Disgust is one of our most basic emotions—the only one that we have to learn—and nothing triggers it more reliably than the strange food of others.
Nattō is a stringy, sticky, slimy, chunky fermented soybean dish that Japanese regularly eat for breakfast. It can be eaten straight up, but it is usually served cold over rice and seasoned with soy sauce, mustard or wasabi.
Aside from its alien texture, nattō suffers from another problem, at least for Westerners—odor. Nattō smells like the marriage of ammonia and a tire fire. Though this might not be the worst smell combination ever, it has zero food connotation for me, and I’ve never met a Westerner who can take a bite of nattō on the first attempt. What Japanese love, we find disgusting.
In the last several years there has been an explosion of research on disgust. Disgust is one of the six basic emotions—along with joy, surprise, anger, sadness and fear—but it is the only one that has to be learned, which suggests something about its complexity.
Most children get their first lessons in disgust around the time that they are potty trained. After that, the triggers of disgust are quickly acquired from the responses and rules of parents, peers and, most importantly, the wider culture. One of the best places to look for the vast differences in what is or is not considered disgusting in different parts of the globe is food, especially distinctive foods, like every culture’s favorite fermented dish.
Take cheese, considered by Westerners to be anything from a comfort food to a luxurious delicacy. A good taleggio, Gorgonzola or Brie might be described as sweaty or slimy. Cheese also has its fair share of aromatic obstacles and, depending on the circumstances, may be confused with vomit, stinky feet or a garbage spill. Many Asians regard all cheese, from processed American slices to Stilton, as utterly disgusting—the equivalent of cow excrement.
Given that cheese can be described as the rotted bodily fluid of an ungulate, that’s not far off. But controlled rot tastes good in this case—at least to us (or most of us). The key is to manage the decomposition in such a way as to get that desired flavor and to ensure that we don’t get sick from consuming the food (in some cases, rot is actually necessary because the fresh version is poisonous).
A quick jaunt across the globe for some favorite fermented foods will lead us to kimchee in Korea, which is fermented vegetables (usually cabbage); gravlax, the fermented raw salmon enjoyed in Norway; injera in Ethiopia, a spongy, fermented flatbread; chorizo in Spain, which is fermented and cured uncooked pork sausage; and the many forms of fermented dairy that are adored and consumed from India to Indiana.
Among the most hard-core variants of fermented food is the Icelandic delicacy hákarl. Hákarl is made from the Greenland shark, which is indigenous to the frigid waters of Iceland. It is traditionally prepared by beheading and gutting the shark and then burying the carcass in a shallow pit covered with gravelly sand. The corpse is then left to decompose in its silty grave for two to five months, depending on the season. Once the shark is removed from its lair, the flesh is cut into strips and hung to dry for several more months.
Hákarl has a pungent, urinous, fishy odor that causes most newbies to gag. An extremely acquired taste, hákarl was described by the globe-trekking celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he had ever eaten.
At an international convention of food oddities, you might try to wash down your hákarl with the Ecuadoran aperitif chicha, which combines the alcoholic perks of fermentation with a disgusting bodily fluid. Chicha is made from a masticated blend of boiled maize (or yucca root) and human saliva.
My favorite fermented challenge, because I’m a cheese lover but am mortally repulsed by worms, is casu marzu. Casu marzu is a sheep cheese popular on the Italian island of Sardinia. The name means “rotten cheese” or, as it is known colloquially, “maggot cheese,” since it is literally riddled with live insect larvae.
To make maggot cheese you start with a slab of local sheep cheese, pecorino sardo, but then let it go beyond normal fermentation to a stage most would consider infested decomposition (because, well, it is). The larvae of the cheese fly (Piophila casei) are added to the cheese, and the acid from their digestive systems breaks down the cheese’s fats, making the final product soft and liquidy. By the time it is ready for consumption, a typical casu marzu contains thousands of larvae.
Locals consider it unsafe to eat casu marzu once the larvae have died, so it is served while the translucent white worms, about one-third of an inch long, are still squiggling. Some people clear the maggots from the cheese before consuming it; others do not. Those who leave the maggots may have to cover the cheese with their hands—when disturbed, the maggots can jump up to six inches.
