Never Again?

This week’s Friday Five question is mine:

What are five things you’ll never eat or drink again, if you can help it?

I do not believe I am very picky when it comes to food. I was, when younger, but when I moved to Korea, I suddenly was confronted with the fact that I had either to adapt to a completely unfamiliar diet, or eat only the worst of Western foods—for, in Korea as I am sure of many other places, the best of Western food has made no inroads, while the crappiest, most fatty, worthless junk food of the Western industrial world has been taken at face value as “North American food”. It has more than once irked me that people have asked me, very earnestly, whether I as a Westerner love to eat McDonald’s hamburgers and pizza, but they have no idea that I should crave something as sophisticated as a smoked gouda, or in penne arabbiata.

While the Korean palate seems hostile to the more interesting cheeses the world has to offer, it is sad that people are not more open to the multiplicity and variety of foods which they could be enjoying, but instead seeming in general to take absolute garbage as emblematic of the cuisine of the rest of the world. Mind you, the same can be said of the Western treatment of Asian foods. Battered chicken balls and deepfried eggrolls and macaroni with soy sauce on it and even steamed cauliflower and broccoli are far from “Chinese Food”, but how many people in Canada really grasp that? Certainly, some do, but I should think a great many people don’t, with perhaps the exception of the macaroni.

The cultured tend to know better: people who revel in eating the finest of their own cuisines tend to grasp the difference bewteen cruddy imitation and the real thing when they venture into the world of foreign cuisine. And those who have traveled abroad also tend to know better, and to be at least a little more adaptable, at least in my experience. This adaptability is a very good thing, which I have found to serve me well in my travels. And yet, there are certain things I should never eat again, unless I were absolutely desperate. (And I state this knowing that all such resolutions are eventually tested: for example, at one point in my life I would have claimed that I wished enever again to eat meat or fish. How wrong I would have been. Even a burger from a burger joint is something I inflict upon myself once or twice a year, just to remind myself why I don’t eat it more often.)

That said, adaptability is only one lesson I have learned in traveling and eating. Another is that when you have a bad experience with something, once might be understandable, but twice is a fool’s punishment. If something makes you feel absolutely sick, you should not eat it. If something makes you literally sick, you should never eat it again.

One thing I shall avoid for the rest of my life, as much as is possible, is street food. Among the many things that gave me food poisoning during my first year in South Korea, street food played a small but painful role. When traveling, I do not eat street food. Even when I am in Jeonju, I do not eat street food, or at least nothing containing any kind of meat, even in Thailand where I have heard street food is to-die-for. The one exception to this is hot dog stands in big Canadian cities. I have a smokey on a bun once every trip to Canada, but always from a stand where I can see the thing cooked before my very eyes.

There are a couple of Korean foods to which I do not react well: jjik (or is it chik?), which is a kind of black, thick, foul-tasting drink one has after certain kinds of meals. It tasted like hell and gave me the most ridiculous gas I’ve ever experienced. And then there’s beondaegi, which is roasted silkworm larvae. Further explanation is, I imagine, unnecessary for most of my readers, except to say that I am surprised that many Korean children adore the taste of dirty gym socks, which I swear is what beondaegi tastes like.

Let’s see, what else? Ah: all-you-can-eat buffet Chinese food made in North America. I just can’t do it. It’s too much of an affront to my tastes now. I may have the odd battered chicken ball or dish of almond chicken, and I do plan on having a nasty old plate of General Tao Chicken next time I’m in Montreal, but I hope that will not eat at an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet again as long as I live.

Another thing I refrain from ingesting is pastries with mysterious contents made outside North America. The reason for this is that your guess as to the contents may be absolutely wrong. In Korea, at least, you can often find, in what looks as if it must be a lovely, apple-filled pastry, things that simply do not belong: pollock, peas, corn, pizza sauce, and great hunks of spam. The disappointment I felt that first time I bit into an Awful Surprise Pastry was eclipsed only by the gag reflex and the irresistible instinct to spit it all out.

The last thing I will never eat again, as long as I live, is mashed potatoes. Some people think I am mad in saying this, as it is a highlight of Western cooking for them. But I have never enjoyed the stuff. Many is the sad, stern memory of my parents outraged at my refusal—more reflexive than conscious—to eat mashed potatoes. The flavour, the texture, the feeling of it in my mouth, all provoke the aforementioned gag reflex more powerfully even than the Awful Surprise Pastry. Of all culinary punishments which could be inflicted upon me, mashed potatoes is one of the worst. I have hated the stuff all my life, to the point where my mother took to setting aside a few potatoes fromt those she planned to mash, just to spare the family from a fight or the scene of my vomiting, and to spare herself from finding more mashed potatoes in the kitchen trash bin. Unless I am a refugee in a camp where all these is to eat is mashed potatoes, I shall never, ever eat the stuff again. And even in the camp, I’d rather cook the skins of the potatoes and eat them, though in that case I shall simply take what’s given to me and be thankful.

