Tastes Like... Outer Mongolia?
March 31, 2010 7:52 AM   Subscribe

We're not in the beef jerky aisle at 7-11 anymore, Toto: tell me about foods from other cultures which are difficult for the American/Western palate to "translate".

It's common to describe new/foreign food by comparing its flavors or preparation to more familiar dishes. Think take-out menus which list spanakopita as "Greek pizza", or the Fleet-a-Pita representative on "The Simpsons" who described falafel and tahini as "crunch patties" and "flavor sauce".

I'm looking for foods which CANNOT be readily equated to anything at Applebee's ("They're like jalapeno poppers, only Basque!"). One example which comes to mind is Tibetan tsampa. It's roasted barley flour dumped into buttery tea and hand-wrangled into a dumpling-y mass. It's not a Tibetan cruller, it's not an Asiatic fritter... it's its own gooey little entity.

Note: while a lot of "gross-out" foods (balut, casu marzu) technically count, I'm more interested in the "cross-cultural disconnect" angle rather than "ewwww, bird embryo!"
posted by julthumbscrew to Food & Drink (63 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
posted by jckll at 8:02 AM on March 31, 2010

Hmmm....halvah? Not sure if that qualifies, but the only way I could come up with to describe it would be "like extra-crunchy peanut butter without the butter, and with sesame seeds instead of peanuts, and compressed, sort of." But maybe I'm just inarticulate. :)
posted by MexicanYenta at 8:02 AM on March 31, 2010

posted by sanko at 8:07 AM on March 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

I don't have a specific food, but I know in some cultures the texture of certain foods is pretty much without a Western analog -- things like chicken feet, tendons -- stuff that's really rubbery and chewy doesn't show up in Applebee's.

Well, not intentionally.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:09 AM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd say kumis probably counts. It's fermented mare's milk.

I have no idea what it tastes like, but when I ask my friends in Tibet about it they just kind of look at me funny.
posted by valkyryn at 8:10 AM on March 31, 2010

Okonomiyaki and banh xeo are both often described as a type of "pizza" or "pancake" but really this is not a totally useful explanation of either.
posted by rxrfrx at 8:12 AM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Indian food in general weirded me out to no end when I first tried it (although it's one of my favorite cuisines now), but thinking about it now, I'm not sure why, as it's pretty easy to find western analogs to most common Indian dishes (palak paneer is like creamed spinach, for example).
posted by infinitywaltz at 8:17 AM on March 31, 2010

posted by Damn That Television at 8:17 AM on March 31, 2010

I tried to explain what tofu was to a sheltered American kid once. The best I could come up with was "gelatinous bean curd", which doesn't sound appetizing at all.
posted by pecknpah at 8:20 AM on March 31, 2010

Marmite and Bovril?
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:25 AM on March 31, 2010

Menudo? Wife is an adventurous eater, but can't abide the tripe. Says it's a 'texture' thing.
posted by Gilbert at 8:26 AM on March 31, 2010

Mochi and kimchi. Actually I have a hard time explaining most Korean food other than the bbq stuff, but those spring to mind.

mochi - gelatenous rice paste
kimchi - fermented, spicy pickled cabbage

Neither of those compute very well to my western friends.
posted by like_neon at 8:28 AM on March 31, 2010

Pearl Milk Tea/Bubble tea often confuses Westerners who are not used to chewing their drinks.

Dried squid is a lot like beef jerky, only ... well, a lot chewier, and really fishy, so not really good for Westerners.

Red bean paste is difficult to explain as well, as well as a lot of the jellied red bean things that go along with it.

Mochi/sticky rice isn't easy to explain either.

I guess you could explain Almond tofu as milk jello flavored with almond and then mixed with fruit cocktail, but that doesn't make it that comprehensible.
posted by Comrade_robot at 8:29 AM on March 31, 2010

These are all GREAT, guys... keep 'em coming! The textural ones are really interesting - just as certain sounds are super-alien in the context of English speech, certain consistencies set off our "AIIIIIEEEE UNFAMILIAR!" alarms, too. I'm with your wife on tripe, Gilbert - I got some in a bowl of pho once and decided to "power through it" rather than spitting it out. Big mistake.
posted by julthumbscrew at 8:29 AM on March 31, 2010

