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Ecuador News

The naked taste sensation: Testing our reaction to the foods of new cultures

Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series on “nostalgia of the palate among foreigners.” The author holds a masters degree in visual anthropology from the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales Sede Ecuador and has focused her research on the food preferences of North American expats and immigrants from Colombia and Venezuela. To read part one, click here.

By Liliana Rocío León Moreno

For many anthropologists of food, ‘naked taste sensation’ refers to documenting ones first reaction to previously unknown foods or food compositions common to different cultures. The chemical process between the tongue and the brain is called ‘taste configuration.’

Mexican anthropologist, Blanca Cárdenas explains it this way, “Taste preference is the result of the cognitive process that arises from the combination of naked sensation and cultural expectation. Familiarity and preference are closely linked to the society and culture to which the individual belongs.”

Preferred flavor is developed by utilizing two common principles. In one instance preference is primarily influenced by perceived nutritional benefits — this food is good because it is good for me. Claims that a particular food choice is a healthier alternative is the dominant influencing factor contributing to a preferred flavor, and food selection. Cultural bias is the other: these are the foods that were common in my neighborhood, it is was what we ate with friends. This food has a deep relationship with cultural identity.

For many retirees, the perception that a new flavor is undesirable is because they have had no association with the cultural history of the food, or cuisine. In other cases, the connection between taste and cultural acceptance may influence the diner in significant ways. Several recent surveys have shown that successful assimilation by expats is dramatically increased if new foods and flavors are understood as a pleasing addition to an already pleasing cultural experience.

Cardenas sites this example. Roasted cuy (guinea pig), a highly prized Ecuadorian specialty, is not often well received by expats because to them, the animal is not considered a food, but a pet — often the first pet given to a small child. Presentation of the dish also plays a significant influencing role, as the cuy is traditionally served whole and with its head intact.

This observation is echoed by Patricia Escudero, veterinarian, and co-owner of one of Cuenca’s most fashionable retail shops, “All things Alpaca,” in El Centro.  She argues that one of the key roadblocks for the American palate is the presentation of the dish, rather than the flavor.

“If cuy was served in another way, for example, with other side dishes, or the meat was served in steak, perhaps it would be more appealing. This is an issue because the guinea pig is one of the most delicious and perhaps the most representative dish of Ecuador,” she said.

Escudero continues that another one of the dishes she most enjoys is also a traditional and controversial Ecuadorian dish, a highly nutritious broth of beef bones and marrow, roasted and simmered with chopped onion, carrots, cilantro, and mote.

“It is a delicious combination of flavors, yet expats are usually suspicious and are predetermined not to like it. Foods such as cuy, yaguarlocro, and beef bone and marrow broth, are part of the culinary identity of Ecuador. Immigrants who fail to incorporate these flavors into their diet have not finished incorporating themselves into the culture of their host country.”

Crag Roberts, a resident of Cuenca since 2016, says that cuy has a greasy off-putting taste, a flavor that is symbolically associated with food that is unsanitary, not properly prepared and non-nutritious. To Roberts’ palate, cuy is not acceptable by both standards — taste, and culture.

Roberts prefers to eat Chinese takeout or Texas barbecue, both readily available in Cuenca. He relies on new expat-centric restaurants and chain grocery stores for food that satisfies him because it is familiar.

There are many diners in Cuenca who prepare most of their own food and dine at home. Others dine out regularly in restaurants. Broadly put, expats who cook at home are more likely to cook food that is familiar to them and has the qualities and familiarity they find comforting. Whereas most people who dine out regularly, are more  interested in seeking out restaurants where they will be exposed to “naked taste sensation” and the thrilling opportunities that new foods provide.

Such is the divide that defines us.