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What was your "first" exotic dish?

Growing up, the first "foreign food" I had was at the Chinese (-American) restaurant, and I think I had the egg drop soup and Sub Gum Chicken. I also recall the "Moo Goo Gai Pan".

At home, the first "exotic dish" my mom made was "Chicken Curry" and it had raisins in it, and was served with white rice. (I'm thinking something like a "Country Captain" dish).

The first "different" dish I cooked was "Spinach Rice." (maybe a Greek influence, but don't really recall.) This was while I was attending high school. I also made the "Egg Foo Young" sometimes with that "kit" from LaChoy (?). I started clipping recipes in earnest in college, freshman year.

I grew up caucasian in SW Florida, and graduated high school in the late '70s.

(As an aside, my "go to" dish for baking in high school -- ha ha -- was small date walnut loaves, sliced and served with cream cheese. And apple "turnovers".)

Do you have fond memories, too? When did you have your first "exotic" dish? Make something of your own? Have a "specialty" even when you were young? Get "into" food?

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  1. I think the first "exotic" food for me was Red's Tamales. When I was four and five years old I found those canned tamales to be so exciting starting with the paper wrapping! Meanwhile my day-to-day foods included wild birds, vinegary Russian tripe and ox tail soups, homemade horsemeat sausages, eggplant and eggs with mushrooms for breakfast, beet soup that included apples, fermented cabbage (kind of a Siberian kimchee), wild mustard greens, homemade head cheese (I remember cleaning those pig heads with Grandpa), home-grown snails, and coffee-soaked bread with brown sugar. The first full meal I ever cooked was at age six. It was wurst fried with onions, boiled baby red potatoes with butter and parsley, and what we called "mustard buds" which I now know was rape. My grandparents came from a culture where children were properly utilized; and for me to begin helping cook at a very early age was considered normal.

    My grandpa had many friends in San Francisco's Chinatown and I was using chop sticks and eating Cantonese comfort food at a very early age. I first ate at Sam Wo when I was a toddler.. still eat there 63 years later.

    My mother's second husband came into my life when I was seven. He was a Mid-Western Norwegian who introduced me to Meat, Potatoes, and Canned Vegetables. My mother attempted to convert him to "real" food, but anything other than safe and bland made him very uncomfortable.. no more garlic and vinegar and innards for me unless I was visiting my mother's parents! Except for his bland foods, he was a lovely dad and he would make potato lefse and Swedish pancakes for us, which I still love and find comforting. He did love my mother's fine lemon pies, her delicious homemade candies (fudges, panuche, divinity-stuffed dates with toasted pecans), and her awesome boiled beef (with lots of hidden garlic we never told him about). To this day, her surviving friends remember my mother as being "the best cook in our group" and her party fare (hors d'oeuvres, dips, etc.) is stuff of legend!

    Many of my early friends were Mexican, and, passionate little cook that I was (am), their mothers were happy to teach me how to make chilaquiles, capirotada (sp?) the Mexican bread pudding, and other Mexican comfort foods. I've since explored Mexican regional cooking and actually taught Mexican home cooking to young Mexican high school kids.

    When I was in college I made Mexican comfort food and lots of soups and stews for my friends My lentil soup with grated apples and sour cream was considered "exotic" fare by many of those raised on the bland American diet of the 1950's.

    My first husband was from a family of very fine Neapolitan cooks and I became an accomplished cooker of Southern Italian foods, easy to do living on the coast of California! My Italian mother-in-law introduced me to roasted sheep's head, Neapolitan tripe (as good as menudo!), grilled eels, and a whole array of chunky, spicy salamis and deliciously reeking cheeses..

    I didn't get into breadmaking and baking until I was in my 40 and now, at 65, my baked goods.. my breads, pies, crisps, and cakes, are requested often by family and friends. I'm unable to eat wheat but I can make lovely cakes, cookies, and pies using my rice flour-based baking mixtures. I bake lots of regular breads, and sour doughs (from an old old starter) but can only watch as others scarf them down. sigh.

    Thanks for taking me on this pleasant trip back into my culinary history!

