A Little Question … Can Travel Re-Train Your Taste Buds?

I hated mushrooms as a child…and calling them fungi didn’t help much, the texture was odd, they come in funny colors, and they’re relatively tasteless. The mushrooms were just the beginning though, add to those a long litany of other fresh fruits and vegetables that found a home on my “does-not-pass-my-lips” list.

Tomatoes? Nope, not unless they came mashed to smithereens, jarred, and with a Prego label slapped on the side.

Bananas? Gag me now.

Olives? Pineapple? Asparagus, raw broccoli, spinach, apples, peaches, almonds, lettuce, or cucumber…?

Thank you, but kindly no.

Then, at the ripe age of 14, I announced to my family I was going vegetarian and I would now subsist on boxed macaroni and cheese and canned green beans.

And for some odd reason, they mostly let me.

Chili peppers drying in the strong Thai sun.

Sun-dried chili peppers, my dad’s favorite way to flavor bland food!

Fast forward to my college years, and suddenly the “veggie option” when dinning with friends was a huge seasoned mushroom plopped onto my plate like the limp slab of fungus it was. And I ate it, especially if someone else had just cooked it for me. And at some point, it just wasn’t that bad anymore. Over the course of several years of occasionally sampling juicy red tomatoes, I also discovered “hey, this flavor really explodes over your senses!”

My dad’s home-grown tomatoes from the garden.

So I sampled more, branched out, and formed an un-researched theory (hey, the internet was still in it’s infancy back then)—if you try a food you hate often enough, just a tiny bit regularly, you grow accustomed to the flavor. And if you continue forcing yourself to sample, one day you might actually grow to like it.

Turns out, that’s pretty a pretty accurate theory. You can learn to like a new food in 30 days according to foodies if you sample a tiny bit each and every day. Then at the end of 30 days, give yourself a weeklong break. Come back to this seemingly distasteful food and you just might like it, or at least hate it a whole lot less.

Traveling Taste Buds

I found the “repetitive sampling” trick has worked wonders to re-train my taste buds over the past nearly three years of travel. You see, America has a food problem—we’ve mostly grown accustomed to the dulled flavors of processed foods, blindly accepting fast food chains and three month old “ripening” fruits traveling 4,000 miles to reach our table.

Hit the road though, and it’s a lot further between those American chains. Eating fresh, made-to-order street food removes the canned and frozen veggies from your diet and all of a sudden your food tastes more alive. Several friends wonder about my absolute love for dark brown whole grains—I love them because they taste like the earth, hearty and healthy and so flavorful.

So let’s take a look at some of the delicious foods and flavors you meet on the traveling road:

Sesame Seeds

Sesame seeds adorn these crunchy, flash-fried green beans in Thailand

Ah sesame, I once thought the height of a sesame seed’s life could be live out on a hamburger bun, but Southeast Asia in particular has a deep love of all things sesame. This includes one of my favorite treats in the world, sesame seeds and honey squares. Anticipate this nutty and subtle flavor occasionally sprinkled on veggies and black sesame is frequently added to soy milk; in fact, it’s worth seeking out a cold container of sesame soy milk for a delicious pick-me-up when it’s too hot and muggy to move.

You could technically avoid this flavor if you travel, but American foods tend to under-use sesame seeds and it’s not deserved! I highly recommend sesame seeds sprinkled on veggies; they’re inexpensive in the States and can easily add a dash of new flavor to your dinner.

Nuts and Dried Fruits

The delicious fruits and nuts in Beijing, China.

Vendors in China lined the streets selling assortments of nuts and dried fruits as fuel for hiking the Great Wall

Roving nut vendors frequent nearly every developing country I’ve visited over the past several years. They even come with their own scales and baggies so you can pick out your favorite nuts and bag them right up. Nuts work well as a snack on buses and trains and vendors know this is an easy sell for even those Westerners leery of street food.

In India, the vendors jumped on and off from train station to train station, constantly working the aisles and offering bags of spicy nuts served in a cone of newspaper. Guatemala took a more low-key approach, with the vendors circling the restaurants, and in Jordan huge shops bagged up every sized nut for some mid-day protein jolts. There are more nuts out there than just peanuts, almonds and walnuts, so I suggest you really peruse the nut aisle more closely next time you go shopping and try out a new nut just for grins.

