Food theory debugged
– by Alisha Nanda
Prepare nice crispy pakodas and serve them with tomato sauce. For some, this is a dish to the heavens. But for the others, you killed the pakodas the moment you served them with the tomato sauce. If you see it logically, the combination shouldn’t be bad. It is almost nostalgia inducing. But the issue comes with what those nostalgic moments were. They could have been poles apart for two different persons. Tomato sauce is the best combination for some with the pakodas, but for the rest it has to be ‘Imli ki chatni’.
The same food can have polarizing effects on different people. It doesn’t matter how you cook or serve it, there will always be some people who would love it, and some who would hate it.
You might not even bother about the mashed potatoes as your side dish, but the others might feel like puking just at its sight. Musk melons are a respite for some in the summers, even for my parents. But if you ask me, I can’t even drink water from the bottle that was kept in the same fridge with the musk melons.
What makes people love or loathe something so strongly has always been a pertinent question for me and for many others alike.
Just like, I want my cola without the fizz but for rest of the world this makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. My sister can’t eat Dal Bati because she can’t stand the texture of Batis. For all the other members in my family, it is something to die for.
There was a time my Dad couldn’t eat idlis, because he could never accept the idea of eating something that was fermented. My mom gradually made him develop the taste for them, and today, he just loves them. On the other hand my parents have still been unable to convince me to eat those musk melons. (I mean why will you eat those pieces as fruits?)
People love mutton livers. But no one in my family can stand the taste. I remember I almost puked at the first bite right on the lunch table at an office party while the others on the table almost licked the plate clean.
I had a friend who always wanted pickle with every meal. Be it chicken or noodles. Dal rice or Pasta. Another friend of mine would ask for raw onions a minimum of three times at every restaurant and yes with any kind of meals. Clearly, I could never understand any of that. For me different flavors required different side orders and different drinks to go with them. I am one of those people who can’t mix dal and chicken gravy together ever. It almost seems inhuman to me. I want the flavors to entice different taste buds differently and not mix them all up and confuse their existence.
Everyone I know loves Pani puris. My impression of Pani Puris has always been chilled delicious minty, sour, salty and slightly sweet water with mashed potatoes in the puris (Ah! I am drooling while writing this). But, when I first had the most famous Pani puri in Mumbai, I hated them. My drool worthy memories turned into disgust. I mean who puts hot ragda in pani puris. It’s insulting for the puris I feel. I never eat Pani Puris when I am in Mumbai. But I will always eat them when I go to my hometown, Bhopal. I am not saying the taste is bad here. It just doesn’t match with my memories. We can go on and on with this, looking for a conclusion, as to what induces such distinct liking or disliking in people for different tastes and different foods.
I went through a study recently that pointed out a few factors that affected the food habits in people. There are certain food items which people either want or don’t. There is nothing in between.
But this doesn’t happen with all food and all people of course. Paul Rozin, a University of Pennsylvania professor of psychology and expert in food aversions, showed that certain foods were indeed polarizing among certain generations. On a research done on the students and their parents in the university, some foods, according to him elicited strong reactions in either direction from the parents and grandparents. It ran in their genes. The whole family felt passion for certain kinds of foods or hated them completely.
True indeed! There are foods that none of my family members or at least one side of my family can’t have. My mother and her side of the family loves ‘ber’ (Indian plum) but my dad and his side of the family can’t even stand them. I hate them too. But my sister can have it.
Many of the foods that affect us most strongly have extreme or unusual qualities. They will have a unique distinguishing factor like the red color of the beet root, or the bitterness of the bitter guards. In addition, humans are supposed to be neophobic. We naturally don’t trust everything new. If we did and tried everything, we’d be dead by now.
But there is hope in some cases. Repeated exposure of the same food can lead to acceptance. This is called the acquired taste. Idlis in my dad’s case and sea food in my case are few such examples. I hated sea food. But slowly and gradually I am learning to accept it. Who knows may be in the future I will start enjoying them too. Exposure doesn’t guarantee acceptance or liking though. Like I said, I have been avoiding musk melons for ages now. I might never like them.
One culture’s food can be a fear factor for the other is directly dependent on exposure. A North-Indian living in Bangalore might start eating rice in every meal and forget about Parathas completely. Or the one in Goa might start loving crabs and squids which earlier for them were only smelly dishes.
Our food habits are also guided by our past experiences. “Most of what guides our food behavior is past experience,” says taste researcher Linda Bartoshuk of the University of Florida. “It’s learned.” We all start out with a love of sweet foods and an aversion to bitter ones, she says. But conditioning takes over even before birth. A research also shows that food preferences can transfer from mother to child depending on what she eats during pregnancy and while she is breastfeeding.
My mom ate Samosas almost every day when my sister was born. My sister loves them. She is also not fond of sweets. My mother did not eat a lot of sweets when she was pregnant with my sister.
A study also suggests that some people taste more than others. This is just because they have more taste buds. They come in the category of supertasters. They taste bitter, fatty or any unusual taste much more than the others. And at the same time they are the ones who enjoy great food the most. They might seem to be picky and particular about their taste but at the same time they will be able to find any difference in taste first. However it is the experiences as stated by Bartoshuk, that matter the most.
But there is something above the taste buds that affects our liking or loathing a certain taste as well. It is what I call the foodie nose. The odor often affects your liking for a food as strongly as your taste buds and experiences. For example, cheese for most is an appetizing ingredient but for some it reminds them of a stinky experience. So is true for Guavas. And milk. So many people around us hate the taste and odor of milk. But for people like me, it is a must have.
The fact that food can viscerally conjure up memories is known as the Proust effect, named for the author’s description of being transported by the taste of madeleine cookies. My dad did a very smart thing while we were growing up. He made us smell and taste beer, and today, I hate the taste.
Food comes with such strong emotions and memories that they can almost be linked with identities. Just like South Indians love must like dosas. And a North Indian must love their parathas. Similarly, South Indians love dahi chawal and for north Indians it is almost a food only sick people will eat.
Polar reactions to a certain food hence talk reveal a lot about the food but there are other factors to it as well. So if someone doesn’t eat something even if you prepare it with all your heart, blame it on the same factors that make you love that food. Your past experiences, your upbringing, your ancestors, your number of taste buds and smelling aptitude, and, yes, your mother.