Friday, May 15, 2009

Variety Friday: Tastes Change

In comments recently, Kelly, who runs the snack blog Sweet Pursuits, asked me if I felt that my tastes were "American" and if that influenced how I reacted to Japanese snacks. The interesting thing is that this thought had been on my mind quite recently while I was reviewing the Tyrant Habanero Anbiriba rods. However, my thought was not that my tastes were so American, but rather that I wondered if they had drifted so far from that of an average American's that my responses to various foods might be quite atypical now. In regard to the habanero rods, I was wondering if Americans, who have a lot more choices when it comes to very hot and spicy foods flavored with hot peppers (due to Mexican cuisine influences) might find the Japanese habanero snacks tame by comparison.

There are several reasons why I think my tastes may be different from those of my fellow Americans. I have been in Japan for 20 years so I've been eating food that has been altered for the Japanese market for nearly as long as I have spent eating American food. I left the U.S. when I was 24 years old, so I'm closing in on having spent as much of my life here as there. I have to imagine I've grown accustomed to the way in which food is presented for Japanese tastes.

When I first came to Japan, a lot of staples seemed to taste very strange to me. In particular, milk tasted very "off". To this day, I'm not sure why milk is so different in Japan than in the U.S., but I think it has something to do with the fact that Tokyo gets a lot of heat treated dairy products which are meant to last on the shelves far longer than milk back home. And, please note, that "back home" for me means rural Pennsylvania where cows are everywhere and the very freshest milk is never far away. Your mileage may vary.

These days, I only occasionally notice anything amiss in the milk products here, and generally those are the ESL (Extended Shelf Life) products which are probably radiated, boiled, and processed into a new incarnation of "dairy". Now, Japanese milk tastes "normal" to me. The same applies to butter. Japanese butter is far less sweet and creamy than American butter, but this is something I'd forgotten completely until quite recently. The butter shortage in Japan afforded me a chance to taste imported U.S. butter again for the first time in nearly two decades and it was amazingly good.

Also, after Kelly's question got me thinking, I looked back on my reviews. My reviews of Japanese snacks or those based on traditional Japanese cuisine (except the Oshiruko KitKat) like sembei, bean cakes, etc. are generally quite favorable. That means I actually tend to like Japanese traditional snacks. I think that I tend to be the least pleased with Japanese adaptations of any food based on cheese products or lame implementations of foreign foods or their concepts. Since I rarely eat Japanese processed cheese (and 95% of Japanese cheese is processed), this is probably one of the areas where I have had zero acclimation to this particular food as it has been modified for the Japanese market. Almost all of the cheese I eat in Japan is imported, mostly from Australia, New Zealand, England, and occasionally America. I haven't forgotten what real (and good quality) cheese tastes like, so I have a very low tolerance for the processed or artificial nature of related products.

The bottom line, however, is that all tastes vary among individuals regardless of where they live or what foods they grew up eating. One of the reasons I link to reviews of the same snacks on other blogs at the bottom of some of my posts is that I think there is value in different perspectives on the same product. No one can speak to or for the taste buds of other people. They can only speak for themselves. The best I can hope to do is explain my feelings about something well enough to help others understand what has shaped my perceptions so that they can consider if their response might be the same.


Helen said...

It's interesting that you say that milk was something that you noticed tasted different when you came over. For me it was eggs. I never was a big egg eater and when I came over they tasted so different that I didn't eat them for years. It wasn't until I went low carb that I began eating them again.

But, some things are better here. I remember the first time I ever tried tofu in Canada, I thought it was horrible. It probably was! I like it a lot in Japan, but not so much in Canada.

I'm not a big fan of extremely spicy food, but I tend to enjoy a lot of the other things you do, so if you recommend something I'm much more likely to try it. I've been over here for 12 years now, so likely my tastes have changed too!

Orchid64 said...

I was never much an egg eater in the U.S. and didn't really start to even eat eggs in Japan much until the last 8 years or so. So, I guess Japan got to shape my egg habits entirely. ;-)

I never had tofu back home, but I'm guessing it was probably pretty bad. I think the same can probably be said for certain rice products in the U.S., but I never ate rice (or things made from rice except the occasional Western rice cracker) there either.