Fruit, Glorious Fruit!

Street eats, decorative fruit, at the Shinlin Night Market in Taipei, Taiwan.

Street eats, decorative fruit, at the Shinlin Night Market in Taipei, Taiwan.

My dad hates mangos because (so he tells me) they use to wage war throwing  rotted mango at each other throughout his childhood growing up in Panama. Lack of familiarity throughout childhood meant I avoided this fruit for decades. Until Southeast Asia and Central America, that is.

Mango and fresh fruits are cheap and easy snacks and I discovered the rest of the world loves mango. Seriously loves. Mango cornflakes graced the specialty shelves in Nepal, mango yogurt, dried mango, mango shakes in Laos, bags of fresh cut mango with salt, lime and chili powder in Guatemala. Essentially, you name it, and they’ll be happy to add some mango.

Bathe your mango in sweet condensed milk for some delicious mango sticky rice from Thailand or sample Thai pineapple fried rice.  Fruit lovers of the world beware, traveling forces you to sample fruits and build up the taste tolerance to these sweet treats – why not hunt down some new fruits in your local grocery store and find a creative way to let your taste buds wander the world right from your kitchen?

Raw Fresh Vegetables

Brightly colored fresh veggies line the markets in Fuli, China.

Brightly colored veggies line the Fuli market in China — vegetables so fresh they begged us to take them home!

Days-old veggies line the markets in Asia and Central America and the vibrant oranges, reds, and greens scream out their freshness as you wander. There’s a catch-22 in traveling, you’re cautioned to avoid raw vegetables for fear of germs (from the water and handling since the germs aren’t cooked away) but yet the locally grown produce I’ve found while traveling looks so appealing fresh and healthy. If there’s a kitchen available to me I always take a local cooking class to learn some dishes for cooking up their delicious veggies!

Back here in Florida we have the exact opposite of a co-op, local food culture and farmers markets are few and far between…that being said, there still is a farmers market and the vegetables sold there come from within just miles of my hometown. They’re fresher than anything you can find in your supermarket which means the flavors will really pop out at you as you munch. I find washed farmers market veggies are best eaten raw since they’re so tasty and local.   :)

Mushrooms

A colorful pile of mushrooms at a market in Fuli, China.

A colorful pile of mushrooms at a market in Fuli, China.

Oh the mushroom. I wish I could say travel endeared the mushroom to me, but it hasn’t. For all that I truly do believe familiarity can train your taste buds, there is also something to say about preference. There are 10,000 species of mushroom in North America alone, I haven’t sampled them all, so I’m not giving up entirely, and I’ll eat a mushroom if it’s served to me, but I normally choose to pass on the various types mushrooms I encounter.

They Say it’s Just 30 Days?!

This is far from an exhaustive list of the flavors I’ve learned to love once I hit the road, after all, there are dozens of spices and plants I newly encounter on the road (mangosteen anyone?!). But these listed all fall in the realm of things I learned to love through repetition. Have you found this to be the case in your life? On your travels?

Anything you once hated but learned to love? Anything I’ve convinced you might just be worth a 30 day taste bud challenge? :)

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48 Responses to A Little Question … Can Travel Re-Train Your Taste Buds?

  1. Our Oyster July 16, 2011 at 3:50 am #

    Can you grow to like fish sauce though? Can you? CANYOU? I think no…. :)

    • Anonymous July 16, 2011 at 3:58 am #

      Hah, that’s a tough one…but I do actually just stop asking questions sometimes if it’s oyster sauce (not remotely as strong as fish sauce!)…and can no longer really tell if it’s a plain broth or one with oyster sauce because I am so familiar with the flavor now! :)

  2. Bluegreen Kirk July 5, 2011 at 12:51 pm #

    I think people sell themselves short by not trying new and different foods.  i will eat or try to eat anything at least once or twice. Depending on where you are and who makes it the same food can have a very different taste.

