What Do You Think?

The article titled “The 10 Most Polarizing Foods” caught my eye while I was skimming the week’s food news on the Huffington Post.

Lists make fun reading, especially the ones making superlative claims – best, worst, least, and, of course, most.  Humans like to rank things.  We also like to know where our tastes run in common and where they diverge (on the Best Films of Whatever Year, for example, one person’s most brilliant movie ever made might make another person’s snooze list), and we like to debate these points.

Enter today’s HuffPo list of the foods that polarize tastes, the foods that pit those passionately in favor of them against those who are disgusted by them, the foods that leave no room for discussion between individuals.  These are ten foods people take sides over; you either like them or you don’t.  Or so the creators of the list would have you believe.  I’m not so sure.

Is this the definitive list?  Let’s have a look.

Out of the 10, I thought four did not meet the standard touted in the introduction to the list, i.e. something that is either the best thing ever or the worst thing ever, depending on who you speak to.

Marmite made the list (as did its Aussie twin, Vegemite).  The only people I know who eat Marmite are British and they all have a taste for it.  In my own experience, the rest of us who say we don’t have a taste for it have never actually tried it; we just don’t like the idea of spreading a yeast extract paste on bread.  We might take a bite and love it.  Can something be polarizing if one has never tried it?  Not so sure.

I had to ask the same question of marzipan.  Widely used in European and Scandinavian desserts, it isn’t  consumed so much in the States.  Is marzipan then loved by some, detested by others?  Or simply loved by some, untested by others?

Celery being on the list was a head scratcher.  I happen to love celery, though I’m willing to accept that others may not feel the same.  But hate?  Does anyone hate celery?  If so, let me know.  I stand to be corrected.  But brussels sprouts seem to be much more controversial than celery, don’t you think?

The green pepper, however, is resoundingly disliked in my circles.  Correction: in most circles.  No one I know, hear from, talk to likes the green pepper. Of course, if you love it and feel you must declare this as passionately as the rest of us do when we disparage it, please write in.

I agree with the remaining six for the most part.  People I know, myself included, love or hate licorice, liver, mayonnaise, coconut, blue cheese (which I might even expand to include goat’s cheese), and cilantro.

Folks seem really divided on cilantro in particular.  It’s either fresh tasting or soapy, we love it or we hate it.  Kitchen science guru Harold McGee explains why in an April 2010 article for the New York Times.  The history of the herb plays a large role in its acceptance, he writes.  Some cultures use cilantro frequently, while others have little or no acquaintance with it.  For those who don’t, the foreignness makes for skeptics.  That exotic aspect, coupled with the Greek origins of the plant’s name – coriander – leads to double trouble.  Translated, coriander means “bedbug.”  For the cilantro skeptic, the word bedbug doesn’t make for good PR.

And the diners who detect a soapy quality in the leaf aren’t off base, either, McGee adds.  The perfumy scent and taste are rooted in basic chemistry.  Aldehydes (or fat molecules) exist in cilantro; aldehydes are a by-product of soap making.  Ergo, the soapy claims can be accurate.

How positively this soapy taste is perceived depends on exposure to cilantro.  Cultures that routinely use the herb in cooking find the scent familiar and pleasant.  Newly exposed, one might instead associate the scent with cleaning products.  The good news is that if you have a cilantro aversion, you can train your palate to be open to it, and even turn the aversion to enjoyment if you keep trying it over and over.  Doing so retrains your brain’s response to the taste.

Here’s a recipe to try if you already love cilantro or if you’d like to get used to cilantro.  If you have no interest in changing your opinion whatsoever, leave it out.  It’s completely up to you.

As you cook, give some thought to the list and what you might add or subtract from it and why.  I’d love to hear what you think.

Chili Crab Noodles

  • 8 ounces fresh chinese egg noodles (or fresh thin cut pasta)
  • 2 Tbsp. ketchup
  • 2 Tbsp. sweet chili sauce
  • 2 Tbsp. hoisin sauce
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp. fish sauce (nam pla)
  • 2 Tbsp. water
  • 2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 3 slender hot red chilis, finely chopped (or substitute 1 plump jalapeno as I did)
  • 1 Tbsp vegetable or canola oil
  • 8 ounces fresh crabmeat, cooked and picked over
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro leaves, optional (finely chopped scallion greens are a good option for the cilantro hater)

Cook the noodles in a large pot of salted boiling water until just barely tender.  Drain, rinse and set aside.

Combine the ketchup, chili sauce, hoisin sauce, fish sauce, and water together in a small bowl and set aside.

Prepare the ginger, garlic, and hot pepper as noted and set aside.

Heat oil in a large skillet set over medium heat.  Cook for 2 or 3 minutes until softened.  Add the sauce to the pan and stir to combine and heat through.  Bring the mixture to a boil and cook over steady heat until the sauce thickens.  Once thickened slightly, add the crab and stir to heat through.

Stir in the noodles to coat with the sauce and crab and heat these through.  Squeeze lime juice over the dish.

To serve, lift a portion onto a plate, sprinkle with fresh cilantro, and enjoy.

©2012  Jane A. Ward