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May 13, 2008 05:51 PM

Acquired tastes, definition of

I'm working on this blogpost wherein I started to point out that retsina (which I love) is always described as an acquired taste, and then I decided I didn't know how I felt about that term. I mean, one could say *everything* beyond breast milk (& its natural sugars) is an acquired taste. Or one could say that the term is culturally relative: in the US, natto is an acquired taste, but not so much perhaps in Japan.

But are there, objectively speaking, acquired tastes? Are there ingredients/items that, across the globe, require some tastebud training? If you think so, why do you think so?

This thread touches on the matter

but I'm asking less for personal experience than for pseudoscientific opinion, if you know what I mean.

P.S. There's a list here, but I want to hear from higher authorities, ie Chowhounds.

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  1. That's subject is too deep for me, so I will just say thank heavens breast milk doesn't taste like Retsina!

    21 Replies
    1. re: HSBSteveM

      It could if mom drinks.

      Anyway the link to wiki didn't have any info. I think there are three categories of acquired tastes

      1. Foods that almost universally need to be acquired.

      In that category would be things like coffee, wine, beer ... well, most alcohol. Yes, a few people take to them immediately, but give most kids a sip of coffee and they really don't like it.

      2. Foods that are different from our upbringing.

      I'm Polish and a lot of my friends couldn't stomach the food. The charms of limburger (sp), durian or natto escape me. I know some people will argue this, but I hated cilantro, but eventually I started to really like it so I can eat it straight now.

      3. Surprise food that isn't what we expect.

      I had my first Hong Kong curry fish balls the other day,. The fishy, spongy balls ... my thought was fish spam on a stick ... weren't an immediate pleaser to me. Then I thought about them and without the surprise factor, they might be good.

      1. re: rworange

        Great post... quite a comprehensive approach. I would divide #1 into:

        1a... Foods that almost universally need to be acquired... but which will eventually be acquired by most people.

        1b... Foods that almost universally need to be acquired... and will never get acquired by more than just a small percentage of the population. (Not a lot of Pilipinos eat Balut, not a lot of Taiwanese eat Stinky Tofu from the Queen, and not a lot of Mexicans eat Mosquito larvae etc.... nor will there every be huge numbers doing so)

        I would also add my other 2 cents..... the world's greatest (I will settle for most intriguing, most fascinating etc.,) foods are those that are definitely acquired... not easily acquired... but when they are... they tend to be acquired in full force (like say Wine or Bleu cheese) with a lot of passion etc., and have their cult following... generation after generation after generation.

        1. re: Eat_Nopal

          A, I really like rworange's #3, which reminds me that immediate context, as opposed to cultural context, can be everything.

          B, I really like Eat_Nopal's idea that the *best* flavors are the ones you have to acquire, that your tastebuds have to *earn.*

          But now I'd ask you both if you have theories as to *why* the least easily acquired tastes are such. Is it simply chemico-evolutionary (ick, that's ugly, but efficient)?

          (For what it's worth, I finished my post, but it really only uses the question as a serious springboard into goofier waters. It does, however, link to this thread, which I'm really psyched to see develop.)

          1. re: tatamagouche

            Is it too obvious to say that tastes that are strongly bitter, spicy, or pungent are more likely to take some getting used to?

            1. re: tatamagouche

              I vote for evolution ... eating bitter or spoiled things usually wasn't a good thing while sweet was. Wine is really spoiled grape juice after all.

              1. re: tatamagouche

                Evolution makes a lot of sense... but I also want to give a nod to my homeboy Maslow and his many subsequent followers & critics / followers / academic leaches.

                Civilization & the right condiments do produce Human Beings striving for higher level ideals & accomplishments. Sometimes on the Left Coast we don't want to recognize Maslow... and instead prefer a more romanticized, evolution-reactionary, 100% Nurture over Nature view of the world (in my opinion its misguided because it understimates the true personal capacity of all people including the underdogs)..... but Sociocultural rungs are a very a real thing... they can be explained, predicted & experimented with.... sometimes you need to to clime up to the next higher rung before you can really understand an ingredient, technique, dish... or even a piece of music, literature, drama or visual art.

                1. re: Eat_Nopal

                  Yeah, see, I guess this begins to get at the dilemma. While evolution is, I agree with all of you, the obvious answer to rworange's #1 / E_N's #1b, are there exceptions to the rule and how would they affect our concept of acquired taste (or of human development for that matter)?

                  For instance, using that wikipedia list (which is actually pretty fun to read) in the OP for reference—I don't know for sure that *most people* even in Iceland grow up rejecting putrefied shark at first. Or huitlacoche in Mexico. Anyone?
                  Assuming that's true, though, suppose there are exceptions? Toddlers who swoon over their first taste of lutefisk? Are those children living evidence that we're moving up on Maslow's hierarchy? Or that they in particular are Darwinian quirks? So will they evolve themselves right out of the race because anything will taste good to them, even contaminated stuff?