    • Anonymous July 5, 2011 at 12:55 pm #

      That is a very good point, there are foods I have tried back home and hated, but abroad the variety of that fruit tastes a lot different! I really like papaya in SEA, but don’t really the variety my dad grows in our yard, so I thought I hated papaya until I traveled :) 

  3. Deidre July 4, 2011 at 4:40 am #

    I’ve learned to love a lot of things, I used to hate zucchini. I like mushroom raw but not cooked! 

    Love you blog :)

    • Anonymous July 4, 2011 at 3:02 pm #

      Thanks Deidre! Raw mushrooms is something I haven’t tried in ages, maybe
      I’ll like them that way better, I’ll give it a taste :)

  4. Faith June 28, 2011 at 12:01 am #

    My husband sent this post to me days ago saying I HAD to read this, and I see why. I became a vegetarian when I was 12, and I also lived on macaroni and cheese and canned green beans…and instant rice. I also drank pepsi. The end. Heh.

    My absolute number one enemy is the onion. I don’t see how I will ever concur it.

    But there are a LOT of foods I haven’t been able to eat for years, and was always very scared of how I’d survive traveling, since it was the number one thing I’ve wanted to do. People made a lot of jokes about it… but I was really concerned. And then one day I was at the grocery store and they were sampling cooked mushrooms, and while I always thought mushrooms looked cute, I could never eat them… and then that day, for some reason, I just sampled one. And oh my goodness, out of nowhere, I loved it! I’m obsessed with mushrooms these days, I can’t try enough different mushrooms. I always liked pretty much all fruits (except apricots…which I’ll tolerate, but don’t really enjoy)  but have a hard time with a lot of different vegetables. I’ve been working on it though! Just a few weeks ago I discovered I like sushi, which is really exciting because sushi is available in LOTS of places and I couldn’t stand it at all before. I’ve also come to like bok choy, I can order spicy foods up to 3 stars (which is HUGE! pepper was too spicy for me before), avocado…and I’m sure there are others but I can’t think of them.

    I really dislike curry, though. And onion is my number one enemy, and I’m TRYING to get used to peppers (starting with just green peppers) but I’m finding that one hard.

    Anyhow! This is a really long comment, I just wanted to really say I can relate :D

    • Anonymous June 28, 2011 at 4:36 am #

      Thanks for weighing in on this – your husband sent you to the right place! :)  I firmly think we’re all allowed to hate one or two items and stick to it…so no worries there. As for the curries, there are so many types of curry that you should try to sample maybe a friend’s dish when they order food. When I traveled through India I was seriously AMAZED by the number of unique and distinct flavors and curries that country possesses. It could be a lost cause, but I also think there’s a curry or two out there you just might like!  Good luck with the peppers, I like mine raw and with hummus  :)

  5. Akila June 27, 2011 at 5:11 pm #

    So, have you been to Tuscany?  If not, I think that place will retrain you to love mushrooms because their mushrooms are the best in the world.  I love all food — as long as it’s vegetarian — so I can’t say there’s anything I’ve ever truly disliked.  I’m not a huge fan of yellow mustard but I think it’s more the color than anything else.  

    • Anonymous June 28, 2011 at 4:25 am #

      I have been to Tuscany, actually, but it was on a budget and probably not as fresh and fabulous as it could have been. Also…I avoided mushrooms on the menus  :-/   But! With your recommendation I will definitely branch out and sample some when I go back (which I def will and the sooner the better!) :)  As for mustard – love. mix it with ketchup for an pleasantly orange mix maybe?

  6. Claire June 26, 2011 at 8:14 pm #

    Just bought some fresh corn from the market in Granada….if this works out I will be back for more wholesome goodness :)

    • Anonymous June 28, 2011 at 4:23 am #

      How was the corn?! Hopefully tasty, hot and fresh (and slathered in butter for good measure! :)

  7. Robert McKay June 24, 2011 at 11:15 pm #

    I’m one of those weird people that tries things that I hate every now and then, just to see if I still hate them. I can’t remember how many different things I’ve flipped on, but it’s been several. I know broccoli was one of them. Fresh tomatoes I go back and forth on. I like them a lot on sandwiches, but not really on salads.

    I’m still working on olives. I’ve actually had them in layered bean dip sort of dishes and rather liked them.

