Why we eat what we do

There is not, and probably never can be, a science of why we eat the things we do. While there are clear material influences — people in hot climates tend to eat spicy food because chiles and hot peppers grow in hot climates — ultimately there’s no accounting for human taste. It’s one of the reasons that, once culture evolved, a full assessment of the world could never again be dogmatically material.

For whatever reason, the Chinese decided early in their history that it was impolite to use knives at the table, which meant food had to be prepared in ways you could east with chopsticks or spoons, in bite-sized or easily breakable pieces. It’s a prohibition that gives Chinese cuisine that particular feel it has. Similarly, the absence of dairy in most Chinese cuisine is not because it wasn’t available but because they associated it with the nomadic herdsmen who ate (and drank) a lot of it and who periodically invaded, causing death and general mayhem.

That’s all well and good, but I also expect — although this is my own invention and not something anyone wrote in a book — that the kinds of readily available starches also influence the physical characteristics (rather than the flavors) of traditional foods. Since the invention of agriculture, we get most of our calories from grasses, and although you can eat cracked wheat, it tends to turn to gruel after a time, the texture of which human mouths seem to universally enjoy less than the texture of bread, which is why, as soon as someone in the wheat-growing areas of Eurasia hit upon the baking of bread, pretty much everyone started grinding their wheat rather than cracking it.

And I’m sorry, oats were for the livestock, who could digest the cellulose and so get way more calories from it. Humans only ate it when there wasn’t anything else.

Back in the day, those folks who lived in areas with significant and dependable rainfall could grow rice, which produces a lot more calories per hectare than wheat, which means you don’t have to clear a forest way out in the boonies to grow enough to support your family, which means you can all live closer together, which means you’ll need to develop a culture that is significantly more communitarian than one based on the myth of the go-it-alone yeoman farmer.

But I digress.

Once you start getting most of your calories from rice, which doesn’t need to be cracked and which holds its shape even after being cooked, the foods you add to it will tend towards sauces and other condiments that can be poured on top and eaten together.

French cuisine, arguably the most developed in the West, is notoriously based on butter, a development that was never going to happen in China, with it’s aversion to dairy. Add to that a climate better suited to wheat, and bam! You get bread and butter, a phrase still synonymous with “the basic staples.”

But of course it’s taste that matters most, and there we all seem to share the same basic sensory apparatus. Yet look at all the variation! The availability of indigenous or easily importable spices will go a long way toward explaining why certain cuisines taste the way they do. India won the lottery there. Europe, on the other hand, lost. (I’ve argued elsewhere that the dearth of spices is part of the reasons Europeans were so rapacious. Remember that they first went to the Far East for pepper and spices. Imperialism only came much later.)

Salt is pretty much everywhere, which is good considering human beings can’t live without it. Looking at the basic tastes evolution provided us, then, it’s not surprising to see that everybody likes salty stuff. Everyone likes sweets as well, although there is a big difference in HOW sweet we like them, although it’s really only in modern times that sugar was cheap and plentiful enough to make things very sweet.

Not many places have built a cuisine on sour-flavored foods. In fact, in English the phrase “sour food” alone doesn’t mean sour-flavored. It means food that has soured — spoiled.

Some people were forced into sour food by circumstance — usually extreme poverty. Vinegar is sour. It’s also a reasonable preservative, which was important in the days before refrigeration when you could never be sure when the crops would fail or the seas would freeze. People pickled their fish for the same reason they pickled their vegetables. Then they starting adding herbs like dill to make the result a little more palatable in three months’ time.

The Japanese are the only people I know who have built a whole damned cuisine on sour. (Someone correct me.) Not because they had to. But because they fucking love that shit. I have tasted more sour things in my time here than I have in all the rest of my life put together, probably by a factor of three. There is at least one sour flavor with every meal.

Now, to be fair, the Japanese got the whole “a-proper-meal-should-balance-all-five-flavors” bit from the Chinese, who had been doing it for centuries and who also traditionally recognize the meaty, back-of-the-throat flavor we now know by the Japanese name: umami. In fact, my favorite Chinese place just down the road from here in Kamata has a vinegar pork that is fucking amazing. It hits high notes on both sour and umami, and I have it every time, along with the garlic rabe.

But the Japanese — who, let’s face it, aren’t particularly innovative — are all about taking something somebody else was doing, stripping away all the ridiculous bullshit they added to it, and making it better. WAY better. Probably the best it can be. They did it with tea. They did it with imperialism. They still do it with cars and TVs.

They fucking took the ball and ran with sour flavor. The best example is probably ume, which we call Japanese sour plum in English, except that it doesn’t taste like a plum at all. In fact, it’s most closely related to the apricot, and it kinda looks like that as well. Ume is everywhere. Ume-flavored potato chips, ume-flavored KitKats, ume-flavored noodles, ume paste on chicken, ume candies, and of course the fruit itself, salted or pickled.

But it goes beyond that. There are all kinds of sour flavors here, ones I’d rather you just taste rather than rely on me to describe, and I want to know why. And I want to know why they can eat stinky tofu and fermented soy beans (natto), but strong smelling cheeses — which I love — make them retch.

I guess we’ll never know.

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