Order the chef’s suggestion

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Food for me is something of a love affair. The conflict of flavors, the impact of spices on my mouth and mind; and the ritual of breaking bread with loved ones – eating is about so much more than just providing energy to continue your day. But taste is different for everyone. What does it do and how does it affect what we put in our mouths?

Being a lonely but decadent kind of lass, I spend a lot of time eating alone, people-watching in restaurants. The insights into people’s lives are quite incredible. One night, I wrote half a David Williamson-style play from the verbatim conversation of the self-destructive, co-dependent couple at the next table.
But what disturbs me most is how predictable people are with their orders. She will have the fish, he will go the steak. Even when eating outside of our cultural comfort zones, we don’t wander far, with creamy chicken abominations like chicken tikka masala and butter chicken far and away the most popular Indian meals. (More on the colorful history of curry here.)

Cooking blog TheKitchn compiled a list of the top searched-for recipes in the US last year.

The top five are:

  1. Pork Chops
  2. Meatballs
  3. Chocolate Cake
  4. Chocolate Chip Cookies
  5. Bread

Seriously, America? Pork chops, chocolate cake and bread? You’ll never regain cultural world domination with a diet like that. Julia Child must be turning in her grave.

How your taste buds work

So why do some people crave white bread and steamed chicken, while some of us prefer lemongrass, rice and cardamom-stuffed Anaheim peppers?

Well, as it turns out, we are all different when it comes to taste.

Discovery Communications’ How Stuff Works site explains:

“The primary tastes gave early humans clues about what food was good to eat and what was harmful. Sweet foods usually had calories. Salty foods had important vitamins and minerals. Sour foods could be healthy, like oranges, or spoiled, like rotten milk,” it says.

“Bitter tastes were often poisonous. The enhanced flavor of processed food could signify nutritional value that isn’t actually there, but our preferences have remained. We still crave and respond to our ancestral favorites, even to our detriment.”

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When we are hungry, we think we can eat anything and that is true to a point but starving has another interesting side-affect: hunger makes our food taste better.

A study at the University of Malawi in 2004 found young men were better able to taste sweet and salty after going without food for 16 hours.

Professor Yuriy P Zverev found the difference in taste was for tastes that occurred in foods edible to humans, whereas the men all responded to bitter in the same way, regardless of hunger.

“While sweet and salty tastes are indicators of edible substances and trigger consumption, a bitter taste indicates a substance which is not suitable for consumption and should be rejected,” Professor Zverev wrote.

So there is something deep in our biology that predisposes us to particular tastes – sugar and fat, in particular.

We imagine growing rates of obesity in children is because they are craving, then gorging themselves on sweet and fatty foods and their parents have not the understanding or willpower to stop it. However, new research suggests obese children have less-sensitive taste budsthan the rest of the population.

The researchers, at the Charite Children’s Hospital in Berlin, found that children with less taste sensitivity may eat more food to get the same flavor.

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Much to my beloved’s chagrin (and anyone whose nose is nearby, I suspect), I adore pickled, briny canned fish. Joe loves me and tolerates it but having grown up in California, where fresh fish is abundant, he simply cannot understand it.

Some people like sweet and salty together – for me, it’s salty and sour. I love nothing more than some pickled herrings from Scandinavia, vacuum-sealed and carted halfway across the world to my eager taste buds. I recognize this is a strange obsession.

On a whim I once ordered a Thai dish that the menu called “salty, spicy, cold fermented fish”. It was as described, about the texture and appearance of 40-year-old carpet underlay. Sounds horrifying, doesn’t it? Yet it was probably the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten.

So where does this come from? My father is indifferent to “fishy” fish. My mother – though she will happily go a fish cake or two – is not a fan. So the nurture argument does not hold water.

My mother’s mother, however, would happily eat mackerel out of a can and, being a post-war shiela, she was able to make three meals out of one tin and three potatoes. Fish from a tin on mashed potatoes is still my comfort food of choice.

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Some of the funniest pieces of Cairns family folklore are centered on food and our relationship with it. For my mob, food is love and it plays a major role in cementing our relationships with each other. We break bread and grow together as a family.

When I was 16, we all went out to my brother Alan’s favorite restaurant for my birthday. He was insanely jealous at the time and what followed added insult to injury: When his rolled around shortly after Christmas, we were too poor for anything but minted rissoles and mash. He is still filthy about it 15 years later. Why?

My hunch is that Alan is less upset about the rissoles – though they were pretty gross – than our failure to put some money away for his birthday. It was the lack of care that upset him and fair enough. If food is love, we showed him we didn’t love him enough to make the effort.

Now, every birthday we take him to his favorite restaurant and order his favorite dish, which he gets the last bites of – because we love him.

When I see my father cooking for my mum, I can see the love and care he puts in to make her happy. It’s something I see mirrored in my own kitchen when Joe and I prepare meals together, which is usually the highlight of my day.

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Most humans develop taste preferences based on the foods we ate growing up and by copying foods our friends eat.

A Texas study about obesity and childhood eating habits drew a strong link between what children ate and the behavior of their families.

“Children learn about eating not only through their own experiences but also by watching others,” the study concludes.

“A growing body of research demonstrates similarities between parents’ and children’s food acceptance and preferences, intake, and willingness to try new foods.”

But as we get older, our tastes change: The smoky Islay malt whisky that used to taste like camp fire now gives us a warm fuzzy glow. The strong cheese you wouldn’t touch as a child is now delicious on slivers of tart green apple.

Ask any pregnant woman and she will tell you her taste buds are not hers any more.

In a time of relative plenty, why don’t we stick to what we know? Why would we branch out into flavors we don’t know we like?

The answer is instinct. If we just ate the same things, not only would we be malnourished but we would starve when that food was out of seasonor we migrated. In order to survive, we need to try new things.

(This theory was proven devastatingly correct during the Irish potato famine, which was caused by fungus-blighted crop failures and exacerbated by communities’ reliance on potatoes – and specifically their loyalty to growing one type of potato that was especially susceptible to the disease.)

Order the chef’s suggestion

I eat widely now but there are still so many things I’ve yet to eat and so many combinations of flavors I would love to try.

When I’m sitting there in a restaurant, eavesdropping on the next table and staring at the menu, the temptation is always there to order something I know I love.

But then I think: those dishes were once new to me. And you never know until you try.

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