A Little Adrift

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

Thai chili peppers drying in sun

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.

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

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.

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 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.

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? :)