    3 Replies
    1. re: fromagina

      sushi was mine, it was my first year of college. I don't think anyone in my home town ever heard of sushi. Which is just as well since I don't like it. :)

      1. re: fromagina

        that was amazing, thank YOU, fromagina! your day to day foods while young are wonder-ful! did you grow up in san francisco? i grew up with southern food, but spaghetti with meat sauce every friday night, when it was served with a green salad and white bread and butter. i was always thrilled because i could watch my heartthrob, James West, on "the wild, wild west" on tv.

        i'm all in favor of incorporating children into the kitchen routines, too. my lebanese law partner wouldn't let her 8 year old help in the kitchen (to be spoiled and coddled, instead). the daughter was thrilled when i taught her to use the black and decker handy-chopper! (love that gadget).

        1. re: alkapal

          I spent my early childhood in San Francisco with my mother, and across the bay in Vallejo with my grandparents. The San Francisco ferry was like my third home!

          Southern food, like that beautiful fried chicken, was also exotic food to me! The first time I tasted cornbread at a friend's home, I thought "Wow! These people eat dessert WITH their dinner!"

          My son, like his mother, has been cooking since he could climb up on a box and reach the counter. So he sliced his fingers a few times.. that's what Band-aids are for. He taught many of his friends how to do basic things like make omelet's, make pancakes, and make spaghetti sauce.. this as an elementary school kid. Yes, Grandpa, American children are terribly under-utilized!

      2. We went for Mexican and Chinese (Chinese-American, actually; I'm talking Springfield-style cashew chicken) all the time, so I didn't really consider that "exotic."

        From about the time I was in fourth grade we had Korean family friends, and when we'd go to their house we'd eat these wonderful little egg rolls--way different from what we had at the Fortune--and jap chae.

        My uncle was in the Peace Corps in Korea, and he did a little traveling around afterward. When he came home some friends he'd met there came to visit, including a man from Thailand and a woman from Australia. I went over to Bob's house and helped them cook a big Thai feast for friends and kinfolk. I think I was ten or eleven, so I'm sure I wasn't a whole lot of help, but it was a very enoyable day.

        The next summer we had Japanese folks stay in our community, in various homes, including ours. At the end of their stay they threw a party with lots of Japanese foods. I was a bit afraid of most of it, but that's when I tried somen for the first time (cold noodles in dashi-based broth); a few years later I had another Japanese friend show me how to make them myself.

        1. There may have been others, but the one that stands out in my memory as "first" was burfi I had as a third-grader. A classmate who'd returned from a visit with family members in India had brought in several kinds for the class to sample. One of them was a pastel green with tiny bits of ground nuts in it. I thought it tasted like soap but had the good manners to eat it all without saying so (a few of our classmates weren't so well-behaved - provoking the teacher to yell at all of us for being ungrateful).

          1 Reply
          1. re: racer x

            Escargot at 16. Took my older sister and her friends to JFK to pick up one of her friends and drop off her Dutch friend to fly home. We dined (yes it was really very dining lol!!) at The Golden Door which is long gone - this was in the early 60's. This restaurant was very very elegant with waiters that would appear poof! My sister dared me to try the escargot (she is 8 years older than I am and her friends were the same age). When I heard they were snails I was intimidated but...... Escargot is my very favorite to this day.

          2. Mmmm.... tough one. Probably a whole roast lamb at one of the tavernas on Santorini. Grilled octopus. Veal sweetbreads at the tender age of 12 -- still love them. Brains... same thing.

            A fantastic Korean dinner, also at the age of 12 at a Korean resto in my hometown. I'm sure it was highly Europeanized, but I will never forget the delicious morsels of beef that were apparently bathed in egg and then fried. Yowza.

            1. Hmmm, since I grew up having abalone, jelly fish, fish eyeballs, beef tongue, etc., I'd say exotic for us would have been Domino's pizza for a spcial treat, extra cheese. We loved those nights.

              1. I remember sometime around the age of 4 my father made us rabbit in white sauce at my request. I grew up Asian in Chicago in the 80s, so the foods we typically ate at home (oxtails, bittermelon, biryani, falafel, eggrolls) were "exotic" to most outsiders while the food Americans ate was the source of much allure for us. Bird's Nest Soup was just something we ate matter of factly as children, even after we found out it was made from bird saliva; but I still remember my first taste of that most exotic and forbidden of foods: Virginia ham (age 4).

