Monday, May 23, 2011

Smelly Foods Know No Borders

A great article from Slate today about eating stinky cheese with Chinese folks. As the article notes, cheese (and other dairy products) are pretty rare in China, but smelly foods are not uncommon. The author brought some favorite smelly cheeses from the West to a restaurant in Shaoxing (a city known for its smelly fermented bean curd, semi-rotten vegetables, and other "chou mei" (stinking and fermented) dishes) to share with the master chefs. Their reactions were mixed...
At the Xianheng, a waitress cut the cheeses into pieces, and the assembled tasters began to pick them up with their chopsticks, sniffing and tasting. And where I had been impressed by what cheese and stinky soya products had in common, these culinary professionals were immediately struck by their differences. "Although in some ways you could say the flavours of cheese and fermented beancurd are similar," said Mao, "vegetable stinky foods are very clean and clear in the mouth (qing kou), and they disperse quickly, while milky foods are greasy in the mouth (ni kou), they coat your tongue and palate, and they have a long, lingering aftertaste."
Two other chefs said the cheeses had a heavy shan wei (muttony odour), an ancient term used by southern Chinese to describe the slightly unsavoury tastes associated with the northern nomads. Another said that the selection "smells like Russians". "The difference," he added, "is that the stinky things Chinese people eat give them smelly breath, while stinky dairy things affect the sweat that comes out of your skin."
The final verdict was positive for several of the cheeses, but overall the chefs agreed that smelly cheese is not destined to be a hit in China. This author's experience highlights the remarkable ways that tastes develop in different cultures, as well as the great joy of exploring other cultures through food.

One of my deeply held beliefs about the world is that our differences, whether on a culture to culture level or a person to person level, are more interesting than our similarities. Traveling abroad opens your eyes to the myriad customs you don't even realize that others might not share. On an intellectual level, you know that people in China have a different culture, but you are never really prepared for the ways this manifests itself in daily minutiae. Cheese may be a silly example, but it's illustrative of this larger concept that although we all share common human aspirations and desires (for stinky foods, for example), we often pursue these desires down divergent paths. If you ask me, this diversity of our similarities (to put it paradoxically) is a major part of what makes life worth living.

Stinky Tofu: Part of what makes life worth living.

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