Traditions that date back centuries! How to hunt, how to fish, and how to grow and gather my own fruits and veggies! I was spoiled on the knowledge of flavor full foods when I was a child and I'm happy to say that I'm passing on the tradition to my three year old who eats just about anything I make her, and not only that, I'm passing down the traditions my family passed on to me.

    July 8, 2011 at 10:22 am |
  10. R Burns

    I was adventurous until developing severe food allergies. Now, I spend time considering various ways to make just a few ingredients interesting. Amazing what you can do with a little chicken, garlic, rice and cabbage! Everything from soup to egg rolls. . .Now I'm hungry.

    July 8, 2011 at 2:47 am |
    • morrigan

      You are very creative and I bet you have fun doing it too! =D That's the best part of being an adventurous eater, coming up with your own recipes!

      July 8, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  11. Foodies United

    Growing up, if it came out of a box, that was a home cooked meal.

    Now I will try most anything–so far, I enjoy most everything except Korean food, and I cannot bring myself to try goat. Middle Eastern flavors are my favorite. Great article!

    July 8, 2011 at 2:47 am |
  12. Lifelong Vegetarian

    I didn't have an option to try out all the strange and wonderful flavors that I've come to love as adult. My dad was a meat-n-potatoes guy, and my mom cooked for his tastes...which were blander, the better. (I just chose not to eat meat at any point.)She also was not an adventurous eater. The flavors were simple and locally available out in the middle of Kansas during the 70's and early 80's. You can imagine the lack of variety. I had my first taste of Korean-Asian cuisine when I was out of college when my best friend dragged me to a little restaurant. I was hooked. Indian cuisine was next, and then Thai and Japanese and.... I can't say I've loved everything I've tried, but I love trying anything that's vegetarian. I suspect that if I'd had the options to try different things as a kid, I'd have had a lot of fun.

    July 8, 2011 at 2:44 am |
  13. Pamala

    Homely is the same as homey in British English.

    Excellent article. I have also enjoyed reading the comments. Adventurous eater here, raised by an adventurous cook.

    July 8, 2011 at 2:15 am |
  14. Hawke

    I think you meant "homey" not "homely." Homely means not attractive. Homey means like home–comforting. Anyway–good article!

    July 8, 2011 at 1:36 am |
  15. Simen

    anything but american food

    July 8, 2011 at 1:31 am |
  16. Calif Girl

    I didn't consider it adventurous eating, it was just what my mother cooked, and what my friends' mothers cooked. It wasn't till many years later that I discovered that some people grew up on a steady diet of hot dogs and PBJs, not an entire United Nations variety. While I'm "picky" in the sense that there are some things I refuse to eat, it's specific items (like kale or oysters) and not entire cuisines. I can find something in any ethnic restaurant that I'm willing to eat. Someone who happily eats smoked eel cannot possibly be described as a "picky eater"! :)

    July 8, 2011 at 1:28 am |
  17. Laura

    I grew up with varied cuisine and have always been adventurous when it comes to trying new things. My mother is Cajun and my father is Lebanese. It makes for some interesting meal combinations. My husband had little exposure to any food that may have been "different" (or not so different...had to introduce him to crepes, fajitas, smoothies) He was freaking out that he would not be able to eat the food when my father first invited him to a traditional middle eastern dinner. Now it is my husband's favorite food. He is also much more adventurous now and is willing to try most things.

    July 8, 2011 at 12:30 am |
  18. Ryan

    According to the poll over 85% of people consider themselves adventurous. Let me just say that this poll is completely skewed, there is a good chance that the majority of adventurous eaters clicked on such a topic. I think real poll would show the exact opposite numbers. 85% of people could care less whether they eat at McDonalds or the sushi house next door. On a trip to Malaysia my main goal was to try durian fruit and I did. Did anyone in my group of some 30 Americans care to try it, not one! Malaysia was also my first time trying lychee. The Malaysian lychee is so amazing I shared it with everyone, but most did not care for it. So sad to live in a world full of the wrong 85%, I wish I could take this group with me next time.

    July 8, 2011 at 12:26 am |
    • Reasonably Picky

      Ryan, the readers here aren't representative of the population as a whole.

      July 14, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
  19. wr

    So matzah ball soup is a foreign flavor, but christmas cookies are an American staple??? What white bread Klan-entrenched enclave of the mid-American bible belt did this writer crawl out of?

    July 8, 2011 at 12:07 am |
    • dnfromge

      At seven years old, that was exotic to her at the time. Lighten up!

      July 8, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  20. Al

    Tasting Eritrean/Ethiopian food turned me into a foodie.

    July 8, 2011 at 12:03 am |
  21. Louise

    I tried foie gras at a party at my French prof's house once, and my life hasn't been the same since. For the record, though, since I was a child I've been known to eat everything from piroshki to barbecued goat.

    July 7, 2011 at 11:54 pm |
  22. A

    I was raised in a bicultural household (Filipino and American), and that helped expand my palate as I became older. I was able to go abroad and be able to eat most of the local foods of the countries where I lived, worked, or visited. My palate, as you might guess, is most stimulated by Asian/SE Asian foods. I especially like Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese and of course, Filipino foods. European foods are flavorful, but many are too heavy for my taste. But having been raised in a home in which many foods were cooked, my taste has been muddled. For example, I think peanut butter and jelly together are vile. And at Thanksgiving, I steer clear of sweet potatoes/yams and cranberry sauce, which my palate tells me should never be paired with turkey, or any meat for that matter. But for the most part, I will still eat virtually anything from all corners of Earth.

    July 7, 2011 at 11:31 pm |
  23. Anon_e_mouse

    My father travelled frequently on business and would always come home and regale us with tales of the meals he had eaten in various parts of our country and Canada; he would seek out the local cuisine, be that someone's version of down-home southern cooking in Huntsville, Alabama, abalone steak at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, lobster on the coast of Maine, a good steak at George Diamond's in Chicago, or a Mexican-style meal in El Paso, Texas. And, while those were his favorites, he also enjoyed pierogies in Cleveland, bratwurst in St. Louis, Cantonese in New York, Hunan in Vancouver, and lutfisk in Minneapolis. "Every meal an adventure", he would say, and – much to Mother's distress (she would have been perfectly happy having some form of white meat chicken every night) – we would eat in out-of-the-way local places whenever we travelled as a family as well.

    I'm proud to say I have followed in his footsteps.

    July 7, 2011 at 11:31 pm |
  24. Marine5484

    That flat bread they make in the mid-east if fricken great and the meals they make out of lamb are good as well.

    July 7, 2011 at 11:29 pm |
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