Chicken again?
November 21, 2011 10:32 AM   Subscribe

Best "gateway" foods for uninspired palates?

I occasionally find myself in the dining company of people who are unadventurous, for lack of a better term. While they have some general food preferences, they're not actually that picky or culturally biased, just uninspired and unlikely to try new things on their own impetus. As a food-enthusiast, I get a little sad when I hear that Panera is their one regular food adventure, but I know that they're not true "beigeatarians", and they've enjoyed new foods when the occasions presented themselves.

I grew up with a lot of heavy ethnic influences in my childhood foods, so my palate is pretty much all over the place, and I'm never totally sure what is or isn't approachable to the average American. In the past, I haven't felt confident enough suggesting anything beyond a safe pasta or grilled fish dish, so I'm hoping to arm myself with a solid list of more unusual entry-level dishes I could use to enliven their taste buds, either at home or at a restaurant. What meals have shaken you out of a food rut and opened your eyes to a new world of culinary possibility? In other words, interesting, but not too-challenging dishes for willing newbies?

Vegetarian and omnivorous ideas welcome. Healthier options not strictly necessary, but would be especially appreciated.
posted by Diagonalize to Food & Drink (28 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Thai food is really easy to start with - just feed them Pad Thai.
Sushi - everyone starts with California rolls and Shrimp tempura, then move them over to salmon based rolls.
Greek/Turkish - shishkobabs.
posted by pyro979 at 10:37 AM on November 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

posted by Fizz at 10:38 AM on November 21, 2011

I'd suggest Indian cuisine. At root, a lot of it is just meat in sauce, and that's something Americans are pretty much okay with. Using naan to eat with will seem a bit exotic, but it's really just your basic flatbread. Rice is also pretty unobjectionable. Nothing too off-putting.

It can also be as mild or as spicy as one wishes.
posted by valkyryn at 10:39 AM on November 21, 2011

I think a good strategy here might be to start with a version of something they're used to. For example, chicken. Say, hey, I think you'll like this Thai place - they have a great chicken with cashew nuts! Or they have a good beef with basil! The main emphasis on the part that they actually feel comfortable with.

Or maybe selling them on a Japanese place on the strengths of its tempura or tonkatsu. ("You and me? Let's not use these foreign words. We can call it deep-fried shrimp and pork! Did I mention I love the NY Mets?") Most Americans are familiar and in love with deep fried shit.

Once they're comfortable with that, they can branch out. Step 3: Profit!
posted by ignignokt at 10:39 AM on November 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Butter chicken can be a good gateway into Indian food, as it tends to be less spicy than other dishes and is more appealing to North American palates (in my experience, at least).

Vegetarian maki or maki that has only cooked fish can be a good way to introduce people to sushi, if they are scared off by the whole "raw fish" concept.

Fusion restaurants might be good, too, as they provide food that is "ethnically inspired" but which tends toward North American palates rather than the palates of the culture(s) from which the chefs got their inspiration.
posted by asnider at 10:40 AM on November 21, 2011

Can I tell you how much I love to eat food from wherever? Like...absolutely. I've got a litmus test for friends to see how adventurous they are, and that litmus test is Pho.

See, Pho is just a tasty noodle dish that is NOT risque or "out there". What makes pho special is what you put IN it.

You can have Pho with just like, well done beef. Or rare beef. Or meatballs. Or beef tendon. Or tripe. Or bean sprouts. Or coriander. Or basil. Or hot peppers. Or all of the above.

Personally, I always order Pho Dac Biet, which has some of everything meat-wise, and most veggies on the side for mixing yourself. It's AWESOME because you can totally learn all about textures and flavors by experimenting. A mouthfull with just broth/noodles/beef will taste one way, while a mouthful with noodles/beansprouts/tendon will taste another. It's AWESOME that one giant bowl of soup can taste so varied as you eat it.