                2 Replies
                  1. re: alkapal

                    I don't remember whether or not I liked rabbit, but after tasting ham, I knew I was destined to become a Christian for the pork products alone!

                1. I grew up in a strong Russian culture, wanted to be "Merican and refused to eat it. I remember, in the 50's, when my mother brought home a new "Italian" food that was all the rage: frozen pizza! Exotic!
                  Going on a camping trip w/ dad and his buddies, when in the 8th grade, was my my trial by campfire. One of the men was the father of the girl I had a crush on. The men were drinking beer and shucking clams around the campfire and the girl's father offered a clam/cocktail sauce on the half shell. Being a very fussy eater, I was silently aghast, but I mustered my courage and ate the damn thing and then a few more and I grew to like them. Aaahh, what men won't do in the name of love.

                  1. Sweet breads at age 11. Dad had taken us to symphony in Boston and then dinner after at a restaurant across the street from Symphony Hall..... can't remember the name :(
                    After reading the menu I proudly gave my order to the waiter. My Italo-American parents were not surprised since we had tripe and marrow periodically at home. I remember taking the first taste with trepidation, but then enjoyed every bite.

                    The first time I cooked something other than tomato sauce was for a dinner party my parents had for visiting dignataries from Europe. I baked yeasted flaky dinner rolls from a recipe in Seventeen Magazine, a favorite teen-age mag at the time..... I was 10. I had never baked anything before this. We had two kitchens so I baked downstairs while mother prepared dinner upstairs. The rolls were absolutely gorgeous. Picture perfect. No one believed I baked them. I was so proud!

                    1. Along around 1950, on the outskirts of our little Illinois town someone built one of those newfangled "motels," complete (as was common at the time) with a restaurant. As no new restaurants had opened in Marshall since before WW2 my folks decided we had to give it a try, especially as it was rumored to feature the latest trends in restaurant food. Sure enough: they had CHOP SUEY on the menu! The crunchy noodles alone were something novel and wonderful, and the water chestnuts, bamboo shoots and straw mushrooms, mixed in with perfectly ordinary celery and chicken in a curiously colorless but tasty sauce, were perfectly suited to our Midwestern appetites. Not long after this, the La Choy canned chop-suey ingredients (which I strongly suspect figured prominently in our restaurant meal) appeared on the shelves at the local Kroger, and this "Chinese" dish was eagerly added to the Owen family repertoire...a welcome alternative to such common fare as braised squirrel and rabbit hasenpfeffer!

                      1. Due to my Mexican and Germanic parentage, I grew up with a wide variety of foods considered exotic compared with the typical American diet. I was also lucky enough to also have a step-grandpa who was a fantastic cook. He was from Puerto Rico, so fried plantains, arroz con pollo and mofongo were staples too. Grandma was quite the cook herself, and she inherited recipes from her mother, who was born in Chihuahua, Mexico. So regional Mexican cooking, and standard favorites were always on our Sunday menu. Family reunions on my father's side of the family always included traditional German and Dutch creations, and always lots of sauerkraut, bratwurst, and speculaas .

                        I was always encouraged to try new things though. Chinese food was always an 'exotic' treat I remember from childhood. Shrimp chop suey and fried rice were favorites. Lithuanian food was another treat. Healthy Food's Lithuanian pumpernickel and boiled dumplings were exotic for me.

                        As a teenager, trying both Indian and Japanese foods introduced me to a whole new world of tastes. Living in England for nearly a decade introduced me to a variety of regional Indian cuisines. Travelling throughout Europe and to China and Japan introduced me to many more exotic foodie delights.

                        1. I've talked about my childhood trips to Chinatown, San Francisco, before so I won't bore you with that. But I will tell you about my first effort to make an exotic dish.

                          First I need to explain that my mother absolutely refused to teach me to cook. I was her dishwaher, but cooking was power. The cook dictated when the family gathered at the table. So when I married at 21, my mother's best friend, who was a professional cook, gave me a great cook book as a shower gift, and a wink and a smile and whispered that now I would finally learn how to cook.

                          And about now, I should also tell you that I grew up in a booze-less house. My mother had a lovely set of champagne saucers that were used exclusively for fruit cocktail or ice cream. So I was green, okay?