It is no accident that you likely feel revolted by many of these descriptions. The most elemental purpose of the emotion of disgust is to make us avoid rotted and toxic food.
So why are fermented saliva, decomposed shark and maggot-ridden cheese so desirable in some cultures? Is it just a quirky paradox of the human condition that we eagerly consume things that give off all the signals of putrefaction?
We learn which foods are disgusting and which are not through cultural inheritance, which is very much tied to geography. One reason that certain foods carry so much local meaning is that they capture something essential about a region’s flora and fauna. The same is true of the microbes that make fermented foods possible; they vary markedly from one part of the world to another. The bacteria involved in making kimchee are not the same as those used to make Roquefort.
We also use food as a way of establishing who is friend and who is foe, and as a mode of ethnic distinction. “I eat this thing and you don’t. I am from here, and you are from there.”
In every culture, “foreigners” eat strange meals that have strange aromas, and their bodies reek of their strange food. These unfamiliar aromas are traditionally associated with the unwanted invasion of the foreigners and thus are considered unwelcome and repugnant. Conversely, a person can become more accepted by eating the right foods—not only because their body odor will no longer smell unfamiliar and “unpleasant,” but because acceptance of food implies acceptance of the larger system of cultural values at hand.
Food is a marvelous window through which to examine the multifaceted emotion of disgust. Food is a great passion, but it can also inspire terrible repulsion. Strangely, as with almost all facets of disgust, it is in our nature to be attracted to this repulsion. Who, uninitiated to the actual foodstuff, isn’t at least a little curious about tasting some soft and stinky hákarl or a wormy morsel of casu marzu?
What human beings find disgusting varies greatly not just from place to place but across time. It cannot be separated from what the object of our repulsion means to us.
If lobsters are considered the vermin of the deep—as early American colonists saw them—then they become objects of disgust, not food fit for kings. If Americans who ordered chicken wings were instead served a dish of deep fried grasshoppers, they would gag, even though many people in Thailand would line up for the delicious snack. Strange? Not if you take a moment to reflect about it the next time you order a burger topped off with rotted ungulate bodily fluid.
— Ms. Herz teaches at Brown University. Excerpted from her new book, “That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion” (Norton).
The Vietnamese know there’s more to a cow than ribeye.
Get over the fish sauce squick.
Learn to love the herbs.
You aren’t going to change the service model.
I have a pretty limited diet myself for any kind of restaurant, but wow, people do these things? What is the point of going to a restaurant where the cuisine isn’t familiar to you if you’re just going to be a racist asshat all over it?
Sadly, yes, and unfortunately not limited to just Vietnamese restaurants but pretty much any type of Asian restaurant here (and I’m sure the same goes for all other restaurants though I can’t speak to those experiences). The article is from where I live and I’ve lost count of the number of times my friends and I are out enjoying a good meal and just _know_ when a group of white folks that walks in is going to be _that_ kind. They typically come in with that swagger and smirk like they’re being ~oh so cultured/daring~ trying something ~exotic~, gracing us brown folk with their presence, and how if they approve, they’ll get all their white friends to eat there too. And how quickly that changes as they make a scene over “why don’t you have [insert dish]?! don’t you all serve that?!” or “This tastes nothing like what I had on vacation in your country!” or it’s some loud obnoxious complaint about “why don’t any of the waiters speak English” (that they can understand) or “this is AMERICA, not your country!” (typically referring to customer service and/or language issues) and “no wonder it’s nothing but Asians in here” and other racist shit.
I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a place like that, wow. It’s usually me dragging white friends out to eat at Asian restaurants, out of deep personal offense (and snobbery) that they are lacking such knowledge of things like how to use chopsticks.
In undergrad, one of my professors decided we should celebrate the end of the semester. It was a small group so we all went out to dinner at a new place that had just opened up. It had a decent menu (sushi, noodles, some beef, chicken & steak entrees), and we were all perfectly content. Except that one asshole who ordered off the kid’s menu (chicken nuggets or some such) & spent the entire time pulling faces about what everyone else was eating. I still wonder why he bothered to come out for dinner with everyone else if he wasn’t going to eat anything that he couldn’t have nuked in his microwave at home.
