My culinary upbringing was fairly normal for someone raised by an English cook: meat in gravy, canned vegetables, potatoes, and bread. Nothing terribly exotic nor complex save for holiday dinners, where the number of side dishes doubled. The most adventurous things I ate were cockles and whelks—pickled, messy, and served in paper boats on the boardwalks of Felixstowe, England. When my parents retired in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in 1980, my 10-year-old self marveled at a hibachi grill where flamboyant chefs ignited onion volcanoes and chopped steak and shrimp in front of me at blinding speeds.
I had my first taste of calamari while attending college in Charleston, South Carolina. It felt so unusual in my mouth, and the notion of eating squid was strange to me (never mind that I had hacked my way through dozens of boiled crabs throughout my teenage years, leaving mangled piles of crab carcasses on the dining room table).
Upon graduating college in 1993, I moved up to Boston and met Nhan, who had been raised primarily on South Indian vegetarian food. Most Americans will think of Indian food as curries—cubed meat and vegetables in a spiced sauce. South Indian food, however, relies more on dry spices rubbed into vegetables, which packs more of a flavor punch and (in Nhan's case) a lot more heat. When Nhan started to introduce me to interesting restaurants in Boston, I became very aware that I knew nothing about food.
We started in Chinatown; I was terrified of shrimp served complete with eyes and legs and long antennae. I came to love duck and Chinese greens, the latter often sautéed in the duck fat. Delicious!
The North End, renown for its authentic Italian restaurants, introduced me to antipasto and arancini, sublime fried rice balls that I ate often at Galleria Umberto, a tiny little no-frills restaurant on Hanover Street.
We spent two years in Minneapolis, where we discovered lutefisk, Hmong cooking, and a Sri Lankan Curry House. We returned to Boston and have since expanded our foodie repertoire. Among my discoveries over the past ten years: Ethiopian kitfo, a raw spiced beef in drawn butter, served with ayeb begomen (spiced cheese) and injera bread; Brazilian churrascaria and rodizio barbeque, with succulent pork, beef, and chicken hearts; Spanish tapas, with rich flavors and inspired sauce reductions; Korean table barbeque, with perfectly seared pork belly and the array of side dishes traditional on Korean tables; Indian curries featuring inventive combinations of fruit and meat; and the list goes on and on.
While traveling, I have tried things that I never thought I would eat. Conch, for instance, is delicious fried (Nassau), and quite spicy in stew (St. Martin). Queso fresco is so basic and yet makes beans and rice delightful (Yucatan). SPAM musubi tastes quite nice despite being, well, SPAM (Hawaii). French fries and cheese curds covered in gravy? Who knew poutine could be so delicious (Canada)?
Trying new tastes and textures has expanded my palate immensely, which has also given me an appreciation for the cultures behind the flavors. I'll discuss some of these foods in future articles. For now, I'd like to address a general aversion to new-to-us foods and how to overcome this fear of the "weird stuff."
A friend of mine grew up in a family that only ate chicken breasts. Dark meat was not around, so she was unfamiliar with it, or perhaps never had a good-tasting dish featuring dark meat. White versus dark meat is an interesting argument, the latter often being vilified for being fattier, oilier, or less healthy. However, dark meat contains healthy fats and vitamins (and yes, a tiny bit more saturated fat than white meat).
Dark meat chicken, along with fattier meats such as duck, pork belly, and other delicious meats used in many international dishes, deliver a lot of healthy fats and nutrients and hold up well to spices and sauces. With any rich flavor, a little goes a long way, so people tend to eat less. The "dark" in these meats simply means that more myoglobin proteins are present; these proteins deliver oxygen to the muscles, so muscles that are used more frequently are darker meat.
The most important thing with meat is how the meat has been raised; dark meats raised naturally from local farms are going to be healthier than factory-farmed meats. Chickens, cows, and pigs who have spent their lives eating grass in pastures are going to be healthier than animals raised in ammonia fumes from feces and fed corn and cheap grain diets laced with antibiotics and hormones.