                          Being a young romantic, I decided I would surprise my husband with an amazing two week wedding anniversary dinner. I went through my cook book looking for the most exotic recipe I could find. I chose lobster thermidor. I drew up a shopping list and rushed off to the supermarket. Got a pair of lovely three pound Maine lobsters. Got everything I needed, except I was stumped on one ingredient. The recipe called for "dry white wine." What in the world did "dry" mean? There was a confusing array of wine on the shelves, but none said "dry." The more I read labels, the more confused I became.

                          So I went to the store manager. Asked for help. Told him I was going to make lobster thermidor for our two week anniversary, and needed some dry white wine, whatever that was. Looking back, I canot believe how gullible (stupid!) I was. The store manager, who seemed like really nice, sincere, and knowledgeable sort of fellow, sold me a bill of goods you cannot believe. He talked me into buying a bottle of Mogen David Concord Grape Wine! He did! And I bought it!

                          <sigh> The memory is painful. All that beautiful coral lobster meat floating in that horrible looking purplish-gray ugly ugly ugly cream sauce! And it tasted as bad as it looked. I will say this for my first husband. He ate everything I cooked with appreciation. And he kept a straight face and didn't laugh at the lobster in gray. But I still cried.

                          But life is good A couple of years later, I REALLY learned to cook when a professional chef who wanted to leave restaurants and go into private service came to work for me. And spent three years teaching me how to cook. And we gave parties where I served fresh Black Sea beluga caviar by the kilo! And drank champagne, and Chateau d'Yquem, and great cognacs! Lovely lovely times.

                          And f-inally, no more Mogen David for cooking! <sheesh> How many ways can you say DUMB?-

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: Caroline1

                            I don't think you were dumb, Caroline, just young and naive as most of us were in one capacity or another once upon a time. We live and we learn, no? Just as an aside, I wanted to say how much I enjoy your stories. Keep them coming.

                            1. re: Caroline1

                              Hey, Caroline you know, we all had to start somewhere. My great-grandma used to drink Mogan David by the glassful (literally), and I never thought anything of it. I used to drink Boone's Farm in my younger days and I loved it too. It wasn't until I visited Sonoma wine country in my late 20's that I learned about and started to appreciate quality wines. And I've got some pretty good horror stories from my days as a cooking novice too (ever try garlic-less tomato pasta sauce? Or burned risotto? Or improvised cookies that turned out exactly like rubber?) I also had to teach myself how to cook. It did help that I was lucky enough to be my grandma's helper in the kitchen at times, so I was at least able to observe her methods. But she never measured anything, and never passed down her recipes. I eventually learned how to cook through trial and error (and by making a lot of mistakes).

                            2. my parents are both great cooks and adventurous eaters, so I grew up on my dad's pesto, fresh clam sauce, and meat sauce, which I dubbed green, white, and red "sketti" and was spoiled enough that I could request those by name. my father had a farm to grow the vegetables and raise the meat, and he lived on the coast in NEngland, so even the seafood was very fresh.and clam and oysters in the raw bars, lobsters, etc. were common at celebrations.
                              my mother and I lived in NY on the lower east side, and from as early as I can remember I would get cravings for pakoras, roast duck and pork, fluffy steamed pork buns, beautiful jewish rye breads, etc.
                              the first food I remember being weirded out by honestly, and this is funny, is at a party in grade school. there were doritos on the table, and i ate it and wondered, "what is the point in this, there's nothing to it." but given my previous associations with food, try it and you'll like it, dont offend people, i have grown to like doritos and most fake cheesey things. ah, the memories of gorging on cheese from a can on ritz crackers at a friend's house in grade school. they also had old el paso tacos!

                              1. Coming from a very mixed cultural back ground, as well as growing up in the West Indies. I have eaten many dishes that would be considered exotic, ie: Iguana, agouti,barnicles,tapir,conch,cow heel.But my first exotic dish that I can remember was in Bristol, Tenn. at Mom's cafe. {Typical} Grits with gravy! It was the most fantastic thing I had ever tasted. and to this day if it's on the menu, I order it.

                                7 Replies
                                1. re: currymouth

                                  I grew up in a very white, republican Seattle suburb. I sure remember the first time my well-traveled father insisted on my brother and I trying some kind of sushi with fish roe. We called referred to roe as "pop rocks" for years.

