There is nothing like a ripe banana wrapped in its yellow-speckled skin – the tactile sensation of the sweet flesh in your mouth is indescribable.
That is why on my first visit to St. Lucia more than a decade ago, I made it clear to my friends that I had no intentions of eating green banana. It was wrong, I emphatically stated, the only way banana is meant to be eaten is ripe.
My Lucian friends probably thought I was nuts, but they were too polite to say anything. So off we went to a baby’s christening party. The spread was unbelievable. As with any buffet, you take measured bits of various dishes.
But one dish stood out. I took some salad one of my friends insisted I try. I asked what it was but all I was told is that it has salt-fish in it; not wanting to offend, I took some of the salad. This thing tasted sooooo good!
It was shredded salt fish, with sweet peppers, herbs, a little bit of mayonnaise and something else that was in large amounts in the salad – small chunks of tender flesh. It certainly wasn’t potatoes or sweet potatoes.
I turned to my friend gushing about how luscious the salad was and wondering if he would go get me some more. He roared with laughter and told me that what I had just eaten was green-banana salad or, as the Lucians call it, fig salad. He couldn’t believe that I was asking for more.
Ignorance is a heck of a thing and that is true for everything in life, not just food. We owe it to ourselves to learn and expand our experiences because there is a world of new and exciting tastes awaiting us.
When we’re willing to be adventurous and open-minded we can discover also that some tastes we thought were the best or the standard by which all others should be measured, may not be so anymore. We say things like, no one makes ribs like Eddie’s, or bakes like my mother, or the best ice cream I ever tasted was this old man who used to push a cart through my neighbourhood.
Well sometimes these things are true, but sometimes they are tastes memories and habits that are keeping us from new flavour adventures.
Several years ago I read Peter Reinhart’s American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza. He begins his pizza quest with his baseline palate memory of what a great pizza should be. As a teenager he had worked in a pizzeria, Mama’s, and instinctively knew this pie to be the best. Returning as an adult, years later, he discovered otherwise.
Had he changed, or had the pizza changed? Both, it happened, were true. And that got me to thinking about how my own tastes have changed over the years and will continue to change. I’m sure it’s the same for you.
As a child, I never liked eggplant, as an adult I eat it but only as a choka (a pureed vegetable that has been fire-roasted); I never liked macaroni pie but now I eat it, preferably, when I make it; I never grew up eating mushrooms or broccoli but I love them now; I never used to like the taste or smell of salt fish but now I eat it, which is clearly evident in the green-banana dishes I’ve made for this column.
My taste buds even go through phases or cravings – you know, those times when you can’t get enough of the taste or smell of something that is generally not a part of your regular dietary consumption. The most memorable ones are: Earl Grey tea and toast, homemade apple pie, cream of wheat with a cinnamon stick and brown sugar, smoked salmon and the all-rounder bread.
Our parents are usually the ones to introduce us to various tastes and it can be challenging for them at times. How often have we not heard complaints about children refusing to eat a particular dish at home, but seen eating it very enthusiastically when they go to someone else’s home?
Often it lies in how that ingredient is prepared, what’s added to give it flavour and how it is presented. Or, it may be that it was months ago when you first made it for them and never tried again after their declared dislike. A child’s palate is like a clean slate to work with, so, cultivate it patiently.
The thing is, as we grow, we change in so many ways. As parents, adults encourage children to try new things, expand their horizons; but then we get older and we often get set in our ways.
I watched in shock, while on a trip to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, when one of my former colleagues by-passed a 20-foot buffet table of every Caribbean dish imaginable to choose split-peas rice, macaroni pie and baked pork for his meal – the same meal he would have for lunch every single day back home (in Barbados). When I enquired about his choice, he simply said that he is sticking with what he knows. What a missed opportunity!
Here are some things I would like you to consider:
* The next time you dine out even if you order the chicken, choose the dish that you may be unfamiliar with – your server must be able to help you.
* When you’re invited or eating out and the food is presented buffet style, choose some familiar and unfamiliar items, in small quantities.
* When you go shopping, try buying a spice or herb that you’ve never used before and use it to flavour your food.
* Take a walk down the international or ethnic food aisle in your supermarket and browse around. Staff members should be able to answer a question, but you’re more likely to get information from the person you see browsing in the same section.
* When you eat something at a friend or family’s home that you like – ask for the recipe and try to make it yourself.
Eating is a never-ending learning experience. The more you try, the more you’ll figure out what you like and dislike.
* Cynthia Nelson is a journalist, tutor, food photographer and author of the award-winning book: Tastes Like Home – My Caribbean Cookbook (IRP 2010). She writes regularly about food in various Caribbean Publications.
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