I remember telling my mom about bottling the smell of durian, so I could sell it like a perfume. I was joking only because I was not a perfumer — for I wasn’t being sarcastic about the smell. To me, it’s tangy, sweet and fragrant; most importantly, it signifies a satisfyingly soft and custardy bite into a piece of edible gold.
If you have never heard of durian, you might feel lost. Search “durian” on YouTube and you’ll get mostly reaction videos of people trying “the smelliest fruit” for the first time. In the accompanying thumbnails are faces of shock and awe, and in some cases, disgust. Despite the tendency for exaggeration in online content, it's understandable for people to dislike something they did not grow up eating. I used to think it’s funny seeing people gagging on something I can eat effortlessly. But that grew old quickly. When people repeatedly liken your favorite food to literal trash, it gets to you. There is an inherent negative implication – unintentional or not – that there must be something fundamentally different about people who enjoy these “disgusting” foods.
Being a Southeast Asian studying in a Western country, I’m used to seeing the foods I know and love be examined and dissected like a novelty item. It is reasonable and encouraged to inquire about an unfamiliar culture. However, that interest must be carried out with compassion, not with a fetishization for the “exotic” or degradation of the “strange.” This goes beyond food. It applies to every aspect of cultural and ethnic identity.
In my mind, food stands as the most important mark for the human experience. We take something necessary for our existence and elevate it, hence why we have distinct culinary cultures. The food you eat, then, represents who you are. Ideally, we should be considerate and appreciative of the different culinary experiences that we observe.
Still, I hear comments on the so-called weird taste or texture of the food I eat, comments on the putrid smell of fish sauce, comments on the food choices of my people as if somehow that makes us inferior. With food being an indicator of a culture, it is often used in a racist or xenophobic context. Perhaps it can come in an overheard conversation between two white high school boys about a street smelling “like fucking Indian food” as one recounts a neighborhood being “taken over by the Indians.” Or it can be a gesture like an “eww” from people as I recount dishes like balut, blood curds or innards.
The way many people view unfamiliar food is intertwined with their predisposition for discrimination, racism, or xenophobia. Think MSG — why are people so scared of it here when billions in Asia consume it every day? The FDA thinks it’s fine to consume. There is a dash of xenophobia here, as it turns out. Racism justifies thinking of something used by a different ethnicity as dangerous and foreign. The notion that the food of foreigners is inherently dirty and inferior is alive and well. What qualifies as good food and fine dining is as skewed as what constitutes beauty. (Hint: Eurocentric standards)
Is verbalizing disgust toward a food is as bad as systematic racism? Of course not. But the former plays into the latter. It does not hurt to keep an open mind toward unfamiliar food. If a child recoils at a strange taste and texture, no one would accuse that child of being insensitive. But is it reasonable for me to expect people with somewhat developed prefrontal cortex to be able to handle food they are not used to? I think so.
All I ask is for one to be open to trying new food without preconceived judgment. When presented with the idea of a new dish, don’t dismiss it as disgusting just because it does not line up with what you would normally perceive as delicious. Try it if you can. Maybe you will find a new favorite dish. Don’t like it? Acknowledge the dish and its cultural importance, and move on.
I am not free from fault. My family used to joke about how I would only be eating hot dogs and sandwiches for my entire education in the U.S. I used to think people who like pizza had lost their palate entirely. It’s just greasy, oily cheese on bread. But then I learned about the diversity of food in different regions of the U.S., and I got to taste a delicious thin-crust Margherita pizza. Now, I am in love with Creole food, and I enjoy munching on a melty grilled cheese.
Good food can and will change one’s perspective. Good food meaning food that tastes good to someone even if they encounter some less delicious versions of it. Unless one is allergic to something (or the genetic case of cilantro), I believe that no one truly hates any food. They just haven’t found the right version of it yet. For example, the durians I have always had are fresh and fragrant. The ones most people try, at least in the U.S., are more likely to be frozen and certainly not in their prime.
Finding that sweet spot for a food item is a very rewarding journey. My hope is for everyone to enjoy all the foods that they consume. Until that day of tranquility, I simply ask that everyone be respectful when discussing food. You may not like that dish. You may think it’s disgusting. But it’s important to acknowledge that the dish may be near and dear to someone’s heart. Even to the point where they are willing to perfume-ize it.