I was leery of tendon. I shouldn't have been. It's like...perfect beefy jelly that's perfect. On a cracker by itself? Maybe not so much. With some crunchy sprouts and soft noodles? Oh hell yes.
posted by TomMelee at 10:44 AM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Any sort of dip or dipping sauce is great for this. Hummus, chutney, peanut sauce, etc, served with something familiar like bread, veggies, or grilled chicken skewers. That way they're not trying a totally new dish, they're having something they already know with the option of a new sauce.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:46 AM on November 21, 2011

Pozole- a Mexican soup usually made with pork and hominy. It's great because once you get your bowl you can add a whole range of things- lettuce, radishes, chilis, lime, tortilla chips. You can play with the flavours and its fun. You can also serve it with chips and guacamole which are pretty safe foods for the less-adventurous.
posted by beau jackson at 10:46 AM on November 21, 2011

TomMelee, that's exactly the kind of answer I'm looking for. Exotic, but not too crazy. They're educated, well-traveled people who live in a big city, so they can find sushi in the supermarket, but pho is something that is just enough outside their comfort zone.
posted by Diagonalize at 10:48 AM on November 21, 2011

I don't have a good list of gateway foods, but I wanted to mention a way to get people to try things in addition to gateway stuff.

In my experience, one of the best ways to introduce people to new foods is to take a bunch of people to a restaurant, order about 50% things that are within peoples' comfort zone and 50% more exciting and then share things around family style. Most people are willing to try a bite of this and that if they know that there's at least something they'll like.

Buffets also do the same thing: you can try something new with no "penalty".
posted by sciencegeek at 10:50 AM on November 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Great. I've taken a few n00bs to pho shops, and they get scared by the vietnamese on the signage---however most of them have gained new appreciation upon tasting it, and Gui Con rolls...well, holy sweet mother of mayhem are they good too. (Rice Paper, vermicelli, cabbage, pork, shrimp, mint with peanut dipping sauce)

In my admittedly limited experience, the tiny dingier mom and pops serve a much better product than the fancy places too.

I think thanks in large part to Bizarre Foods (where I first learned of it, admittedly), Pho has gained a hipster-fanatic cachet recently. There's a Pho truck in DC that charges ~$12 a bowl for it, which is fine and dandy but the entire purpose is that it's a peasant food with large quantity and small cost.
posted by TomMelee at 10:53 AM on November 21, 2011

Not sure about gateway but how about dim sum?

You can get as exotic as you like - chicken feet, jelly fish, etc
Or you can go with the safer dishes - meat (shrimp or pork or beef or combination) balls, deep fried stuff and pastries.

My in-laws are notoriously unadventurous but they liked dim-sum. Or so they said.
posted by 7life at 11:01 AM on November 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

I used to be somewhat unadventurous in my food, I think in large part because I didn't like spicy food. A long time ago, my friends started going to this place that sold buffalo wings -- 50 for $15 -- and we'd all split it. At first, I couldn't eat my share, and had to give up after just a few wings due to the heat, thinking, "augh! why do these people buy food that hurts? Even if it is cheap?". But after a few times of doing this, I gradually got accustomed to the spiciness, and even came to crave it. And that opened up a lot of doors, doors to Indian food and Thai food in particular.

So buffalo wings were one gateway for me, just because it got me over the "very spicy = bad" thing.
posted by smcameron at 11:02 AM on November 21, 2011

I'm Japanese-American, but I grew up in a mostly Chinese, Vietnamese, and Hispanic neighborhood, so I'm about or possibly more used to pho and dim sum as I am to cheeseburgers and fries, but that's also what makes it hard for me to gauge what other people find approachable or not. It's really helpful to see that a lot of the stuff I love isn't actually that scary to others.
posted by Diagonalize at 11:06 AM on November 21, 2011

I would do Mediterranean/middle eastern food. Start with Turkish. I've never met anyone who didn't love Turkish food, even people whose first choice would be Olive Garden. If they eat meat, they can start with something like chicken kabobs. At one Turkish place I go to a lot I always make sure to get a mezze(sp?) platter as well to start with so the person can try a few other things.
posted by fromageball at 11:10 AM on November 21, 2011

Is there a cafeteria-style ethnic joint near you? I've found actually seeing what it is takes some of the exotic weirdness out of it and people are much more willing to try it if they can see it and ask questions before a plate arrives or they have to commit.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 11:17 AM on November 21, 2011

My near-vegan friend's husband is an unadventurous eater. It's taken her years, but she's managed to introduce him to tofu recipes, and now he actually requests them. The big breakthrough, I think, was beer-battered tofu.
posted by WasabiFlux at 11:27 AM on November 21, 2011