                                  1. re: currymouth

                                    i have never even heard of grits with gravy. an embarassment of riches! i wonder if that is a tennessee thing?

                                    1. re: alkapal

                                      I've had it in Alabama, as well as Atlanta, So I'm thinking it's a southern thing "duh" The gravy has to be Thick, salty,brown, and with a dash of Tabasco.

                                      1. re: currymouth

                                        i'm surprised, because sw florida where i grew up was not "deep south," but i had relatives in alabama. atlanta, fla. panhandle. (i.e., deep south). thought i would have seen it. was the gravy made from pan drippings from ham or bacon?

                                        1. re: alkapal

                                          Tasted like bacon drippings. I have tried to duplicate the taste but no luck. Not to mention I can't seem to get the same texture on the grits.

                                      2. re: alkapal

                                        Not just Tennessee!
                                        Quaker Oats even sells an Instant Grits, Red-Eye Gravy, and Country Ham product.

                                        1. re: racer x

                                          racer x, i think i may have seen that, but cannot imagine that flavoring --on top of instant grits ( a despicable concept, at best!).

                                    2. I too spent most of my growing up years in SW Florida during that period. Things which are common now (can you say button mushrooms?) were very exotic & difficult to find then. My Father was from a large city and widely fed. My Mother was from a small southern town who had never experienced pizza or Chinese food prior to her marriage. My Father purchased the Time-Life Foods of the World series & my Mother tried many dishes from their pages. A dish often took months to actually make due to the ordeal of finding ingredients. Luckily our grocery manager was interested in learning about "unusual" ingredients and went to great lengths to locate & order ingredients for us. My Father was usually the only one of us who had ever tasted the dish before, so there was much table talk devoted to what the dish needed to perfect it. I think this encouraged me to learn to taste and identify individual components in flavor, which has made me a better cook I suspect. So the first really exotic dish I remember (with months of build up before we could try it) was escargot. Loved garlic, so loved it - once I realized what it was I paused, but the garlic brought me back for seconds! (I was 8)

                                      The local power & light company offered kids cooking classes in the summer. I learned a Swedish meatball dish & made it for dinner. My Father took one bite & left the table. I was in tears! A few years later my Social Studies class required a report on another country to be presented in class. My report was on Yugoslavia & I made a dip which contained capers - probably from the Time-Life series - at my Fathers suggestion. None of us had heard of capers, but the grocer found them. The dip was terrible and my classmates very vocal in their dislike. I was a highly embarrassed 12 year old! Didn't want a third strike, so my cooking interest died quickly. Once I moved away from home I just decided to try to cook and did pretty well somehow. My first meal I cooked was fried pork chops, mashed potatoes & gravey. Had never made any of the dishes. Just thought about it for a day, wrote down what I thought it would entail & did it. Turned out great!

                                      My Father traveled to larger areas for work once in awhile. He would return with baked goods, amazing breads, cured meats - whatever he could carry onto the plane. So happy reunions became synonymous with wonderful taste experiences. This has held true through out my life - good food makes the moment more special and sharing good food spells love and affection clear as a bell!

                                      9 Replies
                                      1. re: meatn3

                                        My Father had a sly way about him, On a trip back to Norway in the early 80's, we rented a log cabin near the ocean and one day brought back from town these thick ,beautifully marbled, pink, but strangely identical steaks. Like they were made in a form of some sort.After grilling them to perfection, and I must say they are still some of the best meat I have ever tasted. he told us they were Whale Steaks. At first we did not believe him but after a trip into town and a tour of the harbour and fish market. we realized it was true, I think I cried that night, but I must confess I would try it again.

                                        1. re: currymouth

                                          What a great story! I think whale was pretty available in the states in the past. I have a cookbook from the '40's or 50's about how to get the most from your freezer. The author was located in the mid-west (IIRC) and has quite a few whale recipes in the book. I've never had it but would suspect it to be fairly rich?

                                          1. re: currymouth

                                            Hey, night owl! I'll never forget the Stavanger, Norway open air fish market; from the ugly whole monk fish (just like beef) to the piles of shrimp and crab. But what will always stick w/ me is the big blocks of red/brown whale meat; like a roast twice the size of Wonder Bread and the fish monger cutting off thicks steaks. Where was hytte?