    OH! I’d almost forgotten. I’ve only had them one time where I liked them, but brussel sprouts! They were roasted in a vinagarette sauce with onions and some other thing and were amazing. I really need to give them a shot again.

    None of this really had anything to do with travel though. I’ve just always wanted to like foods when I see so many people enjoy them, so I never give up on a food completely.

    • Anonymous June 28, 2011 at 4:28 am #

      I completely know what you mean about trying them every few years. I can’t seem to like olives either, but try them in different countries to see if they have a tasty variety there…

      The brussel sprouts sound delicious…I never eat them, and not because I don’t like them, but really, who eats brussel sprouts?! I’d love to hunt some down and try them with vinaigrette, sounds delicious!  Thanks for weighing in Robert, and happy food tastings!

      • Shannon Kirkpatrick July 13, 2011 at 6:41 pm #

        Brussels sprouts with balsamic vinaigrette and bacon – amazing! I challenge anyone who doesn’t like Brussels sprouts to try them this way and then tell me you still don’t like them. SO yum.

        • Anonymous July 13, 2011 at 7:09 pm #

          I will have to try it with the vinaigrette, that does sound tasty and I am
          of the mind that everything tastes better with balsamic :)

  8. Gray June 22, 2011 at 2:16 pm #

    I don’t know about travel doing it, but your taste buds definitely change as you get older. I think travel makes you more willing to try new things, though.

    • Anonymous June 28, 2011 at 4:23 am #

      That’s a good point Gray, taste buds mature and accept some of the stronger flavors (red wine, blue cheese, etc) while on the road it comes down to being more willing to step outside of your boundaries and take a leap on the road, that “When in Rome” mentality…I do know though that if you’re on the road for long enough you often get repeated and forced exposure to foods you might not normally try than just the once! :)

  9. Jade June 22, 2011 at 10:25 am #

    Agree- I think you are more open to try new foods when traveling. At least I know I am!

  10. Andi Perullo June 21, 2011 at 1:15 pm #

    What a great post!  I think traveling has totally changed my taste buds.  I’ve always been open to trying new things, but even more so after I began to travel.  Love these pics!!!

  11. Scott June 21, 2011 at 6:19 am #

    Funny as your list of “no-go’s” was very similar  to mine growing up. Olives, tomatoes, & bananas were things I would not have touched with a ten-foot fork when I was younger. I have now come around to all of them, and as far as the olives, it was a travel experience that flipped me. I was in a bar in Madrid, enjoying some beers before a Real Madrid soccer game, and they had them on the bar for customers, much like you would find peanuts or nuts here in America. I did the whole “when in Rome” thing and grabbed a handful, tossed them down the hatch and one by one fell in love with them. Delicious post!

    • Anonymous June 28, 2011 at 4:21 am #

      Thanks for weighing in Scott – it sounds like you were in the perfect environment to fall in love with the olives – ambiance definitely plays a roll in the flavors…I can see not only why you tried them, but part of why they tasted so good! :)  

  12. Akshaye June 21, 2011 at 4:54 am #

    I loved decorative fruits at shinlin market….and those mango rice are mouthwatering…makes me bite the screen……….loved it shannon!! also those mushrooms are actually looks like “beattlenut”…are you sure htose are mushrooms??

    • Anonymous June 28, 2011 at 4:15 am #

      Good call! Just did a google search and it looks like that’s definitely betel nut…the vendors didn’t speak any English so that was just me assuming it was a pile of mushrooms! Very cool though to know what it actually is (and have now replaced the photo :) Thanks for the correction!  :)

  13. Stephanie Nguyen June 21, 2011 at 12:20 am #

    That is the SECOND time that you have shown the seductive picture of the mango sticky rice! It looks super-yum, which is so sad since I will never have any. I discovered in the past year that I am allergic to mangos (and a few other delicious fruits, thank to latex-fruit syndrome). :( :(
     
    Is this 30 day philosophy replacing your previous theory about taste buds changing every 7 years, or do they work together?

    • Anonymous June 28, 2011 at 4:04 am #

      No mangos Steph?! How is this possible. Not okay…and I mean, there really is no substitute, they put durian on sticky rice, but trust me when I say that’s not going to be your cup of tea fruit-wise. 