Thanks for your comment!

Sherry said...

I haven't been in Japan quite as long as you - going on 16 years, but I find my tastes have changed and the things that I didn't like at first such as milk and eggs are perfectly normal now and when I go home things taste weird and rather low quality. Not that I buy loads of expensive things from the fancy markets here. I shop at the discount places too, but the quality just seems to be so much better. I think this is particularly true of produce and fruit in particular.

I have even gotten into the crazy Japanese mindset of complaining about how American cakes and desserts are too sweet. I have always found this idea that Americans eat so much sugar and Japanese don't strange since almost every Japanese dish has some amount of sugar in it.

I also agree with you that Japanese traditional type of snacks and food are usually nice, but when they take something "western" and work their magic on it I usually end up hating it.

Orchid64 said...

Hi, Sherry, and thanks for your comment!

I haven't been home for so long that I can't really compare the U.S. food to the Japanese food, but I think location has a lot to do with it. In California, the produce is so much better, for instance, than where I grew up in Pennsylvania. The vastness of the U.S. and spread out nature of the population means some places get really old stuff on their shelves. I think the dairy was great in PA, but the fruit and vegetables were better in CA.

It's like how some seafood is fresher at port areas than in Tokyo. However, in Japan, it's relatively small and centralized so they have a good, streamlined process for transporting food quickly to a huge population.

I also find a lot of stuff too sweet, though not only from America. I definitely agree though that there is a far bigger issue with sweets being too sweet from the U.S. for me, though not for my husband. The thing is that I can't say if that is because of my age as all people like sweets less as they age, or my adjustment to Japanese processed food. I'm guessing it's probably a bit of both.

Nonetheless, I still would take an authentic Hershey bar over a Japanese chocolate bar. It could be nostalgia or what I grew up with, but Japanese chocolate is too fatty, soft, and bitter compared to the firmer, and yes, chalkier, and sour Hershey's stuff. This is probably a personal idiosyncrasy.

ebidebby said...

Tastes change as people age, as well as geographical changes. There are many foods I hated as a child but now love (mushrooms, asparagus, etc.). But, if I spent more time in Japan, I could see myself developing tastes for foods I don't like now (like soy sauce popcorn).

My husband and I are both huge fans of spicy food, though, so that would be a bigger adjustment. Very spicy Indian and Thai food can be purchased in the States, but must be harder to come by in Japan...and yes, we did find the Habanero rings to be mild.

There is good Tofu in the states, but it is a lot easier to find in Japan, for sure.

Orchid64 said...

Ebidebby: Hi and thanks for your comment! I suspected that habanero rings would seem mild to those back home and I guess you confirmed that! That being said, they don't seem too hot to me, just "nicely hot". However, I don't think I'd be a fan of them being any hotter than they are.

I have definitely developed a taste for things I disliked when I came to Japan. I used to hate sembei. I just really disliked that processed, baked rice smell and taste that comes along with them, but now I'm actually quite the fan.

There were some new things that I liked instantly though, particularly umeboshi, and some things which I initially loved and have lost my taste for like yakitori and tonkatsu.

Kelly said...

So Orchid, you do not return home to PA for vacations at all?

Why do you think that chocolate in America is sour? I found that with Hershey's products, they have an acidic taste, that I can't get used to. But I also don't like the bitter taste of chocolate from Japan either.

When I first met Yasu he didn't like sweet things, but in the last 7 years that I've known him, he has developed a sweet tooth and eats chocolate and sweets every day, he's more of a candy hog than me now! I've toned down my sweets but he is accelerating haha.

Orchid64 said...

Hi, Kelly, and thanks for your comment.

The answer to the question about vacations is, no, I don't go home for vacations at all. I haven't been out of Japan for 18 of the 20 years I've been here. I returned home after the first two years, but haven't gone home since.

I think Hershey's has a sour, yogurt-like flavor to it. I believe it has to do with how the milk is treated (possibly they use powdered milk).

When I was in my later years in America though, I was very careful about what I ate. In fact, I didn't eat sweets, fried snacks, or any red meat from age 20-23. I wouldn't even touch things like pizza. So, even when I was in the U.S., I didn't eat junk food.