                  How does an acquired taste become so in the first place—why did anyone ever eat it? I'd have thought at first it'd be by sheer necessity—Swift's "brave man who first ate an oyster" was actually starving and didn't have much choice—but that doesn't explain the existence of, say, century eggs. Someone had to go to some trouble to come up with those.

                  1. re: tatamagouche

                    Am I supposed to click on something on that Wiki link? All I get is a page that says "Wikipedia does not have an article with this exact name"

                    As we age we lose taste buds. I think there is an evolutionary reason for that.

                    When we are young we don't have the mental capacity to know what is good or bad. We don't have the experience. The classic example is a kid touching a hot stove. Do that once and you have the experience not to do it again.

                    So children have hightened taste buds because they don't have the capacity to evaluate if a bitter item is good for them or not. As we age, we develop the thought process to make that determination.

                    While I think that necessity is a big factor in eating things we might not otherwise eat, there is at least one other thing in play.

                    But first ... about century eggs. I think that is necessity. When egg topics come up, one way of preserving eggs has always been buring them in sand. Someone buried a century egg in the right clay ... forgot about them and when desparation set in, they were dug up ... and well ... desparate times call for desparate measures.

                    Ok, the last thing ... some people think different. They lack the thought process for the conventional 'ick' factor. There is currently a thread about a guy who is eating sandwiches that are months old ... even the title for that post is pertinent to this subject ...

                    Will he die?

                    There is something going on with this man that doesn't go on with the rest of us ... I'm trying to avoid saying there's some mental problem there ... oops, I said it.

                    Anyway ... there are people who think differently. We watch them. They don't die. We give whatever a try. Someone like me with my thought process would wonder what it was that made something good to them even if I didn't like the first bite. I might try it a few times and aquire a taste ... tho, btw I have absolutely no interest in eating century sandwiches ... but I might try natto or stinky tofu one day ... even a few times ... because of posts by people who like this food.

                    1. re: rworange

                      The link the OP posted isn't working properly because it has a comma appended to the end. Try this one:

                      1. re: BobB

                        Thanks ... ah, there is one more reason to aquire a taste ... sex drive .. the instinct to keep our species on earth ... for example ...

                        Cow Cod Soup, Jamaican answer to Viagra, basically bull penis soup

                        It also explains oysters.

                      2. re: rworange

                        Well, yes, I suppose the first century egg wasn't deliberately buried in clay and ash and salt and lime and rice straw. So it is the same thing as the oyster then.

                        When you say, "So children have heightened taste buds because they don't have the capacity to evaluate if a bitter item is good for them or not. As we age, we develop the thought process to make that determination," are you saying children's physical response to taste is actually stronger than is adults,' while our mental response is more developed? Is there evidence that we start out as supertasters (not necessarily in the literal sense) and it's all downhill from there?

                        1. re: tatamagouche

                          My goodness, I never saw a tastebud before ... yikes

                          This is a pretty technical abstract, but it is brief and says at two months old we develop all our taste buds and after that our tastebuds diminish.

                          However, the biggest slide seems tobe after age 50 ... don't read this. It is downright depressing.

                          I never thought about it but that could be evolutionary too. As we get older, we don't need as many calories, diminished taste/smell ... eat less.

                          Changing thought, that first wiki article on aquired tastes was also interesting in that there were foods I've never heard of before like Jiló,, goat fetus, stink bean, switchell, unicum, Rivella ... never heard whey described as milk plasma before.

                          1. re: rworange

                            That is really fascinating, much as it sucks. It's so unfair that you're physcially less able to grasp what you're psychologically more able to! Once again, youth is wasted on the young.

                            Yeah, quite a list, eh? It's made me think I might do a regular series on my blog wherein I attempt to acquire an acquired taste a week. Gonna hard to be find rotten shark in Denver though.

                            1. re: tatamagouche

                              "Gonna hard to be find rotten shark in Denver though."

                              Whole Foods

                              Someone does have a blog like that, but I'm forgetting the name. Maybe someone else knows. Very funny blog where he eats stuff like natto.

                              1. re: rworange

                                You're thinking of "Steve, Don't Eat It" at One of my all-time faves. I wouldn't compete with him for humor! I'd try to do it for real, complete with a little history on each given item etc.

                          2. re: tatamagouche

                            Yup... I really disagree or at least I am unsure of stories of accidental. sophisticated techniques...

                            > Did Ancient Mesopotamians just happen to put a bowl of brine under an Olive tree... and voila sometime later edible olives?