Seconding middle-eastern and Mediterranean food. Greek food, in particular, seems to be a crowd pleaser. I also find the Lebanese food is not so "out there" for most people, even though it may seem exotic to those who have never tried it.
posted by asnider at 11:33 AM on November 21, 2011

Thirding Middle Eastern. I've kind of just discovered Persian food recently, and it is DELICIOUS. It's also not too weird, not too spicy, and allows one to order shish kabob, a dish previously only known from Bugs Bunny.
posted by maryr at 1:01 PM on November 21, 2011

Greek, particularly gyros, and spanish tapas are good. For home cooking, you can usually get relatively adventorous with marinades if the meat is fairly familiar (e.g., pork tenderlion). We've had good luck with lamb kabobs too.

Also, you may have luck with expanding on folks' mexican repertoire -- migas, horchata, or picking a high quality chinese restaurant and ordering one standard plate and another that they may not try otherwise.

If it's a really unexperienced crowd, you may have the best luck making a gourmet mac & cheese, or a gourmet pulled pork, or standard grilled chicken with an assortment of sauces.
posted by ejaned8 at 2:43 PM on November 21, 2011

I'm going to agree with Pho - it's familiar, yet there are so many interesting options.
posted by peagood at 2:47 PM on November 21, 2011

Can you cook? Could you cook some good recipes and include fresh herbs? I love, love, love cilantro and figured this out way too late. I want to stick my whole head in the bag of cilantro when I get it from the store. Can you make tacos or a bean salad and add cilantro?

If someone isn't accustomed to fresh herbs, they really make a huge positive difference in meals.
posted by shortyJBot at 5:55 PM on November 21, 2011

I can cook, although I know one of the people in question hates cilantro. That said, they're not at all strangers to fresh herbs; they just don't have a lot of imagination with what to do with them, but your point is well taken. Quality ingredients definitely make a huge difference in the flavor.
posted by Diagonalize at 6:35 PM on November 21, 2011

I am a boring eater with a husband who will eat and enjoy anything. My main objection to new foods is the FEAR of SKETCHY MEAT. For example Pho, scares me as it is some type of "meat" in broth but I don't always know what type and I have found that many asian dishes play fast and loose with identifying what meats are included. I cannot eat seafood but have often end up with dishes cooked in oyster oil etc. This has not ended well for me. My husband really helped me by pointing out that Indian and Middle Eastern dishes are very clear about what meat is used as they are traditional for many ethnic groups with different but specific dietary restrictions so you will never find meat in a vegetarian dish, or pork, or beef where it doesn't belong. This gave me the confidence to try new tastes, stews and meat on stick combos that I had always steered clear of before. Anyways this may not be your friends problem but I found that *knowing* what I was eating made me more open to new tastes.
posted by saradarlin at 7:37 PM on November 21, 2011

Another suggestion, Korean BBQ is very accessible to Americans with bulgogi and kalbi. To branch things out into the exotic, have them try dolsot bibimbap, because it's rice with ingredients they can choose on top and you can sort of see all the ingredients separately before mixing it up. I always think exotic food is much scarier if you don't know what's in it. My favorite Korean dish is tofu chigae. It is one of the ultimate comfort foods and if you think pho is something they would like then I really think they would like tofu/soondubu chigae too.

I don't think that you should discount sushi as something to try with them because you can get sushi in a grocery store. Grocery store sushi is disgusting. Please don't let them learn sushi that way or they will not enjoy it. I used to be a picky eater, basically beige-atarian as you put it, and got into sushi with the cooked maki rolls such as shrimp tempura rolls, but what they really need to do is try eel and avocado roll or spicy tuna. If you live on a coast and can get it fresh, it could be a revelation!
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:58 PM on November 21, 2011