      Oh, and yes to the new theory, you know I love me some theories ;-)  (btw this one is backed up with more research than the old ones hehe)

  14. Anonymous June 20, 2011 at 10:36 pm #

    I was the pickiest eater growing up–no green vegetables, no mushrooms, no olives, etc. After I spent a summer with family friends in Provence at 16–where I couldn’t play the “I’ve NEVER liked that!” card and where everything was fresh out of the garden–I discovered I loved avocadoes, green beans, etc–as long as it was fresh and not cooked to death! I still don’t like mushrooms or olives for the most part–but through travels, I’ve discovered enoki, a mushroom that I do love, and I don’t mind snacking on fresh Nicoise olives when I’m really hungry. Somehow travel turned me from a picky eater into someone who will eat just about anything! 

    • Anonymous June 28, 2011 at 4:00 am #

      Yum to the avocados! That’s one of the hurdles growing up in a city, you and I both eat the foods from the grocery store and hated them as a kid – but veggies fresh out of a family garden, now that sounds delicious! I think we all become a little bit more daring and willing to change on the road too – willing to accept new things and change habits then when we’re in a routine and can easily say “yuck, nope, rather just buy the groceries I’m used to buying!” :)

  15. Audrey June 20, 2011 at 9:56 pm #

    I’m not so convinced of this 30-day food theory. One of my weaknesses is that I don’t like eating bananas (don’t mind them in banana bread or pancakes, but way too much BANANA if eaten plain) and raisins. This drives Dan crazy as these are both fantastic travel foods. But, as much as I’ve tried to eat them – and like them. I just can’t do it. 

    But, there are other foods that I’ve changed my mind about because of our travels. Maybe someday with the bananas and raisins…

    • Anonymous June 28, 2011 at 3:58 am #

      I’ll give you this one Audrey, we share a distaste for bananas. For me though, I learned to eat them in college because they were easy (same thing on the road as you said since their so readily available everywhere). I can eat a whole banana if it’s petite and a bit unripe…but those mushy, sticky-sweet overly ripe and browning ones…hard to get down, the flavor is just too potent! Try ’em greenish though, I find that a WHOLE lot easier :)

  16. The World of Deej June 20, 2011 at 9:55 pm #

    Travel certainly opened my tastebuds a bit. I was a steak and potatoes guy, but somehow fell in love with kimchi in Korea. I also wouldn’t dare let a mushroom touch my plate, but have grown to love them…Partly because I didn’t want to embarrass myself in a 5 diamond restaurant by picking them out…

    • Anonymous June 28, 2011 at 3:56 am #

      Valid point, that’s how quite a few of my new favorite foods came to be enjoyed – I was too embarrassed to dig through and pick out the questionable item, so I ate it often enough until I actually enjoyed it :) 

  17. Erik Smith June 20, 2011 at 4:37 pm #

    I learned to eat Onion and Green Peppers around 25. I still can’t make mushrooms or black olives work for me.
    I also made myself eat Felafel in Israel and it eventually grew on me.

    • Anonymous June 28, 2011 at 3:46 am #

      Completely with you Erik, black olives are hard to stomach. Do love some Middle Eastern falafel though; yummy! Thanks for weighing in :)

  18. Dyanne@TravelnLass June 20, 2011 at 4:36 pm #

    Mushrooms?  Have you ever gone out to hunt them in the wild, Shannon?  Great fun – like finding little treasures in the woods.  And the taste of wild mushrooms?  OMG – NOTHING at all like those bland bits from the store.  Golden chanterelles grow abundantly here in the Pacific NW.  And once when I was backpacking in Europe with my (then) 8 and 11 yr. old dds, we discovered a “Chicken of the Woods” (shelf mushroom, grows on tree trunks or downed logs – bright orange like a pumpkin skin, upper, and beneath – the most beautiful yellow velvet.)  When sauteed, it makes its own “cheese” sauce – we cooked it up over our camp stove in Berne, Switzerland – deeeeelish!

