I find it daunting that my son Dek is a more adventurous eater at almost 3 years old than I was up until my mid-twenties. I did not grow up in a culinary household. Nightly meals consisted of baked chicken with no seasoning, baked potatoes and cooked corn. Maybe a watery batch of homemade Mac n’Cheese (I still despise the food to this day!) or lasagna made with cottage cheese instead of ricotta. Trust me, there is a HUGE difference when you swap one for the other.
Needless to say my mom was not the best cook, but in her defense, the woman could bake. I grew up with the smell of fresh-baked bread wafting through the house and some of the best blueberry pies with homemade crust. We each have our cooking talents; my mom’s was baking, not cooking savory delicacies.
Learning to Open Up
Thankfully my aunt cooked often enough for me to get a peek at what was out there in the world. I also lived down the street from a Puerto Rican family and the mom who could cook a mean pork chop. I could smell it in my house and I would show up at their back door. I think she was afraid to make them after a while.
Mike coming into my life was another blessing. He got me to eat fish. Moving to Seattle sure didn’t hurt his cause. We have some amazing seafood out here. Dek just added to the mix. Once he started eating solids I couldn’t make faces about foods I didn’t like. If we wanted him to eat what was offered when we were out mama had to suck it up and slurp it down too.
Turning Missed Experiences into New Opportunities
Throughout my life I know I missed several amazing culinary opportunities while traveling. I missed out on some of the top cuisine in Lisbon because I refused to eat fish. My aunt, who I was traveling with, savored each morsel, while I stuck to things I knew like chicken, duck and beef. Not bad at all, but I knew I was missing something big by not joining the masses in this staple of the local cuisine.
It wasn’t until I went to Singapore on a business trip that I really let my taste buds flourish. My Asian colleagues knew it was my first time to their island. They wanted to show off the very best they had to offer. We went to several hawker stands, local eateries and restaurants. They ordered for me. I looked on in amazement as stingray, chili crab and two types of rojak were set in front of me. How could I be rude and refuse what they were offering? My mama raised me better than that. So I dove in. I swallowed mouthfuls of foods my teenage self would have blanched at. It was the best experience of my life.
After a while my Singaporean colleagues started to have fun with my new food venture. I think they bought stuff they didn’t even eat regularly just to see if I would try it. I did take a bite of everything they put in front of me, but some things I just couldn’t stomach beyond that, mussels and clams being one of them. I cannot get past the texture of it. The same goes with shrimp and prawns. I feel like I am biting into someone’s spine every time I eat the little buggers.
I’ve had shark fin soup, the cheek of a fish, the eggs straight out of a crab and so many other things I never thought I would say I would put in my mouth. Sure, to other travelers who have been across the globe this may be no big deal. They eat scorpions for breakfast and drink snake blood. For me this were all huge steps, no leaps, past my comfort zone, bringing me into a new level of what I found delicious to eat in the world. It was eye opening.
Once we took Dek to China and Japan I was a pro at this international eating thing. I knew some of the things that I enjoyed to eat and what to ask for when we went to restaurants. I wasn’t afraid to check out the nearest street stand and devour bowls of noodles with who knows what inside. I’ve actually found that if I don’t know what’s in there I sleep a lot easier at night.
Keeping My Palate Growing at Home
At home we have tried to up the level of weird we digest. Mike loves going to our favorite taco truck and ordering beef cheek and tongue. He is on the hunt for bone marrow and other delicacies we have only heard about on travel shows.
We have never had unseasoned chicken a day in our married life. We use spices, try new fruits and vegetables whenever we can (yes, even Swiss chard was foreign to us). We take Dek out for Greek, Puerto Rican, Mexican, and Indian. Our Ethiopian neighbor has replaced my Puerto Rican mom down the street. She brings us homemade savory meals to try out. I may not be able to smell it down the street, but I sure do like when she shows up at my door.
I was almost afraid of food as a kid; I’m not anymore. I look forward to each new experience, every new cuisine we venture into. I even had a friend who got me to eat mac n’ cheese again, bacon being her secret weapon. And I have learned how to make a mean lasagna using ricotta that isn’t runny at all. Dek has been exposed to a diet of sushi, yakisoba, spicy chili, carnitas and a fish with the head still attached. Sometimes a little international adventure not only changes your eating habits, but makes life a little more fun too. I can’t wait for our next adventure that pushes me over the edge of my culinary comfort zone. I wonder what will challenge me next.