There’s an Indian restaurant in Sacramento, not too far from my grandparents’ place. I gave it a try last May and was delighted — I’ve never had the chance to try Indian food before.
And then this couple came in.
First they wanted to make a to-go order. Then they decided no, they wanted to sit down. Then they decided they didn’t like anything on the menu and departed — but not before the boyfriend thought he should deliver the perfect advice to the owner/chef of the place.
“You should really serve beef here; you’d get a lot more customers.”
The amazing Ethiopian restaurant near my house was subject to a couple once while I was there who tried to lecture the server about the lack of silverware and how gross/unhygienic it was to eat food with your hands or injera.
how do people do this
oh god I can’t even begin to properly extol the virtues of this post
every time I go out with my [family member’s name redacted], if the food is even the slightest bit “ethnic,” she has no idea what to eat and spends the whole meal looking for a hamburger or roast beef sandwich or a steak or something. She won’t even try anything on the menu if it’s not familiar to her! I don’t understand this!!!!!!! Why are you even at this restaurant!?
God THAT IS SUCH A GOOD POINT! And that is what blows my mind: If you think “ethnic” food is so gross and weird WHY ARE YOU EVEN GOING THERE IN THE FIRST PLACE. Just keep your silly bigoted food opinions to yourself AND GIVE ME MORE INJERA.
oh god y’all i want ethiopian food so badly right now
On the flip side, I find it equally off-putting when, say, I go to eat Korean food with people and it’s revealed that they have expectations for me to act as an ambassador on their ~*~*~*~ethnic food adventure~*~*~*~*~. Questions and comments beyond, “Oh, so what’s in this, how is this made,” which I consider reasonable going-out-to-eat-where-you’ve-never-eaten-before questions. There’s no harm in wanting to know what’s in your food. But then if there’s face-squinching, anything that smacks of “ewwwww,” I’m going to slap you. Oh, or, like, using bibimbap as a springboard for making huge, smug generalizations about East Asian culture. Not just Korean culture, which is bad enough, but going from bibimbap -> “I’m saying this about Korean culture because I like talking out of my ass” -> “I’m now going to talk about East Asia like it’s one giant Pan-Asian monolith because I am eating this food and clearly it’s cool since I’m in a restaurant with The Asians, amirite” -> “Ow ow ow why are you hitting me, oh dear god I had no idea a ladle could be weaponized, nooooo.”
Or like this one lady, when C. and I went on a double-date with a friend, and his date said, “Oh, I’m so excited, I’ve never tried this before. I feel like I’m going on a safari!” I actually laughed in her face because SERIOUSLY? We were at a Korean restaurant, for one, and also, SERIOUSLY? (Sorry if I ruined your date, Ian, but SERIOUSLY?)
It’s like a facet of that whole sentiment of, “Well, we might be stereotyping and objectifying you, but at least we’re using nice words to do it!” Basically I’ve started to automatically side-eye people who use words or phrases like “adventurous”, “exotic”, “dangerous,” “out of your comfort zone”, or the like to describe a cuisine or a non-white restaurant because they’re all terms relative to U.S. culture and food. It’s gross and smacks of imperialist relative value judgments and exoticizing and also, HOW FUCKING RUDE. Like for real.
Go eat the food. Enjoy the food. Or don’t, to each their own. BUT DON’T BE AN ASSHAT ABOUT IT. And for fuck’s sake, stop talking about it like you’re about to get your honorary citizenship from the R.O.K. because you fucking deigned to try a little 비빔밥.
“You know, people ask all the time, ‘What’s the most exotic, or unusual, or grotesque food you’ve ever eaten?’ And I still maintain it’s pretty hard to beat, for sheer grotesqueness and bizarreness, you know, a Cinnabon.”—No Reservations host and chef ANTHONY BOURDAIN, on The Colbert Report (via inothernews)
Hey! Are you open to South Asian food too? Because that I can totally submit, although my camera work probably needs to get better :D
Yes, of course! Our posts have been mostly East/Southeast Asian because that’s where our personal experience lies (the mod team), but our definition of Asian extends towards the continent, as long as it is something you consider underrepresented (or something other people find “unpalatable”) for reasons they have trouble explaining.