    That said, DO get a book/take a class on which wild mushrooms are edible – some are DEADLY!  It’s easy-peasy to tell the difference though, once you learn which to avoid.

    • Anonymous June 28, 2011 at 3:49 am #

      You know Dyanne, I have not, I admit, gone out and hunted them down in the wild. My aunt in Alaska took me mushroom hunting when I was a teenager and (oh the horror) I outright refused to try them :(   I will take your recommendation though, and if I am presented with some freshly picked varieties sample them again. I’m not opposed to the idea of maybe one day liking them, I mean, that “cheese” sauce sounds pretty intriguing!  

      Thanks for weighing in, you have me a little more motivated to maybe try some kinds I haven’t yet tasted :)

  19. Megan June 20, 2011 at 8:26 pm #

    Until I started travelling I was a very fussy eater! I’ve since learned to like tomatoes, nuts, beans and various other types of fruits and vegetables that I wouldn’t have touched with a ten foot pole otherwise. I still won’t go too far out of my way at home to try new things though! 

    • Anonymous June 28, 2011 at 3:53 am #

      So good that you were able to get those ones under your belt though! I find myself lucky as a vegetarian – I am TOTALLY open to mystery fruits and vegetables because really, how gross can it be if I am already positive it’s vegetarian?!  :)  

  20. J.D. Roth June 20, 2011 at 5:13 pm #

    Hey, Shannon. I have a reputation for being a picky eater. I’m adventurous (in that I’ll try new cuisines, and I’ll try anything once), but I’m picky (in that there are certain things I just don’t like: cruciferous veggies like broccoli and cauliflower, for instance). I’ve learned, though, that I can shut off the “yuck” part of my brain in certain situations. I can eat things I hate to be polite, for instance. Or when being picky would spoil a moment. But I’m with you on the mushrooms: Can’t seem to make myself like ’em. Yuck! :)

    • Anonymous June 28, 2011 at 3:51 am #

      Thanks for weighing in J.D. (and sorry for the epically delayed reply :)  I’d say you win points for trying everything, even if you find you don’t like most of it. That’s my philosophy too, at least sample it, eat it if you need to out of respect, but YUCK to the mushrooms!  I’ve been told elsewhere in the comments that we should go hunting them though, and eat fresh ones…so I’ll let you know if I find any tasty mushrooms while out foraging one day  ;-)

  21. The Travel Chica June 20, 2011 at 4:05 pm #

    I wonder if the 30-day theory works with spicy food.  I am a complete wuss when it comes to anything spicy hot.  But I don’t think I could handle the 30-day taste bud re-training program because I would be too miserable.

    • Anonymous June 28, 2011 at 3:44 am #

      It may take longer than 30 days for spicy food but you can DEF work up to it, just don’t ever make it so you don’t enjoy the process. My dad has always served really spicy foods at my house from childhood, but even after decades my tastebuds could never quite handle what his can…a little bit of flavorful spicy here and there should do the trick to help you acclimate to the spice and still enjoy the food! :)

  22. Cheska62 June 20, 2011 at 2:50 pm #

    I think it can go the other way too.  After 1 week in Morocco five years ago I still cannot even look at couscous and I adored it before I went!

    • Anonymous June 28, 2011 at 3:42 am #

      Ha! That is certainly the truth; I find myself with a complete white rice aversion when I come home to the states every summer because I know I’ll be eating it for months on end every time I leave the country! Sad to hear you *still* can’t stomach couscous though..awfully tasty?! :)

  23. Jmaso01 June 20, 2011 at 2:32 pm #

    I recently had a similar experience.  I hated mushrooms, or thought I did…but then went to spend 8 months in Chiang Mai where my hosts served mushrooms, of some variety, in every meal.  At first, I ate to be polite but then I realized they weren’t so bad…and then, shockingly, I came to like them.  Now back home in the States, although I don’t cook regularly with them, I have caught myself adding them from time to time to a dish!

    • Anonymous June 28, 2011 at 3:41 am #

      That’s a perfect testament to learning to like a new food! :)  I was served mushrooms regularly at a monastery I taught at and the same thing, I got used to them over time, but I just couldn’t take the next step :)  They’re certainly healthy, so enjoy your cooking!

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