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15 Really Polarizing Foods

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15 Really Polarizing Foods

My dining pet peeve is when companions state, right at the table when I’m about to tuck into a nice plate of something, “Ugh. I can’t stand that shit.” Or “how can you eat that?” In terms of manners, such behavior would be right up there with “That sweater should be burned and its ashes shot into space” or “Your voice makes me yearn for nails on a chalkboard.”

But that’s what food does to people—it elicits passion, both negative and positive. The foods that do so the most tend to be the pungent, stinky, bitter, slimy, or excessively ferment-y. Love-it-or-hate-it dishes can divide households and spoil developing relationships. They can alienate those acclimating to a new culture and bring together those who feel marginalized because of their enjoyment of them (which is probably why many polarizing foods have annual festivals).

The foods listed below were not scientifically calculated to be the most polarizing, but I bet your own feelings about them do not fall in the “eh, whatever” range. No matter what, please don’t ever make snide comments about what a dining companion is eating unless that person is jerkily shoving said food in your face.

Durian
This large, spiky fruit is native to Malaysia and Indonesia and is coveted for its rich flesh throughout much of Asia. It’s also infamously banned on some public transit systems, because these things boast a big streak of petrol in their aroma, with perhaps some rotten garbage and dirty gym socks thrown in there. Just how stinky-bad durian smells depends on the durian itself (there are many varieties of the fruit). Durian’s smell will take over other items it is stored with, and ice cream shops have been known to keep durian ice cream sequestered in its own freezer so it does not taint the other flavors. Feelings about durian generally seem to take an East/West divide (quotes of Western food celebrities making durian quips abound), proving that cultural context is an important factor in how foods can polarize. (And if you’re thinking of pairing your durian with wine, read this first.)

Pawpaws
People either love pawpaws, loathe them, or have never heard of them. The still-obscure fruit—the largest native to North America—is finally having its day in the sun, but not all adore its aggressive perfume (heaven!), or its occasional “dirty banana” backnote of funk. I, for one, am especially partial to pawpaws, but my husband and daughter are not, and every September I become a pariah in my own household because of my affinity for this unusual and splendid fruit.

Liver
One of the liver’s jobs as an organ is to detoxify potentially harmful chemicals and break down drugs, so it’s often vilified as a filter full of nasty stuff, but liver lovers know better. Even if liver’s stench when cooked is nothing like your run-of-the-mill muscle meats. On the plate, it’s a dingy gray-brown, unless you sear it, which I recommend.
Liver is packed with iron, and it pairs well with sweet and tart flavors. The greasy spoon classic of liver and onions does just this, relying on the sweetness of griddled onions. Generally speaking, the bigger the animal, the more potent its liver. If you don’t believe me, cook yourself some beef liver and live it up (or down).

Cilantro
Cilantro’s divisive flavor and aroma has well-documented roots in a genetic trait that some people inherit and others don’t. I myself used to gag at its smell, which reminded me of a dirty dishrag, but now I love the stuff, and am wont to use its especially crunchy and flavorful stems in recipes, too. What changed? I think gradual cilantro exposure over decades shifted disgust to tolerance to enthusiasm—either that or the years have dulled my senses. But it’s probably both. And haters, take note: cilantro is one of the most widely consumed herbs in the world. Though if you hate cilantro, you’ve probably noted that already, with a grimace, many times over. The producers of the fabulous podcast Gastropod recently devoted an entire episode to the divisive powers of cilantro, and how scientists are still flummoxed by the exact reasons it makes some diners want to retch.

Anchovies
Millions of American seafood-haters hungrily dive into Caesar salads on a regular basis, totally oblivious that the star player in the dressing is a salty, silvery little fish. Besides Caesar dressing, salted and/or oil-packed (as opposed to fresh) anchovies add that little somethin’-somethin’ to plenty of Mediterranean classics, from bagna cauda to pasta puttanesca. And there’s the infamous pizza topping option, perhaps the origin for generations of anchovy-haters. But even those who enjoy anchovies straight-up are probably not often pounding handfuls as snacks.

Fish sauce
This could perhaps be a sub-head to anchovies, since Southeast Asian fish sauce is most commonly made with anchovies and is salty as all hell. While good fish sauce is an excellent finishing touch at the table for all sorts of dishes—at least according to those who covet its inimitable scent—its absence from myriad Thai and Vietnamese dishes leaves them tasting flat and hollow. So if you’re a fan of Thai takeout but you hate fish sauce, you’re probably just a hypocrite, though combining fish sauce with a dozen or so other ingredients does diffuse its potency somewhat.

As tangible evidence that American palates are shifting into more diverse and adventurous territory, there’s now an entire fish sauce cookbook (by Paste contributor Victoria Mewes). And also consider that the fundamental seasoning of ancient Roman cuisine was garum, a sauce made of fermented fish and not too unlike the bottles of fish sauces that line entire aisles in Asian markets today. Perhaps our adoration of ketchup will someday seem disgusting to future citizens of Earth.