If you’d like to see what other people will refuse to eat for the rest of their lives, check out the Friday Fivers links in the dropdown menu in the right sidebar.

6 thoughts on “Never Again?

  1. I’ve heard that people in many Asian cultures find cheese to be revolting… which I guess isn’t surprising, as it IS essentially rotten milk.

  2. Well, they tend to be less negative about the flavourless kinds, like mild cheddar and mozzarella, but yeah, real cheeses, like goat cheese, parmesan, gouda, and brie tend to turn off most of my Korean friends.

    Given the amount of fermented food they eat in Korea (like fermented bean paste, fermented spicy vegetables better known as kimchi, fermented this and fermented that—to the point where the town I live in yearly holds a fermented food festival!), I can’t say I think it’s so self-evident they would dislike cheese. I think it’s the richness of it, the strong and very unfamiliar flavour, and of course the texture.

  3. I saw a cool program about this topic, which showed all sorts of “extreme cuisine” enjoyed by various cultures (some form of rotted fish was common in many parts of the world, weirdly enough); their conclusion was that you can love anything you’re brought up to eat, but the “extreme” foods of other cultures, which as you say would be unfamiliar, are usually off-putting.

    When you got to Korea, how did you react to all the fermented foods?

  4. Well, that’s the funny thing. At first I was a little leery about dwen jang jjigae—kind of like a strong miso soup—but very soon I acquired a taste for it, as well as most other fermented Korean foods. In fact, I like it better than my girlfriend, who was raised in Korea.

    The funny thing is that most of the foreigners I know are quite open to Korean food, including the more “extreme” stuff. They may not eat beondaegi, but they usually like dwen jang jjigae once in a while, or chun guk jang (an even-more extreme version of dwen jang jjigae so potent it can stink up your house, hence certain friends never have it at home but out at a restaurant). Koreans tend to be open to the more mild forms of foreign food, but in the main, the real foreign food—things like Indian dishes, Thai food, and even proper American food—they don’t often give a chance except as a gesture of politeness, say, if they’re served it as a guest. I had the experience of cooking Indian food for some students, just dishes I know how to make well, and they were pretty closed to it. One guy started putting traditional Korean red pepper paste on it, which was the only way he’d eat it.

    Then again, there foreigners I know who only eat the crappiest forms of Korean food, and who insist it’s the best part of the cuisine, while refusing to eat the healthier, more delicious and complexly nuanced dishes. But all in all, I think Westerners have a greater openness to “foreign” foods since eating semi-authentic foreign food has, over the last few decades or so, become more a part of our culture. This is still just beginning in Korea, and unfortunately for Koreans, it’s happening at a time when there are big corporate chains out to convince the world that Western food and fast food are the same thing. This only reinforces the attitude that foreign food is unhealthy trash, which I’ve encountered among many older people.

    But there is nonetheless a growing availability of foreign foods, which is a good thing. At least in Seoul you can enjoy good Vietnamese, Thai, Turkish, and apparently (according to some but not all) passable Indian food. Perhaps people will catch on that pastries and pizza and burgers and poorly-made spaghetti aren’t all there is to foreign food, and instead of rejecting it outright, will seek healthy and interesting alternatives. It’d be nice to see all the McDonald’s and Burger Kings in the country close down… like the Burger King and Subway in Jeonju had to do, for lack of business.

  5. I’d never even thought about exotic cuisines in a country that is itself exotic by American standards; thank you for filling me in on the Korean attitude to different cuisines, and how they think of American food, which I’d never have known about otherwise.

    You always make Korean food sound so interesting; My husband and I are really going to have to find someone who can tel us if the Korean restaurant we’ve heard of is authentic. :-)

  6. The flip side of bad foreign food in Korea is bad Korean food elsewhere.

    There are three Korean restaurants in my area and one Japanese restaurant owned by Koreans that serves a few Korean dishes. For a long time, I ate Japanese food at the Japanese restaurant, but every once in a while I’d eat some Korean food. Every time, I regretted it, except for the kimchi, which was amazing.

    Finally my husband and I learned of a Korean restaurant. This restaurant is the worst Korean restaurant I’ve ever eaten at. It doesn’t even deserve to be called a Korean restaurant. I think the owner panders to Midwestern tastes and has been doing it for so long that she no longer remembers what Korean food is really like.

    A Korean restaurant opened last year that is authentic. The decor is Korean kitsch, but one forgets about it once the food arrives.

    The third one is brand new and I’m hoping to stop in next week.

    That turned into a sort-of-on-topic rant. Maybe you can develop a Friday Five question out of it.

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