                            I think we sometimes don't give credit to the sophistication and genius of Ancient peoples.... I mean:

                            > Century Old Eggs
                            > Fish Sauce
                            > Wine, Vinegar
                            > Three Sisters (Bio-Engineering, Agro-Engineering & Bio-Chemical "miracle")
                            > Mole de Pixtli (Mamey seed extensively processed with a bizarre & numerious sequence of steps before it can be made into a Mole sauce)

                            It seems to me that as humans moved up the evolutionary scale (with increasing free time to experiment & think up of these mad ingredients)... there was very deliberate experimentation.

                            Hell... it continues today! The Wealth Accumulation provided by the Capitalist-Industrialist lifestyle allows for people to pay Ferran Adria & his mad scientists to do nothing more than experiment like our Ancestors did but in a more intensive way.

                            1. re: Eat_Nopal

                              "It seems to me that as humans moved up the evolutionary scale (with increasing free time to experiment & think up of these mad ingredients)... there was very deliberate experimentation."

                              Or as Douglas Adams put it in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, "The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question How can we eat? the second by the question Why do we eat? and the third by the question Where shall we have lunch?"

                              1. re: BobB

                                Heh, wasn't there a Deep Thought by Jack Handey like that too? It was something like: Sometimes I think of all the tragedy in the world and feel overwhelmed. And then I think, Ah, who cares? And then I think, What's for dinner?

                                1. re: BobB

                                  OT, but "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe" actually had me not eating beef for a couple of years....

                          3. re: tatamagouche

                            Someone noted below that toddlers typically prefer foods that are simple, and don't like flavors that are too complex or intense. But my daughter, who is nearly 2 1/2, will eat nearly anything -- and in fact, when she rejects something, it's usually the kind of bland, starchy food that kids are assumed to like. For example, a few nights ago for dinner I made spoon bread and a stew of vegetables, pinto beans, chicken, and a little andouille sausage. Except for the andouille, I kept the spices pretty mild, because I didn't want it too spicy for the child, but it was still a pretty complex "adult" dish. Anyway, my daughter loved the stew, but only picked at the spoon bread. She loves olives, strong cheeses, and all sorts of vegetables.

                            All of which is to say that I think there's somewhat more variation in children's food tastes that is generally claimed. Even before you start eating solid food you're getting exposed to the smells of the food around you, and some tastes also come through in the breast milk.

                2. I would guess that acquired tastes are largely cross-cultural. I grew up eating a lot of different cuisines that included from liver to sauerkraut to "authentic" tamales (note: E N)to all Japanese food to ... you name it. On the other hand, my possible eventual taste for yak butter tea, Bhutanese sun dried pig fat, pulque, and marmite/vegemite will only happen if "acquired"!

                  1. I believe it means a taste that a lotta people don't like, or don't like the idea of, and others love (often a regional preference,, such as stir-fried puppy dog or live-insect taco). Doesn't have to be something you grew up with; tastes change with age. BTW, in American usage it doesn't mean foods not grown on your own property (friendly hint).

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: mpalmer6c

                      But there's a crucial difference between foods that you don't like because they're unfamiliar and take some getting used to, vs. foods that you don't even like to think about eating because they're not defined as "food" in your culture.

                      For example, an anthropologist friend of mine did his fieldwork in highland New Guinea, where he ate a lot of things that were very weird by American standards. I asked him once which food he had the most trouble with, and he said "maggots." He added that, once he nerved himself up to eat them, they tasted pretty good. It was the *idea* of eating maggots that was difficult.

                      On the other hand, I don't like Scotch. It's not that the idea of drinking it upsets me, I just don't like the way it tastes -- though I'm willing to bet that I could learn to like it if I really tried. That's what I would call an acquired taste.

                      1. re: mpalmer6c

                        Tastes do indeed change with age, and can thus be naturally acquired, as opposed to making an effort. Example: I had occasionally tasted beer when I was young and always (even in my teens) found it bitter and disgusting. Then suddenly, in the hot summer of my 20th year, it tasted wonderful and refreshing! On the other hand, nowadays I'm more likely to go for a Campari & soda than a brew on a hot day. That's the other type of acquired taste.

                      2. After the first few years children generally like very simple foods pretty much straight up - there is a reason for those divided plates in elementary school! Flavors which are more complex, layered or intense tend to start being appreciated as one leaves childhood. Those items that fall into the "acquired" spectrum seem to usually be at the far end of this spectrum, or at the opposite of the "comfort" experience of food that the person was raised with. For example, a hard core meat and potatoes person often has a hard time with fruit or "sweet" spices in a meat dish, it is just too far from their concept of meat preparation - hence that may be come an acquired taste.

                        1. 'Acquired tastes' can best be defined as a metamorphosis. It is elevating ones tastebuds to a greater level of sophistication. I was told tamarind is an acquired taste. I suppose it is an acquired taste for those who consider tamarind to be sophisticated. I require more "complex" flavors for it to be 'acquired'. Tamarind and thyme - an acquired taste.