Stinky cheese
Every year at my friend’s holiday cheese party, as the coup de grâce he proudly presents a big chunk of Stinking Bishop, a cheese dear to the heart of the Claymation character Wallace. This friend is a bit of a provocateur, and the annual appearance of the Stinking Bishop wedge is seen as a bit of a dare—will they try it? (Please do; it’s terrific.)

Stinky cheese was used as a sight-gag punch line for years, particularly Limburger, a cheese that originated in the Duchy of Limburg. Its odor is caused by the same bacteria partially responsible for human B.O. In the Midwest, pockets of old people still enjoy Limurger, but its popularity has dwindled so that now only two American producers make it.

There are others, of course. The semi-soft Italian cheese Talleggio is actually quite mild once you get it in your mouth, but it smells like all hell, even when swaddled in plastic wrap. But we’re coming to a time when there’s a bit of a shift, and the quasi-cheese we call American cheese is now becoming divisive itself.

Ramps
This wild allium has become a pet ingredient of chefs and hipsters in the past decade, and when you put “hipster” and “food” in the same sentence, polarizing views are sure to follow. However, in West Virginia and the states surrounding it, ramp culture has run deep and divided households for decades. Traditional Appalachian cooking is not known for its strong flavors, so the oniony-garlicky character of these foraged scallions-on-steroids really alienates those with more conservative palates. Also, eating large quantities of ramps (“a big mess of ramps” in regional parlance)—which any ramp fiend does as much as possible during their short spring season—can create some powerful body odor, and there was a time when this personal aroma indicated you were a real hillbilly. Us ramp loves know it’s totally worth it, though.

Okra
It’s all about the texture with this guy. Okra’s mucilaginous interior does not win over every taster; others complain about its many seeds. Pickling okra remedies the slime a bit, as does cooking the hell out of it in an Indian curry. But no worries—there are millions of people in the world all too happy to eat the stuff, gooey interior and all. More mature okra pods can be fibrous, too, so always look for ones on the smaller side.

Bitter melon
This spiny gourd was aptly named. Its bitterness puts grapefruit, coffee, and raw broccoli to shame. So not everyone loves it, but as Pooja Makhijani points out in her essay, it’s also an everyday food in multiple cuisines for millions of people.

Chitlins
The preparation of intestines is a labor of love. Chitlins (or chitterlings) are the small intestines of a pig, and to cook them, they are first soaked and rinsed multiple times and then blanched and drained before the final simmer. In the American soul food tradition, they are most commonly stewed for hours, but there are various intestine-based dishes all over the world. Their smell as they cook has a lot to do with their lack of appeal to many.

Balut
This fertilized duck egg is popular street food in the Philippines, but it’s eaten in other Southeast Asian countries, too, and is a common go-to for day-tripping Western extreme eaters who fancy exoticism is some kind of edible theme park ride. That said, eating a hard-boiled bird embryo is not universally embraced, in part because of the embryo’s chewy-rubbery cartilage, and also that it, uh, totally looks like a baby bird.

Oysters
Raw, they’re a quivering, loogie-like mass. Cooked, they’re…well, I have not had many, save smoked oysters from a can. Oysters are one of the seafoods that can be sustainably farmed, so that’s a plus. The centuries have given us reams of prose and poetry celebrating the sensuous aspects of oyster consumption, and oyster fanatics will be happy to not share the harvest with those who thumb their noses up at the prospect of slurping down one offered on the half-shell.

Licorice
In our age of rampant artificial coloring, black candy is abundant, but licorice was the original black confection. And it tastes it, man. For those of Scandinavian origin, licorice is dearly beloved, and in those countries it is configured in myriad shapes and variations. You’ll find it salted, swirled into ice cream, and in convenience store candies aplenty. Meanwhile, for most Americans, licorice descends but once a year, in the form of black jelly beans that are inevitably left last in the dish once their more colorful brethren have been consumed.

Mayonnaise
“The Devil’s pudding”, as my friend calls it. For those who despise this useful emulsion, perhaps the blame lies upon artlessly constructed Wonder bread sandwiches of childhood, with far too much mayo slicking up a flaccid slice of cheap boloney. Just enough mayonnaise is perfect, and too much is repulsive. But for those still traumatized by clumsily deployed mayo, zero is the perfect amount. (The persistent myth of mayonnaise causing food poisoning is perhaps another culprit. Mayonnaise itself, a high-acid and low-protein food, is rarely a host to foodborne pathogens, but it often appears along with other high-protein foods like tuna or lunchmeat, and those, when poorly handled and left unrefrigerated too long, are what will get you.)

Sara Bir is Paste’s food editor, and the author of The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook. She’ll be happy to eat chicken liver pâté with pawpaw preserves and let you have all the oysters.

Okra photo by Rebecca Wilson CC BY

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