Stinky Tofu and Baijiu
posted by Confess, Fletch at 8:30 AM on March 31, 2010

Ethiopian food? Injera is...like a spongy pancake, but sour instead of sweet?
posted by infinitywaltz at 8:31 AM on March 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

Tavuk göğsü
posted by protorp at 8:31 AM on March 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

A friend once described Durian fruit as "Fish custard, but that doesn't really capture it".
posted by handee at 8:31 AM on March 31, 2010

Asian food in general, and I'm thinking particularly of Chinese and Japanese here, are a lot more about textures than European cooking. It's not something that's obvious to a westerner at first, and goes a long way to explaining some of the "gross-out" foods in Chinese cusine, tripe, octopus, chicken feet and even bean curd. Chinese (and Japanese) cooks want interesting testures in the mouth, sometimes different ones with every bite. A good feeling is considered an important component of taste.

Consider, for example, Japanese sweets. Mochi is a (slightly) sweet glutinous rice dumpling which is a popular form of candy in Japan. Most western palates will find it a bit dull, much less sweet than they are used to for the European (gelatin/pectin-based) analogues like gummie bears or, say Turkish delight. But sweetness is only of of the considerations for the Japanese palate; it's that silky luxurious feeling that they like and seek in mochi. On the other hand, a western-trained palate will find mochi innocuous but not particularly special. Pass the jujubies please. It's a way of looking at food that most Westerners won't get right away and have to retrain themselves to appreciate.
posted by bonehead at 8:35 AM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Stinky Tofu

Yeeeeah. Stinky tofu is well-loved in China, and I've only had a little bit that wasn't too potent, but it's my understanding that there are many, many different varieties that are very, well, different from one another. Just so you know, a lot of stinky tofu smells like horse manure. Sometimes it's yellow, sometimes black, sometimes still white. I don't mean to be all "eww foreign food". Because, in fairness, I love cheese that smells like feet (Emmenthaler) and garbage (Appenzeller). And I eat sausage, which is encased in shit-tubes.
posted by molecicco at 8:39 AM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Argentine alfajor is one of the most delectable treats in the universe, but I can never seem to find the right words to describe it in English. It does not really fit into the normal categories -- it's not a cookie, or a kind of candy, or a type of cake.
posted by dacoit at 8:40 AM on March 31, 2010

Congealed blood cubes in Thai cooking. Not something you're likely to find at your neighborhood purveyor of pad thai.
posted by lunasol at 8:42 AM on March 31, 2010

Uni is difficult to describe to someone who has never had it.
posted by TedW at 8:47 AM on March 31, 2010

Dutch dubbel zout drop is often amusingly described as "liquorice".
posted by scruss at 8:49 AM on March 31, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'd say kumis probably counts. It's fermented mare's milk.

I have no idea what it tastes like, but when I ask my friends in Tibet about it they just kind of look at me funny.

Sour milk and coors light mixed. don't run out too quick to pick some up now.

One thing I noticed in Central Asia is they prize the fat of the lamb much more than westerners would. Being given a big blob of tail fat is supposed to be an honor
posted by JPD at 8:52 AM on March 31, 2010

The two eps of Iron Chef Mr. F cannot abide are anglerfish and konnyaku, because nothing that comes out the other end of the process "looks like food" to him. Konnyaku seems like it wouldn't translate well; anglerfish dishes seem to rely on gelatinous textures, the giant liver, and a lot of innards, which often doesn't go well with Western sensibilities.

How about huitlacoche?
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 8:52 AM on March 31, 2010

All talk of comparisons aside, there are no words in the English language to describe the taste of surstromming.

The smell is easy: the stink of a thousand gym socks full of dead fish, mixed with the breath from the hordes of Hell itself-- but the taste is indescribable. It's actually not as bad as the smell, which is why it's so hard to talk about... it's like your brain and nose have schizophrenia and neither can send your brain coherent signals. Northern Swedes are crazy people. If I had to try, I'd say kind of a buttery slimy fish taste mixed with mushroomy dirt and beer. But that's not even close.
posted by WidgetAlley at 8:53 AM on March 31, 2010 [3 favorites]

posted by Melismata at 8:53 AM on March 31, 2010

There are tons of tropical fruits that never really caught on in northern climes, often because they don't ship well.