Part of making something a gateway is making sure your friends know what's in it. Dim sum can be scary to a non-Chinese-speaker because it's hard to tell what anything is. It's labeled [foreign name] and "pork dumpling" then the three things below it are labeled [different foreign names] and "pork in dough" "pork and vegetable dumpling" and "dumpling with pork". What the heck, man, can't they even say what's in these things?
So you go out with them for dim sum, and you'll place the orders and manage the ordering and paperwork. You'll also make sure your table gets American conveniences like glasses of water, a knife to cut samples, some forks as well as chopsticks, etc. You ask what people like: spicy/less spicy? is pork good? beef? shrimp? vegetables? fried things or steamed things? Of course you'll be getting a mix of stuff, but it's good to have an idea of what they might like. The great thing is, you do an early round that demonstrates a few options, and then you can expand on themes that people liked.
Try some familiar things, potstickers, spring rolls, shrimp rolls, bbq pork buns. Then some of the dumplings that aren't sold at a mall chinese-takeout place - the shumai, the vegetable potstickers, things that are steamed (that wet rice dough texture is a new experience). Garlic broccoli-rabe always goes over well if that's on the cart.
Once they're warmed up to the idea, try the floppy rice dough rolls, but those are (a) odd-textured and (b) difficult to eat cleanly - but maybe the fact that they're delicious will make up for it.
The key thing is, every time you want to order something, tell them what it is (pork in rice dough, deep-fried) AND the details that make it different from the other things, and why you like it (there's a faint sweetness in the dough and some kind of sweet spices in this, like cinnamon. It's chewy in the middle but crispy on the outside - it's one of my favorites. And if you like this a lot, we'll get the sesame balls for dessert.) If it's iffy, tell them what might be surprising (a texture, a flavor, a spice) and tell them why you like it, or if it's popular but not one of your favorites, or if you just ordered it to torture them.
Specific yes/no thoughts:
Definitely order dessert - fried sesame balls, egg-custard buns or tarts... but stay away from jelled things, agar is very different from American jello.
I'd say don't bother with super-plain stuff, because boring is not particularly delicious - yes to treasure rice wrapped in the big leaf, but no to plain rice, yes to bread with fillings but no to the fried dough sticks or the plain buns (that I've gotten accidentally because I confused them with custard buns).
One thing that can be off-putting is spare ribs - they sound like they're supposed to be delicious, but to the American palate it's a wad of gristle and meat and weird stuff, kind of feels like eating scraps when you expected "real meat".
posted by aimedwander at 7:04 AM on November 22, 2011

treehorn+bunny, don't worry. I haven't discounted sushi simply because you can get it in the grocery store. You may have missed the part where I mentioned I'm Japanese-American, so I'd actually be pretty horrified if that was their sole concept of sushi. I only mentioned the grocery store to demonstrate that sushi isn't a particularly exotic concept to them. But Korean is a good idea that I don't think I've tried, and it wouldn't be too different from some of the Japanese I've already introduced them to.

Dim sum, which is one of my absolute favorites, is a little more hit or miss, since they've tried it, but most of the places I'm familiar with are Chinese like whoa, as in zero English speakers, dozens of mystery dumplings, etc., so I may have to hunt around for a more American approachable restaurant. I think I've actually got a decent handle on what to order, but the general atmosphere and trappings as previously presented may have made it too daunting for them to ever consider eating it on their own.
posted by Diagonalize at 2:31 PM on November 22, 2011

I would suggest Turkish food. It is delicious, easily recognizable and if done well, fresh and lovely. It has something for everyone, grilled and more heavily spiced. Doner, if done properly, is always fresh meat, not this odd conglomeration of mystery meat. Persian is also fabulous, just be sure it is real good.

Vietnamese can be overwhelming and if one of the people does not dig cilantro it may be hard for them since it is common enough on the raw salad plate with even more robust mints that may displease them. Also, the fish sauce and chili pastes can be daunting. Now, if you keep it to egg rolls; spring rolls and other more gentle items then it could be successful. I would veer away from adventuresome Chinese. Your guests interpretation of Chinese and what you would want to take them too can be wide, wide, wide. I speak as someone who was taking people used to a much more mild Americanized Cantonese style to regional restaurants and watching the discomfort and disappointment, "There's no lo-mein?."

Peruvian is another option as well. The tastes are interesting and familiar except for the fermented potatoes, that you need to steer clear of, and guineau pig too (gamy flavor). But the seafood is great and the citrus flavors awesome.

If they are meat and potato but really meat. Argentinean, hell yeah. Argentinean meat is great. But Brazil has a cuisine to recommend as well. Did I mention the cocktails from Brazil are a civilizing lubricant?
posted by jadepearl at 5:58 PM on November 26, 2011

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