On Bitter Gourd, and Other Foods We Used to Hate
A few weeks ago, I found myself traipsing down one of Little India’s more obscure alleys to a little cafeteria selling Bangladeshi food. Amidst a small crowd of foreign workers, a friend and I sat down to a meal of lentils, dal soup and rice. It was one of the best meals I’ve ever had. It was also a meal I would have hated as a child.
The only difference being that as a child, I would have just thrown a tantrum. I would not have had the good manners to give something new or foreign a fighting chance. And this made me think about all the things I now willingly devour, things my parents used to go crazy over trying to get me to eat.
Does the way we eat reflect the way we grow up? I wondered to myself.
When it comes to food we don’t like, we’ve all experienced the shock and abhorrence of the particularly zealous friend or colleague: “What do you mean you don’t like bitter gourd? Have you never tried it in that thing with fried fish??”
These are usually dishes or ingredients we tasted once as a kid, and remember only being thoroughly horrified.
“You don’t know the meaning of life until you try this!” is usually what comes next. Sometimes, there’s more than one of such idiots, and facing them down can be like confronting a choir of accusers. We protest, but still we grit our teeth, chew with great hesitation, and swallow.
As adults we resist the urge to refuse. The unconscious need to placate and pacify—to preserve the happiness of the herd—trumps our childish revulsion.
I remember being about 6 years old when an aunt attempted to feed me crisp, deep fried okra (ladies’ finger). I can also remember how I reacted, which was something along the lines of, “Ew, nice try, woman!” That didn’t go down so well with her, and I learned very early on that sugarcoating something gross does not make it delicious.
But as we get older, eating teaches us to be politically correct. As children we are conscious only of our own disgust. As adults, we learn to navigate social environments with extreme caution.
“Mmm I’m not really a fan of eggplant but sure, I’ll give your stir fry a try!”
Sometimes, if we’re lucky, rare pleasures surface when we experiment with the unfamiliar. The memory of okra transforms on our tongues; its slimy texture melts into umami, some hawker’s secret dressing elevates its flavour, and we learn the virtue of keeping an open mind.
With pig’s organ soup, my love for it blossomed out of a newly minted friendship.
In the same way, I’ve grown to love pig’s organ soup and slimy Chinese desserts. What I used to passionately detest have become dishes I devote regular portions of my week to indulge in.
With pig’s organ soup, my love for it blossomed out of a newly minted friendship. I wanted to seem cool and all ‘yeah man of course I eat this, I eat everything man!’
When that bowl was first set down in front of me, I could feel my newfound camaraderie hanging in the balance. Before taking the plunge, I poked around uncertainly, making a show of ensuring I had all the sliced chilli and dark soya sauce I needed. And until today, my mouth still waters at the memory of that moment; of how the sweet and sour tang of the soup dissolved so beautifully together—how innards can be so succulent in spite of sounding so scandalising.
As for tau suan, a sticky mung beans dessert, I’d only dared eat it because it was my grandmother who had bought it.
She didn’t know then that I hated it, and had picked it up as something sweet to go with my lunch. Perhaps it was just that, as an adult, I had learned to approach familiar tastes with fresh taste buds. Or perhaps it was the gesture, the wordless connection born from a grandmother’s joy at watching her grandson dig in, that made everything better.
Whatever it is, I learned to love these dishes, only because I couldn’t say no to people I didn’t want to disappoint.