By RACHEL HERZ l WSJ Jan.28, 2012
Disgust is one of our most basic emotions—the only one that we have to learn—and nothing triggers it more reliably than the strange food of others.
Nattō is a stringy, sticky, slimy, chunky fermented soybean dish that Japanese regularly eat for breakfast. It can be eaten straight up, but it is usually served cold over rice and seasoned with soy sauce, mustard or wasabi.
Aside from its alien texture, nattō suffers from another problem, at least for Westerners—odor. Nattō smells like the marriage of ammonia and a tire fire. Though this might not be the worst smell combination ever, it has zero food connotation for me, and I’ve never met a Westerner who can take a bite of nattō on the first attempt. What Japanese love, we find disgusting.
In the last several years there has been an explosion of research on disgust. Disgust is one of the six basic emotions—along with joy, surprise, anger, sadness and fear—but it is the only one that has to be learned, which suggests something about its complexity.
Most children get their first lessons in disgust around the time that they are potty trained. After that, the triggers of disgust are quickly acquired from the responses and rules of parents, peers and, most importantly, the wider culture. One of the best places to look for the vast differences in what is or is not considered disgusting in different parts of the globe is food, especially distinctive foods, like every culture’s favorite fermented dish.
Take cheese, considered by Westerners to be anything from a comfort food to a luxurious delicacy. A good taleggio, Gorgonzola or Brie might be described as sweaty or slimy. Cheese also has its fair share of aromatic obstacles and, depending on the circumstances, may be confused with vomit, stinky feet or a garbage spill. Many Asians regard all cheese, from processed American slices to Stilton, as utterly disgusting—the equivalent of cow excrement.
Given that cheese can be described as the rotted bodily fluid of an ungulate, that’s not far off. But controlled rot tastes good in this case—at least to us (or most of us). The key is to manage the decomposition in such a way as to get that desired flavor and to ensure that we don’t get sick from consuming the food (in some cases, rot is actually necessary because the fresh version is poisonous).
A quick jaunt across the globe for some favorite fermented foods will lead us to kimchee in Korea, which is fermented vegetables (usually cabbage); gravlax, the fermented raw salmon enjoyed in Norway; injera in Ethiopia, a spongy, fermented flatbread; chorizo in Spain, which is fermented and cured uncooked pork sausage; and the many forms of fermented dairy that are adored and consumed from India to Indiana.
Among the most hard-core variants of fermented food is the Icelandic delicacy hákarl. Hákarl is made from the Greenland shark, which is indigenous to the frigid waters of Iceland. It is traditionally prepared by beheading and gutting the shark and then burying the carcass in a shallow pit covered with gravelly sand. The corpse is then left to decompose in its silty grave for two to five months, depending on the season. Once the shark is removed from its lair, the flesh is cut into strips and hung to dry for several more months.
Hákarl has a pungent, urinous, fishy odor that causes most newbies to gag. An extremely acquired taste, hákarl was described by the globe-trekking celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he had ever eaten.
At an international convention of food oddities, you might try to wash down your hákarl with the Ecuadoran aperitif chicha, which combines the alcoholic perks of fermentation with a disgusting bodily fluid. Chicha is made from a masticated blend of boiled maize (or yucca root) and human saliva.
My favorite fermented challenge, because I’m a cheese lover but am mortally repulsed by worms, is casu marzu. Casu marzu is a sheep cheese popular on the Italian island of Sardinia. The name means “rotten cheese” or, as it is known colloquially, “maggot cheese,” since it is literally riddled with live insect larvae.
To make maggot cheese you start with a slab of local sheep cheese, pecorino sardo, but then let it go beyond normal fermentation to a stage most would consider infested decomposition (because, well, it is). The larvae of the cheese fly (Piophila casei) are added to the cheese, and the acid from their digestive systems breaks down the cheese’s fats, making the final product soft and liquidy. By the time it is ready for consumption, a typical casu marzu contains thousands of larvae.
Locals consider it unsafe to eat casu marzu once the larvae have died, so it is served while the translucent white worms, about one-third of an inch long, are still squiggling. Some people clear the maggots from the cheese before consuming it; others do not. Those who leave the maggots may have to cover the cheese with their hands—when disturbed, the maggots can jump up to six inches.
It is no accident that you likely feel revolted by many of these descriptions. The most elemental purpose of the emotion of disgust is to make us avoid rotted and toxic food.
So why are fermented saliva, decomposed shark and maggot-ridden cheese so desirable in some cultures? Is it just a quirky paradox of the human condition that we eagerly consume things that give off all the signals of putrefaction?
We learn which foods are disgusting and which are not through cultural inheritance, which is very much tied to geography. One reason that certain foods carry so much local meaning is that they capture something essential about a region’s flora and fauna. The same is true of the microbes that make fermented foods possible; they vary markedly from one part of the world to another. The bacteria involved in making kimchee are not the same as those used to make Roquefort.
We also use food as a way of establishing who is friend and who is foe, and as a mode of ethnic distinction. “I eat this thing and you don’t. I am from here, and you are from there.”
In every culture, “foreigners” eat strange meals that have strange aromas, and their bodies reek of their strange food. These unfamiliar aromas are traditionally associated with the unwanted invasion of the foreigners and thus are considered unwelcome and repugnant. Conversely, a person can become more accepted by eating the right foods—not only because their body odor will no longer smell unfamiliar and “unpleasant,” but because acceptance of food implies acceptance of the larger system of cultural values at hand.
Food is a marvelous window through which to examine the multifaceted emotion of disgust. Food is a great passion, but it can also inspire terrible repulsion. Strangely, as with almost all facets of disgust, it is in our nature to be attracted to this repulsion. Who, uninitiated to the actual foodstuff, isn’t at least a little curious about tasting some soft and stinky hákarl or a wormy morsel of casu marzu?
What human beings find disgusting varies greatly not just from place to place but across time. It cannot be separated from what the object of our repulsion means to us.
If lobsters are considered the vermin of the deep—as early American colonists saw them—then they become objects of disgust, not food fit for kings. If Americans who ordered chicken wings were instead served a dish of deep fried grasshoppers, they would gag, even though many people in Thailand would line up for the delicious snack. Strange? Not if you take a moment to reflect about it the next time you order a burger topped off with rotted ungulate bodily fluid.
— Ms. Herz teaches at Brown University. Excerpted from her new book, “That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion” (Norton).
(Source: The Wall Street Journal)
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