Some love, others hate. Why do certain foods trigger such a strong reaction in people?
BBC Food asked Barry Smith, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Senses at the University of London, and Aidan Kirkwood, a PhD candidate in flavor chemistry at the University of Nottingham, both in the UK, why the following foods are so controversial.
For some, the ritual of eating oysters — the intense flavor of the sea, the unique and impactful texture, and its excellent pairing with champagne — is one of life’s greatest pleasures. To others, they look like mucus.
Smith explains that it’s usually this association with unpleasant texture, not flavor, that makes oysters controversial.
If you don’t like the fact that they’re slippery, or you’re worried about possible food poisoning from being raw, there are other options.
“You can change the texture completely by cooking it. If you fry it or cook it, it changes, and people are happy to eat it,” says Smith.
“For those who want the intense flavor but don’t like the texture, there’s a brilliant trick from a Japanese chef, who freezes the oysters and then grates them into other foods. You get that burst of oyster flavor, but without the texture.”
If mushroom, wine and camembert cheese aren’t for you, it’s probably with the flavor you imply.
To be more exact, the flavor compound 1-Octen-3-ol is, according to Kirkwood, what gives these foods their “earthiness.”
It can also be a matter of texture, says Smith: “They get slimy. Even the champignons… In the case of shiitake or shimeji-black, they can get really slimy.”
Cooking the mushrooms in a very hot pan will help them to caramelize and crisp up, preventing them from becoming “sweaty”, slimy and soggy.
Alternatively, you can slice the mushrooms and bake them in a hot oven. Or, as Smith suggests, “Chop it and put it raw in the salad. It’s something really different, almost crispy.”
Do you often order four-cheese pizza with extra gorgonzola? Or would this be among her worst nightmares?
In terms of taste and aroma, Kirkwood explains how gorgonzola cheese is a turning point in the cheese world.
“Cheese, in general, tends to be made up of the same compounds. But in the case of gorgonzola, there are fewer of these compounds and instead are dominated by classic ketones.”
This explains the ‘fruity’ aspect and why you might love all other types of cheese but gorgonzola.
Specifically, the smell and taste of gorgonzola are made up of butyric acid (buttered/spoiled), hexanoic acid (goat), 2-heptanone (banana/pear) and methyl thiobutyrate (cabbage/sulfuric).
Each of these compounds has pleasant and unpleasant associations, but maybe it’s just the mold that puts you on edge.
For Smith, this is part of the fun of cheese:
“David Chang said a lovely thing about fermentation: ‘That’s when rotting works.’ That’s a really nice definition of fermentation and food. I think some people don’t like the way it looks, because they think, ‘Oh, there’s something rotten.’ “
This sweet, which occasionally appears as a icing on a cake, often arouses strong feelings — although its main ingredient, almonds, is often not.
For some, the taste is too bitter.
Almonds lead to bitterness, they may fall short, but they lead to bitter (taste). In fact, roasted almonds are less bitter than raw almonds.”
For others, it’s too sweet.
“It smells like benzaldehyde,” says Kirkwood, describing the classic aroma of Bakewell pie, “which is very sweet.”
“And one of the ingredients in marzipan is sugar, so when you combine the sweet aroma of benzaldehyde and the taste of sugar, it probably gives it a very sweet taste overall!”
The benzaldehyde in almond aroma is extracted from the bitter variety of the almond tree (or made artificially in the laboratory).
Making your own marzipan from the most widely available sweet almonds and leaving out the almond extract will make your cake frosting less bitter and sweet at the same time.
Or you can skip the almonds and try a walnut marzipan.
The pickle has had something of a renaissance recently, with some people even advocating the health benefits of “pickle juice”.
Why, then, do half of us pull the criminal slices of pickle from the hamburger in disgust, while the other half hang around in the hopes of snatching them up?
Kirkwood attributes this to the sour taste and vinegary smell, while Smith adds:
“Could be because there’s dill in there… It could just be an aversion to cucumbers. It’s one of those foods that divides opinions too.”
Whether you’re making carrot soup or fish, cilantro is a must for many. For others, it has a predominant flavor — soapy.
“There is genetic variation in the general population and that affects your perception of certain odors,” says Smith.
“Or do you have [a variante] or it doesn’t, and if it does, cilantro tastes metallic and soapy.”
Despite Smith being in the “soap” category, he has found ways to appreciate this controversial herb.
“You can drown out the taste of soap with lemon,” he says.
“A classic combination in Mexican cuisine is cilantro and lemon. And of course, if you make a chimichurri sauce, you also have oregano, pepper, vinegar, and so on.”
Forget the pineapple on the pizza, the real question is, “Are we going to order pizza with aliche?” Or even, “Can I put aliche on my half of the pizza?”
If you find the flavor too strong, Smith suggests adding to dishes to help add flavor, rather than eating plain or putting on pizza.
“For those who say ‘I don’t like aliche’, you can still use it. It makes a fantastic addition to sauces and of course tomato and aliche are a great base for Italian sauces. Maybe just use it as a condiment rather than on its own.”
It’s not just licorice, but the entire anise family — fennel, star anise, sambuca, etc.
For many people, licorice candies are the way to go—the kind that turn your tongue black. Childhood contact may play a role in liking anise flavors later in life.
Smith points out that the licorice candies we eat are full of sugar, which is why we like them.
“We know it’s cultural. So the Danes and the Swedes and the Norwegians, they give their children licorice candy very early on.”
But the salty style of licorice candy can get them used to the flavor in a (slightly) saltier context later on.
It’s an acquired taste. “Children are innately driven to prefer the sweet, and they are innately driven to reject the bitter,” says Smith.
This evolutionary preference is a way of protecting ourselves, as most toxins are bitter. Freshly picked from the tree, olives are extremely bitter.
Only fermentation in brine for more than six months softens this flavor, transforming the olives into delicious snacks. Even so, they still retain some bitterness.
“Bitter is one of those things you have to get over. And if you think of things we don’t like at first and then we learn to like them, tea, coffee, alcohol, they all taste pretty bitter.”