Sunday, January 6, 2013

Taste-deaf

They say that infants who are raised in a single-language household quickly begin to lose the ability to discriminate among phonemes that are not differentiated within their home language, well before the age of one. For instance, a Chinese student of mine had a terrible time distinguishing between "hit," "hate," and "heat" — not only in her pronunciation, but even in oral comprehension. Those three vowel sounds are not differentiated in the Chinese language, so she could barely hear the difference.

I am beginning to be persuaded that the same phenomenon applies to differentiating flavors of food.

Ma Lei shocked me yesterday, by complaining that the food in America all tastes the same. If I were asked to ascribe just one quality to American food, it would be "diversity." Just since she and I have been here, we've eaten: pizza, Tex-Mex, California-style Mexican, Italian food, Midwestern-style meat and potatoes, Thai food and — yes — even Chinese. And yet Ma Lei thinks everything but the Chinese food tastes the same.

I should emphasize that Ma Lei is no philistine, where food is concerned. In fact, she has one of the most discerning palates I know. If we go to a restaurant — a Chinese restaurant — and like one of their dishes, she can take a few bites, ponder carefully what is in it, and recreate it almost exactly the next day. Her discernment among Chinese flavors is uncanny, yet she thinks the food we've eaten in America is all the same.

I pushed her to explain why, and she gave just one example. When Americans go to the grocery store for pork, we have a range of cuts that are all basically the same: grainy, fleshy white meat with essentially the same flavor. Where is the pig's snout? The ears? The tail? The entrails? How about the tendons, which the Chinese boil down to make a delicious dense, meaty gelatin? None of those things can be found at the supermarkets we've been to.

Her point could be easily expanded-upon, because Americans don't have many of the different meats that are common in China. Donkey meat can be tender and lightly gamey, and goes great in Chinese jiaozi (hand-filled dumplings akin to the wontons you may have had in soup). Dog — yes, dog! — has a rich and complex flavor I attribute to the fact that dogs are omnivorous.

On the other hand, all that diversity of foods is prepared by methods that vary little. Steam-cook. Stir-fry with spicy sauce. Stir-fry with soy-based sauce. Coat with flour and stir-fry. Change the spices up a little bit, but not very much. Everything cooked in corn oil, with a side of dull, starchy white rice. I love the food, but it does get boring.

Americans living in China think everything tastes the same, because the ways in which the Chinese diet varies are not recapitulated in our own native diet. We don't differentiate clearly and easily among the flavors of pig snout, ear, and tail, because those aren't part of the American diet. In a telling expression, many Americans think everything that isn't beef, pork or chicken "tastes like chicken." It wouldn't taste like chicken, if we regularly ate things like snake or donkey.

On the other hand, to a Chinese person the difference between spaghetti with beef marinara sauce, and beef enchiladas with jalepeno red sauce, is not particularly significant. Both are beef with starch and tomato sauce, with spices that are Other to their Chinese spices.

I dearly wish my Chinese were up to the job of making such philosophical points, because I think Ma Lei would enjoy our food a lot more if she had a different attitude. She's not a closed-minded person, or she wouldn't have married a yangguizi. But her enjoyment of America has been diminished by her boredom with our food.

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