I recall an awful stench that would sometimes waft through my small wooden shack of a house in rural Malaysia during my first few weeks living there. The typical smell of farm animals, a subtle sea breeze, and smoldering rubbish fires in the village could suddenly be interrupted by a rancid funk.
Whenever the stench came, I would search unsuccessfully for the origin. I began to think something had crawled into a dark corner of my location and died, which did not make me feel any better about the situation.
Then one day I realized that the mirror in my bathroom was more than a mirror–it was really a very shallow cabinet mirror. I opened it up to explore its contents and found a few rusty Bic razors, just one crinkled up tube of toothpaste, and a puzzling package with a greasy, maroon-ish red gunk inside. The words printed on the package were in Malay, a language I didn’t understand up until there.
A couple of days later after questioning some locals, I discovered what was in that plastic package. It was something called belacan from the Malay language. In English, it has fermented shrimp paste blended with salt. They consume it in enormous amounts in Malaysia, Indonesia, and other parts of Southeast Asia.
It was inevitable that I was going to be confronted with eating belacan one fine day. I knew that, eventually, a plate could arrive in front of me with belacan in some form, and I would give it a go as it is the polite thing to do.
When that day finally arrived, the belacan caught me by surprise. It was disguised as a chili sauce-which I normally love. However, this was no ordinary chili sauce since it was spiked with this rotting, ground up, crustacean mixture my nose so detested. As I swallowed it for the first time, I was sure what had just happened. There was no mistaking that haunting odor, which now had a preference to go with this. Trying new foods at the time seemed daunting if belacan was any indicator of what was to come.
I powered through that first meal and begrudgingly consumed my share of belacan.
From there on, my exposure to belacan only hastened in frequency. Malaysians had found ways to integrate it into seemingly every dish if they had been in the mood for this, and they frequently were.
In my head, I struggled with the notion of eating the stuff for enjoyment. In the end, Malaysia is a land of plenty. Tropical fruits, a number of fish, and vegetables abound everywhere you go. Why would they resort to grinding up shrimp and letting it ferment in the hot sun for sustenance?
That was when I started to realize a crucially important concept about trying new foods. Every country on the planet has local foods that the vast majority of the people there love and the vast majority of the rest of the world find completely revolting in the first flavor or even believed.
What can explain that? Are we pre-wired from dawn to be fond of the regional eating culture we have been born into? I doubt it. Instead, we grow up watching a lot of different people enjoying something which we get curious enough to provide a try or even ten attempts. We often learn how to like it.
Consider it in your own life. How many of your most favorite foods did you really like on the first attempt at eating it? Aside from pizza, waffles, and sugar-coated cold cereal, there likely are not a lot of foods that had you at hello.
We tend to learn how to like foods because everybody we know, people we trust, people who look just like us, and those who act like us enjoy them so… should not we?
When we’re growing up trying new foods, we just have a different frame of reference. We’ve got a different mindset about learning how to like new things. When traveling overseas and trying to adapt to the regional eating culture, we must tap into our child selves.
When trying new foods and learning how to enjoy them, try imagining that this is a new reality. You’re born into this foreign land, and the people around you are the peers. If they like these odd foods you see them eating, should not you?
Tricking your mind into thinking this is your new fact from here on out will not make you enjoy strange new foods such as belacan on the first attempt, but it will provide you the endurance and endurance to taste it in smallish doses in many earnest attempts. Before you know it, you will likely end up enjoying it or not minding it any more than other boring foods you eat but do not necessarily love.
After living in Malaysia for a couple of decades, I still do not love belacan. However, these days I do not be afraid to eat it when it is on the table, and at times it works as a fantastic flavor enhancer to food which does not have plenty of taste. My fear of this has completely vanished, and I can honestly say I know why so many people like it. Trying new foods and learning how to love fresh foods is a matter of mindset.
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