My local asian story sells durian, and it always smells a bit nasty in there. But they also carry longans, which are kind of like grapes with a thick skin that look like eyeballs when you peel them.
posted by echo target at 9:01 AM on March 31, 2010

Korean food can be weird and all, but kimchi is just spicy sauerkraut.
posted by soma lkzx at 9:02 AM on March 31, 2010 [3 favorites]

Jellied eels.
posted by essexjan at 9:03 AM on March 31, 2010

A couple of the foods i ate while in east africa seemed really hard to describe to people who hadn't tried it. In particular, 'millet bread' is actually like a big hot mass of gluey paste.
posted by Kololo at 9:05 AM on March 31, 2010

Fish sauce and fish paste which are condiments in Southeast Asia. Don't think these will take over the American ketsup/mustard market any time soon.
posted by MsKim at 9:09 AM on March 31, 2010

Agreed with Injera above, Ethiopian food was very foreign to me the first time I tried it, piles of spicy...stuff...and a roll of sponge.
posted by ghharr at 9:12 AM on March 31, 2010

Jumping in to concur with Kololo. Eating millet bread (and its cousin posho) is like eating hot, sticky playdough. Friends and I affectionately called it "the lump."
posted by rebekah at 9:15 AM on March 31, 2010

Also, Bánh bao
posted by ghharr at 9:15 AM on March 31, 2010

I described injera (which I like) to someone once as eating a very thin chamois cloth. I still think that's pretty accurate.
posted by dlugoczaj at 9:49 AM on March 31, 2010


Only if you've never licked a battery before.
posted by theredpen at 9:52 AM on March 31, 2010

On the tofu front....I like tempeh, but I know a lot of people who don't.

Note that particular combinations of otherwise acceptable things can be off-putting to U.S. midwestern sensibilities. Consider halo halo: beans, shaved ice and condensed milk? Any one of those by itself is just fine, the combination is challenging to a lot of people.
posted by gimonca at 10:02 AM on March 31, 2010

I think it's difficult to describe the texture and flavor of turnip cake. There are probably other dim sum dishes that don't translate well that I don't know of.

Japanese stores often have these little jellied squares - less than a cubic inch - that are eaten as dessert. I've seen red bean, green tea, and other flavors. I don't know what they're called, and they're hard to describe. I think they might be made with agar agar. They're very dense. I think they'd qualify.
posted by insectosaurus at 10:05 AM on March 31, 2010

gimonca, I think halo halo might be offputting to some, but it's easy enough to describe as a whole.

Some of the ingredients are hard to describe though, like nata de coco. Is there another name for that stuff? I thought it was usually called something else.
posted by insectosaurus at 10:11 AM on March 31, 2010

Douchi does not really have a parallel in Western cuisine. I suppose one could describe them as "fermented black beans", but that makes them sound alcoholic and draws an inaccurate parallel between them and the "black beans" that are much better known from Central American & Caribbean cuisines.
posted by Johnny Assay at 10:51 AM on March 31, 2010

Only if you've never licked a battery before

I think a lot of people here have licked batteries before.
posted by pinky at 10:52 AM on March 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

Tamarind Balls from Trinidad.

Poi from Hawaii
posted by jasondigitized at 11:08 AM on March 31, 2010

dlugoczaj, i've heard injera described as 'a bathmat soaked in spoiled milk', but really 'a big slightly sour pancake' is pretty accurate and not hard to describe.
posted by Kololo at 11:13 AM on March 31, 2010

insectosaurus, those little squares are mochi. See my comment above.
posted by bonehead at 11:42 AM on March 31, 2010

Tastes like Mongolia : Aruul

Curds left to dry until a rock-hard state is reached. Many Mongolians drop aruul in their hot tea to soften. Some will just suck on it and knaw away at the edges. Popular travel food.

Also, Mongolians make liquor from dairy. The aftertaste can best be equated to licking an udder.
posted by soupy at 12:02 PM on March 31, 2010

I think it is noteworthy that a number of these items (fish sauce, vegemite and its ilk, a number of the other aged or fermented items) contain high levels of glutamate and consequently have a strong umami flavor. This is relevant because although the umami flavor is well-known in Asian cooking, in the West food scientists believed that there were only taste receptors for sweet, sour, bitter, and salty flavors. A fifth receptor (for glutamate and related compounds) has since been discovered and deemed responsible for the taste of umami. Also of note there are many western foods that are rich in glutamates, such as aged cheeses and a number of condiments. Worcestershire sauce in particular often contains fermented anchovies and may either be derived from an ancient Roman fish sauce or from Asian fish sauces discovered by the British during their time in India.
posted by TedW at 12:40 PM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

re: umami
There is a reason everyone loves Doritos. Its name is monosodium glutamate (The much dreaded MSG from those scary news stories about Chinese Restaurant Syndrome)

