But this is a question of interpretation, and can vary from culture to culture. In Taiwan, for example, it is perfectly common to have shrimp served up with cake icing and colourful sprinkles. They really aren’t bad either. So if you want to get really creative in the kitchen, other cultures ingredient perceptions can be a good source of inspiration.
Sweet tomatoes and savoury fruits
Throughout my travels, I’ve been struck by the versatility of the tomato. As a European, to me tomatoes belong in salads, or pasta sauces. They’re lovely raw, with a pinch of salt. But I’d never looked at a tomato and been inspired to much experimentation. At least not until I got to Asia. My first culinary shock when I moved to Taipei city concerned tomatoes. I walked through a bustling night market selling all kinds of new and exciting things, trying as much as I could. Near the end, I spotted some sort of caramelised balls on sticks. They were red and shiny through the thick caramel glaze, and looked delicious. I assumed they were sweets of some sort. I certainly did not expect them to be cherry tomatoes! After the initial shock of tomato flesh in the middle of the caramel, I realised that this was actually a very good combination. The sweet caramel and tangy juicy tomatoes were delicious together. I’d never look at tomatoes in quite the same way after that, and certainly not after I saw my students eating tomatoes with chocolate.
You might not be too surprised by the dessert tomato, since they are a fruit after all, and they do have a natural sweetness to them. But what then really made no sense at all to me was the salting of various fruits. In many countries it is considered perfectly normal to sprinkle fruit such as mango, pineapple, and guava with salt. Sometimes chilli too. I’ve even encountered salty plum, and salty star fruit, juice; possibly the worst thing I’ve ever had in my mouth. But while to me the combination of fruity sweetness and salt was utterly appalling, all around me other people helped themselves to extra salt and ate their mixed-flavour fruit happily. I suppose I understand this a little when I think of the salted rims of some cocktails, but it really still seems completely alien to me. Salt is not an ingredient that belongs with fruits so far as I’m concerned.
Another interesting cultural division in food lies in the perception of mould. Generally speaking, if something smells bad, and has fluff growing on it, it’s repugnant and not appetising. But not if it happens to be some well ripened stilton, or other blue cheese. Then suddenly the obvious fungal growth lacing it stops looking like a health hazard, and has me salivating at once. This is clearly just because I have learned to associate the right kinds of mouldy cheese with yumminess, not food poisoning. Just like Taiwanese people have learned to associate caramel with tomatoes, and sprinkles with shrimp, so green fuzz is linked to cheese in my brain. Yet when I hear about people eating other mouldy and rotten things, I just feel ill.
I’m sure if I had grown up in Asia then I might find Century Eggs appealing, but with my European paradigm of what an egg should be, these black and slimy things are just too repulsive to try. A Century Egg is an egg which has been dipped in a lime pool, thus raising its pH, and then left to mature for anything between 10 days to a month, and in some cases even longer. Whatever ways people may choose to eat eggs, whether raw, or pickled, or mixed into alcohol, nothing can be quite as bizarre a use of this basic ingredient as the blackening process of the Century Egg.
… and other oddities
Some of my favourite odd ingredient finds include:
- Banana Ketchup – found all over the Philippines, presumably because of an excess of bananas, this is a sweeter version of tomato ketchup and is really rather good.
- Coriander & peanut ice-cream – another Taiwanese treat is ice-cream with shaved peanut brittle and lots of fresh, green coriander. The herb gives the sweet ice-cream and peanut combination a wonderful flavour.
- Avocado Shake – something I came across in Vietnam, is a simple blend of avocado, honey, and water. It’s smooth, green, sweet, and very rich. Utterly delectable.
I’m willing to bet than in every country there will be some food the locals consider to be the most natural and ordinary thing to be eating, but which to you the foreigner will seem completely mad. All I can suggest is trying as many of these as possible – you never know what brilliant new twists and uses for a classic ingredient you might discover!