One of you readers, commenting on the skunk-eating post, sent this Slate article on how disgusting Chinese people find aged cheese — which its author, Fuchsia Dunlop, describes as “rotted milk.” That’s exactly what it is, though I’d never thought of it that way. Sure makes eating cheese sound less appetizing. Excerpt:

At the Xianheng, a waitress cut the cheeses into pieces, and the assembled tasters began to pick them up with their chopsticks, sniffing and tasting. And where I had been impressed by what cheese and stinky soya products had in common, these culinary professionals were immediately struck by their differences. “Although in some ways you could say the flavours of cheese and fermented beancurd are similar,” said Mao, “vegetable stinky foods are very clean and clear in the mouth (qing kou), and they disperse quickly, while milky foods are greasy in the mouth (ni kou), they coat your tongue and palate, and they have a long, lingering aftertaste.”

Two other chefs said the cheeses had a heavy shan wei (muttony odour), an ancient term used by southern Chinese to describe the slightly unsavoury tastes associated with the northern nomads. Another said that the selection “smells like Russians”. “The difference,” he added, “is that the stinky things Chinese people eat give them smelly breath, while stinky dairy things affect the sweat that comes out of your skin.”

Chinese fermented beancurd, an intense-tasting relish, had always reminded me of a ripe blue cheese, but the Shaoxing tasters, faced with a Stichelton, disagreed. “It does have a rich umami taste,” said chef Chen Judi, “but there’s also a bitter aftertaste that people in this region wouldn’t like at all.” Several of the tasters were repelled by the sourness and astringent aftertaste of the Isle of Mull, which I’d thought was the most innocuous. “Our rotted thousand layers just doesn’t have that sour taste,” said Mao.

“Rotted thousand layers” is fermented tofu skin.

I think I would rather eat grilled lizard or fricassee of skunk.

It’s interesting to think about what we find disgusting. I love most fish now, but when I was a boy, I wouldn’t eat seafood at all, except for tuna fish. It was entirely a psychological thing. For me, the thought of caviar today is a psychological bridge too far. Some of the things that French people eat — tripe and sweetbreads, in particular — I couldn’t stomach. I know many people who cannot imagine eating raw oysters, but I adore them. And I know people who love raw oysters, but who think the idea of eating sashimi (raw fish) is revolting.

An adventurous food writer writes of tasting rotted herring, a Swedish delicacy:

As I punched the can, a spray of putrid drops spread around us and literally made everyone take two steps aback. Whoa! Even though we had hoped for a tasty meal, a single whiff made some draw the line right there. I slowly started doubting this meal will be appetizing. No offense intended, but I begun wondering who could consider a combined miasma of rotten fish, dried urine, unwashed genitalia and barf mouthwatering. But since I got this far, I simply could not quit now.

The first bite tasted, well, like putrid fish. Although I have no idea why I was even surprised about this anymore. Even though I ate bread and onion along with it (only the potatoes were missing), the taste of rotten fish dominated through and through. Nothing could cover the noxious smell and putrid taste. Nothing. Quite the contrary. Whatever I’ve put in my mouth for the next hour or so, tasted plain bad. And since fish happily continued its fermentation, my body dispatched aplenty of unpleasant gases, front and back, before the damn fish was finally discharged from my system later that night.

I would love to read your stories about foods you’ve tasted that struck you as disgusting. I have a strong sense of smell and a weak stomach, so I am not the least bit adventurous when it comes to fermented things, beyond the basics (e.g., sauerkraut, cheese). The culture I come from, rural south Louisiana, treats eating game like squirrels and raccoon as relatively normal — though this is a generational thing, I think; my generation and younger tend to balk at it — as well as sucking the fat from the head of a boiled crawfish. My dad loves hogshead cheese, but me, even though I generally love charcuterie, I couldn’t deal with it psychologically. I remember my mom’s story from my childhood of walking into my grandmother’s kitchen, wondering what smelled so good, taking the lid off the pot and seeing a pig’s head looking back at her. That does not endear me to hogshead cheese. But last year, in my epic Parisian meal with PEG at Le Quincy, I tasted hogshead cheese, and it was wonderful. (“You can tell it’s good head cheese because there’s a lot more nose than ear,” PEG said; good to know). If I had been offered hogshead cheese at the hunting camp back in Louisiana, I would have balked. There it was on a plate in front of me at a restaurant in Paris, and I found the courage to taste it — and I’m glad I did, because I would happily eat it back in Louisiana now.

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