So Americans are very familiar with the umami flavor, they just might not know it...
posted by Grither at 1:23 PM on March 31, 2010

Tibetan tea (Pö-cha), traditionally made by brewing tea for a very long time and then diluting it with very salty yak butter. There's an Americanized version made by Tibetan refugees in the U.S. with off-the-shelf black tea and regular salted butter that's still unpalatable (because it's bitter and salty) to most Americans.
posted by aught at 1:37 PM on March 31, 2010

A Czech cheese from Olomouc, olomoucké tvarůžky, is really tasty but smells quite similar to the outside of a cow.
posted by FunGus at 2:32 PM on March 31, 2010

After two Seders, it occurs to me that to the American/Western palate that doesn't live in New York or other cities w a large Jewish population Gefilte Fish has to be bizarre, actually to me it is too.
posted by xetere at 2:56 PM on March 31, 2010


"Finnish cuisine"
posted by loveyourfellowman at 3:35 PM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

An addition to the above:

Interest in mämmi appears to have increased worldwide, probably due to Finns' eager attempts to offer the idiosyncratic foodstuff to visiting foreigners

Too true.
posted by loveyourfellowman at 3:37 PM on March 31, 2010

Dried and shredded cuttlefish.

Salmiakki, often referred to as "salty liquorice."

I'm seeing a brand-new snack-food idea here. . . . sort of 'Singapore meets Finland.'
posted by Napoleonic Terrier at 5:10 PM on March 31, 2010

Haggis, slightly Scottish-centric but most things that contain sheep's lungs get a 'western' palate up in arms.

Also Andouillette - The Art of Eating periodical had a nice feature on the feces scented nature of this dish recently.

Norwegian cod (Lutefisk) that is cured in lye rather than salt gets my back up but I know many Scandinavians will wholeheartedly disagree.
posted by camerasforeyes at 6:12 PM on March 31, 2010

So Americans are very familiar with the umami flavor, they just might not know it...

That's actually the point I was trying to make, but probably in too roundabout a way; I can't think of many things more full of umami than the beef jerky in the original question, for example.
posted by TedW at 6:42 PM on March 31, 2010

Hot Mango Pickle tastes a little odd. Sort of like burning plastic, but more hot/spicy.

It's good, just a very acquired taste.
posted by KenManiac at 8:58 PM on March 31, 2010

Speck german style. Pure bacon fat, chopped into small cubes and put into almost everything. Horrible bouncy, chewy fat that pretends to be potato until you bite it. Ugh.

Gjetost. Is carmelised goats whey. Tastes like fudge with a goats milk back of the nose hit. Truly bizarre.
posted by kjs4 at 9:09 PM on March 31, 2010

Mexican Mole Negro sauce? From the wiki:

Mole Negro

Mole negro is the most difficult to prepare. Traditionally, black mole has six different kinds of chile peppers, Chilguacle Negro, Mulatto, Pasilla, Ancho, Guajillo, and Chipotle, although many sauces that carry the name contain fewer. The ingredient list is very long, featuring many seeds, nuts, spices, herbs, and chocolate.

I can't think of how to describe the taste of it, other than to say its like an unsalty vegemite.

Another food that is hard to describe is vegemite :)
posted by Admira at 11:00 PM on March 31, 2010

On his show No Reservations, Tony Bourdain sometimes says about some local food that he thinks is great that Americans would *not* like it, and it's often a texture issue. He says Americans categorically won't accept a food item that is at first firm but then squishy.
posted by johnvaljohn at 6:07 AM on April 1, 2010

It's not from another culture, but one rarely comes across Boletus barrowsii. Delicious, but with an incomparable taste.
posted by yohko at 9:07 AM on April 1, 2010

Kaya is always described as a coconut jam, but it has a taste so unlike other fruit jams.

Meat floss is all meat, but like the wikipedia page says, it has a texture "similar to coarse cotton".

Also, Chinese dessert ingredients like birds nest, hasma, and snow fungus - they're generally cartilaginous and... musky.
posted by hellopanda at 12:38 PM on April 1, 2010

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