Another friend of mine adheres to the "meat and potatoes" approach that has monopolized her Southern-food dinner table. Many people will not try food that they did not eat while growing up; this approach is sad, for it limits them to only the familiar flavors and textures they've known their entire lives. People who live in areas that do not have food diversity don't get many opportunities to try new things, which leads to fear of foreign foods.
A common fear is raw fish; sushi and ceviche present so many combinations of tastes that it's tragic to pass them by (unless, of course, you have an allergy....). Ceviche, for instance, is actually "cooked" by the acids in the citrus juice marinade; an emphasis is placed on the quality and freshness of the fish, since the marinade does not kill bacteria as heat would.
Sushi-grade fish must meet extremely strict requirements to be served at a sushi restaurant. Sushi chefs are highly trained in the art of making sushi (and yes, sushi making is considered an art). Those new to sushi should start with a California roll, and then try shrimp or eel (yes, eel), both of which are cooked. Only eat freshly-prepared sushi; refrigerating sushi turns the rice chewy and tough, and often kills the fresh taste of the sushi.
Ethnic foods need not be scary. Most restaurants will offer a few "starter" options to help newcomers with unfamiliar tastes. Some great things to try to bridge the gap upon your visit to a new restaurant:
INDIAN - tandoori chicken is a mild dish that features yogurt-marinated chicken grilled in a tandoori oven. It's typically served with onions, green peppers and tomatoes, and naan, a grilled flatbread. Dip the chicken in raita, a creamy spiced yogurt sauce. If you're vegetarian, try mutter paneer, a mild pea and cheese dish served over rice.
CHINESE - Try to get away from the heavy oyster sauce and try peking duck. Peel off the skin if you need to watch fat in your diet. Place the duck, with scallions, cucumbers, and rich hoisin sauce, on the included wraps, and enjoy! Think of it as a rich wrap sandwich. Vegetarian? Try sauteed bok choy or any Chinese greens. If you're lucky, you'll end up in a restaurant featuring pea greens (not the snowpeas themselves—the greens and vines) sauteed in garlic.
ETHIOPIAN - You should be comfortable eating with your hands, since the "utensil" and plate is a spongy bread called Injera. It will have a slightly sour taste, but it holds up well to the rich sauces of the dishes. Try kitfo, which is usually raw beef tossed with warm butter (which cooks the meat to rare). The restaurant will cook the beef upon request. Berebere, a key spice for Ethiopian cuisine, packs some heat, so counter it with ayeb begomen, which is just like cottage cheese with spices added to it. Vegetarians will be happy to know that Ethiopians prepare many tasty lentils and vegetable dishes, including collard greens, spinach, and stewed root vegetables. All these dishes will be served communally on giant plates covered with Injera.
FRENCH - Try a cheese plate. French cheeses are very strong, but a little sliver of cheese with bread gives you the taste without the wallop. If you are curious about escargot, try the garlic and butter version. The flavour of snails is fairly mild, but they have a chewy texture.
BRAZILIAN - Churrascarias are basically giant rotisseries, with meats cooked on skewers over an open flame. Spices are generally mild, and meats range from beef, pork and chicken to spicy Chorizo sausage, chicken hearts, and sometimes lamb and rabbit. Side dishes tend to be sauteed vegetables, beans and rice, and various casseroles. Farofa is a dish made with toasted flour, onions, diced eggs, olives, and many different vegetables.
KOREAN - Bi Bim Bap is a popular dish that features carrots, mushrooms, zucchini, and rice cooked together and served with an egg on top. Meat is often added, and the dish is mashed together at the table with a red sauce. Jap Chae is a noodle dish that is somewhat similar to Chinese Lo Mein, with glass (rice) noodles and mild Korean spices. For heat lovers, Korean dishes often come with accompaniments that include kimchi, a fermented, garlic-infused cabbage that packs some serious flavour and heat.
No matter what type of restaurant you find yourself in, feel free to ask your server for a recommendation. Or do a little online searching for restaurants in your area. Reviewers will often recommend great dishes for you to try.