two things i have to try (thanks to chowhound):

natto. a very traditional, very commonly eaten japanese food item made of fermented soybeans. (tim asks, “isn’t that what miso is?” no, timmy. actually, miso is made by inoculating either steamed rice or barley with a particular fungus, and this is then fermented into the yeast mold called koji, which is added to steamed soybeans and fermented further.) for natto, the soybeans are first steamed and then inoculated with a bacillus and left to ferment in a heated environment (and sometimes tied up in straw). natto is one of those foods that are considered “challenging,” particular for western palates. upon fermentation, it acquires a really fetid odor and a slimy texture complete with strands of goo that stick together like a spiderweb. of course, like all foods that are probably less aesthetically pleasing than we might like, natto possesses many nutritional benefits. (and i will forgo the list of vitamins here, since i’m not trying — nor do i want — to be some kind of dr. weil.) given time and effort, one can acquire a taste for natto. a googling of “natto” yields many amusing websites. i much enjoy the pictures on this one.. its uses are many, and one could potentially consume this stenchy treat at all meals of the day, but one guy claims that if you order a natto handroll (with a shiso leaf) in a reputable sushi place, they’ll know right away that you’re not some gaijin-poseur and will be much more inclined to give you the real goods.

balut. this is a snack from the philippines: a half-grown (18-day old) duck embryo is boiled within its shell. this is then consumed straight from the shell, beak, feathers and all. the filipinos claim this is an aphrodisiac (as most asians are wont to do with many of their, ahem, “delicacies”). balut is also popular bar food. don’t check out this link if you’re (a)easily grossed out, (b)a card-carrying PETA member, (c)hungry, or (d)all of the above. apparently, the result is a very a intensely ducky soup (although the posters on chowhound said they had chicken).

in both cases, natives will eagerly offer their beloved foods to foreigners just to see what sort of reaction they can provoke. i do that sometimes. also, this insistence on the nutritional/virility-increasing value of such foods only reminds me of how, when i was really young, my mother would push a plate towards me or extends her chopsticks towards my mouth, some unknown substance suspended between the tips, urging me, “eat it. it’s good for you.” after being taken in by this a few too many times, i learned to be wary. (happy mother’s day, mom!) it’s funny that now, i willingly eat all the foods i loathed as a child. i even likekidney and lima beans now. there’s also a sort of masochistic side to asian eating (not asian-eating, mind you. that’s just wrong.) — the claims that eating bitter melon (or live, still-beating cobra heart) will make you stronger, i wonder if they mean physically or mentally?

it’s also interesting to note how the real hurdle for most westerners in asian cuisines is texture. we seem to have a particular fondness for comestibles that are squishy, sticky, gooey, slimy, or extremely chewy (and sometimes all these things at once). the infamously malodorous durian and stinky tofu are problematic for me. not to eat — they’re delicious — but when one considers how many asians, particularly those like my parents, find cheese totally unpalatable. this, i think, is more a texture problem than taste. there aren’t really that many dishes in the chinese repertoire that are creamy. and yet, i would think that the pungency of some of the more renowned cheeses would be a plus.


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