                                            1. re: Passadumkeg

                                              Don't remember the name of the town , but it has to be near Trondheim, because we were visiting a great uncle there. It was out in the woods and the old man would tell us to close the windows before the bears get in your bunk.Huge mussels so thick, we used them for bait.

                                              1. re: currymouth

                                                The house I rented on a small island came w/ a 16' dory and the landlord was a fisherman. My wife got me a 100' net for Christmas. I lived on fish in the cod family, odd ones too like sea wolf (steinbit), crabs and mussels and island raised lamb, made my own beer and wine, had a garden and picked berries. The way we lived in a socialist country, I had more DISPOSABLE income than living in the US.

                                                1. re: Passadumkeg

                                                  My brother and mother wants us to move back home, but I've spent 1/2 my life here. Hard to pick up and leave, but the way things are going , might just throw caution to the wind. Glad I still kept my Passport.Have you had Akkar?The squid my dad would grill with dill butter and cloud berry reduction.

                                          2. re: meatn3

                                            meatn3, i grew up in fort myers. how about you? we probably visited the same restaurants at some point..... ;-) did you ever go to the swamp cabbage festival in la belle?

                                            why was your swedish meatball dish dissed by dad? i'm glad you returned to cooking with pork chops. i love the flavor, but have memories of little leather chops my mom made....thus, i rarely buy them. btw, i collect those time-life books. lots of neat historical info --- as well as recipes. i always thought it odd that they just didn't go ahead and incorporate the recipes into the larger book! maybe that would've made it too bulky, or expensive (because there are quite a few recipes).

                                            1. re: alkapal

                                              I grew up in Clearwater. We never really went to festivals since most were during the season. My family was in retail so all you did was work your tail off during the season, me too starting at age 4! Our only real pilgrimage was/is to Parksdale in Plant City for their strawberries. They eventually started serving strawberry shortcake too. It is a killer shortcake! The crowds get bigger each year, this Feb. when I was there folks were actually taking photos of how long the line was! But the place has it down to a science & the line moved along briskly. The shortcake was great. That is one childhood food memory which is still wonderful when you revisit it!


                                              I'm collecting the Good Cook series now, almost complete...I think they made the small spiral book & the large hardbound to encourage people to actually cook from the series. Books were so much more costly then, I suspect many would fear ruining the big book in the kitchen. My Mother got rid of her hardbound Time-Life cookbooks when she downsized, but kept the small spiral books. Wish I had known she was getting rid of them!

                                              My Father thought the flavor of the Swedish meatballs (this particular recipe) was appalling. He was never noted for outstanding diplomacy or patience!

                                              I believe there is a tropical fruit tree farm or research place on the South side of Ft. Myers. Are you familiar with it? I always thought it would be interesting to visit if possible.

                                              1. re: meatn3

                                                ECHO? It's in North Fort Myers:

                                                I recall some good old family restaurants in Plant City when i traveled through during childhood.. I just looked at the city's chamber of commerce listings, and am appalled; it is chain-restaurant-city, now!

                                          3. My dad's Israeli, so we ate falafel and hummus as kids. But the first REALLY exotic thing must have been chicken feet at a dim sum restaurant. I loved them. I must have been 7 years old.

                                            1. Just wanted to say thanks alkapal for the thread and thanks everyone for posting. Wonderful reading!

                                              I grew up in small town Ontario in the 80's...Mom and Dad were good cooks but stuck to meat and potatoes(Scottish-Canadian w farming background) type dinners. We had exactly two chinese restaurants, one greek resto(known more for pizza than moussaka) and a plethora of mom 'n pop pizza places in town. The first "exotic" dish I ever had was at my classmate's home, her parents are Chinese-Filipino and her Dad owned one of the two Chinese(well, Chinese Canadian really) restos. They made a simple beef and veggie stir fry but that was the first time I had 1) a dinner without potatoes ;) 2) Soy sauce, Bok choy, snow peas, and baby corn...and I'm sure there were other first-time veggies in there that I'm forgetting (this was 20+ years ago *gasp*). I didn't get to learn as much from them as I would have liked but that meal was the start of a life-long love of cooking.

                                              1. Lengua and cabeza tacos. I am sure some of the more homey germanic dishs i ate growing up qulify, but they met my definition of "standard" or "normal".