By Ashleigh VanHouten
Sometimes your enjoyment of something has no connection to what you are expecting. Eating for example can very often have less to do with the constituent parts of the taste – sweet, tart, spicy – but more to do with what it feels like in your mouth not necessarily on your circumvalate, fungiform, and foliate papillae.
So often, our reason for loving or hating a food is about the texture, rather than the actual taste. Let me paint the picture with a couple everyday scenarios: my husband hates mushrooms because “they’re spongy;” my girlfriend can’t eat strawberries, of all things, because of the gritty little seeds in her teeth; and even I, a person who prides myself on eating the most eyebrow-raising dishes, have a bit of hate on for water chestnuts (they’re kinda crunchy, but in a stale way, and they have no taste…look, I just I don’t get it. They’re gross). On the flip side, we love chips for their salty crunch and fictional women laugh in ads all over the world thanks to the luxurious creamy texture of yogurt. Taste doesn’t exist in a vacuum – there’s an entire sensory experience that goes along with it, and texture (or mouthfeel, if you wanna get snobby about it) is a huge part of that. Ultimately, it’s all down to whether you’re digging the weird textures or not.
Take foie gras, for instance – the ever-controversial dish of fatty duck liver that, despite its more recent upsurge in popularity and availability, is still considered one of the “fancier” things you’ll find on a menu. When used very sparingly (say, shaved atop ice cream or layered into a juicy burger) it’s relatively easy to take, but in some cases, the thick, unctuous, even gelatinous presentation of foie gras can be far too rich for many.
Sweetbreads, the deceptively sweet name for offal, is a popular menu staple, but there are plenty who can’t get past the delicious taste simply because they can’t reconcile “creamy” meat. Prune does its best to get past any concerns, though, by frying theirs crispy with bacon.
Takashi, one of New York’s better-known Japanese/Korean grills, offers up plenty of textural experiences for the truly adventurous. If you think grilled heart or liver is out there, what about “Premium Super Thick Tongue” or “Testicargot”, cow balls served with miso butter, or maybe any number of their stomach-based dishes (as in, yeah, you’re eating cow stomach). The “Akiles-Yubiki”, flash-boiled shredded Achilles tendon, is as you might expect—chewy—but also what may be unexpected: sumptuous and delicious, at least for those of us who are used to eating the oft-ignored parts of an animal. Perhaps one of the toughest dishes on Takashi’s menu is the “Calf’s Brain Cream” served in a tube (!?) with blinis and caviar. I happen to think brain is actually delicious, with a rich, meaty taste and the texture of a soft pate, but serving creamy brains in a tube ups the ick factor considerably.
The chapulines at Mexican restaurant Tolaoche are perfect for those of you who like a citrusy, spicy crunch, as long as you can get past the fact that the crunch comes from dried grasshoppers. Grasshoppers of course are a popular dish in many cultures, with a great nutritional profile and plenty of protein, but North America has yet to fully embrace this particular sensory experience. The taste is crunchy and salty and even boring, but getting tiny insect legs stuck in your teeth is often a deal-breaker for diners, especially on date night.
Foodies are raving about the “California-inspired” Upland restaurant that recently opened in New York, and one dish that has diners clutching their pills is live scallop with fermented radish and sea beans. Cooked scallops can be tough for some people, but the slippery smooth taste (not to mention the “live” aspect) of the scallop can be a turn off for many.
A St. Mark’s place staple Kenka—a very popular Japanese Izakaya—really separates the boys from the men, food-wise: bull penis and turkey testicles are just a couple of the more interesting orders. In addition to texture, folks often have a hard time eating animal parts that, well, look like what they are: everyone has a friend who prefers to eat their meat off the bone, pun intended. So, if you aren’t a fan of eating dick or ball-shaped meat, you might want to skip these ones—and the pig’s feet might be a little much, too.
Amazing 66 is a Chinatown staple, and some of their most popular dishes are also the most cringe-worthy. Their plate of crispy duck tongues, for example, look exactly like what they are and to make matters worse, contain bones. Still, if you want to try intestine but are scared to eat it unadorned, you can eat them the way Americans make anything palatable: crispy fried. It definitely takes some of the edge off the decidedly chewy consistency.
This food-crawl for the adventurous (or crazy) is just the tip of the Iceberg – walk into any new neighborhood, check out a new restaurant (preferably ethnic) and you will find countless new dishes with new preparations, new ingredients, and new tastes and textures (well, new to you ). And while I may enjoy eating brains but hate water chestnut, I do think we can adjust and expand our palates simply by being open-minded. It wasn’t too long ago that the average American thought sushi was a terrifying foreign nightmare, and now salmon rolls account for 85 percent of lunches bought at grocery stores (I may have made this number up). Bottom line: get out there and give some new experiences a try, because life is too damn short not to try the grasshoppers.