Thanks for following! We really appreciate it and we know you are here for the noms so please please please feel free to submit your own! Asia encompasses a lot of countries so that means a ton of noms (unlike whatever this general “Asian food” is). Help your fellow fyfcers out by submitting your fave things to nom!
So an hour or so ago, I posted a frustrated note about how I didn’t understand people who made adobo and complained about it being sour or vinegar-y, since you put close to a full cup of vinegar in the marinade/sauce. And a few people rightfully pointed out that new cooks probably wouldn’t look a recipe and have the proportions tip them off, which — totally fair. It was a note that was in truth only peripherally about people’s ability to cook.
Because when I’m cooking, food politics never leave me alone.
As a light-skinned PoC who experiences most of zir “ethnic” experiences around food, food is the place where I experience the most microaggressions. Because food is racialized too.
And not just in obvious ways, like my liberal arts college serving “soul food” night repeatedly through Febuary — which is coincidentally Black history month — but in more insidious and pervasive ways.
I get defensive of people complaining about specifically ethnic food because it’s almost never a value neutral judgement. I wish I could just say that some people like some food and others like different food. But it’s not that simple. Food is a site of normalization, of colonization, of resistance and community. Food has been a place where colonizers enforced their will on the people they colonize, or where colonized people have resisted the idea that they (and their food!) were ‘bad’ or ‘disgusting.’
If we lived in a world where everyone was equal, I probably wouldn’t care if someone called something that I ate “disgusting.” It’s a personal perference, right? But that’s not the world I see, and this is what I see.
I see that white and Western people have the right to pass judgement on any cuisine they try, but when I say that I don’t like American food I get called a snob. It’s that when white and Western people criticize food of other ethnicities, they use value laden words like “gross” “disgusting” or “nasty.” It’s that white and Western people seem to think that it is okay to spit out food like it is so physically disgusting that they cannot finish the food in their mouth.
It’s that French cuisine is renouned worldwide as the ultimate haute cuisine, and Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino, Chinese and many other cuisines from Asia are simplified down to “Asian” food where no more explaination is necessary. It’s that people always assume that their food eating experiences are universal — “I don’t understand how anyone can eat that” “How do they eat that” “Can you believe that’s popular over there?” It’s that white and Western people complain about the ingredients in ethnic cooking, as though only the parts of an animal that they deem valuable are worth consumption, and people who have to/like to eat other parts are automatically deemed “lesser.” It’s that aspersions are cast on the content of ethnic cooking — “Do they eat cats there” “How does that dog taste” “No I don’t trust where it comes from.”
It’s that a white or Western person complaining about ethnic food is not the same as an ethnic person complaining about white or Western food, because white and Western people are given permission to dislike “inferior” ethnic food while ethnic people who dislike “normal” Western food are deemed picky, hypocritical, snobbish, or unnatural. It’s that ethnic food is automatically deemed “strange” or “adventurous” and Western food is automatically “normal.”
It’s that colonization has touched ever part of our lives including our food, and it has left a lasting impact on the way that the world views the “goodness” of food. So while it’s fine that someone doesn’t like spicy food, or Asian food, or whatever, it is a form of privilege, in the United States. Because the food that person likes is always going to be coded as normal, and there will always be a plethora of choices for you to choose from. Because that person can refuse food that they don’t enjoy without being told that they are ungrateful. Because that person is considered “normal” and their food is considered “normal” too.
Just like Peaches talked yesterday about how religion and race intersect, this is how food and race and colonization intersect. It’s not as simple as you think, and that’s why I’m defensive. Because a lady can not pay attention to the predominant flavors of the Philippines, make adobo, write a review calling it “disgusting” and talk about how her step-son had to spit out his food, and it will be the #3 review on a major recipe website. That’s why we’re so defensive about our food.