When I was growing up I hated peas. I didn’t like the texture and I would pick it out of my food on the sly so my parents wouldn’t see. A maneuver that involved me slowly pushing it to the edge of my plate and under some chicken bones or onto a napkin tucked under my plate. I hated taro as well which is pretty common in many Chinese dishes. Again, it was a textural thing. If a dish had taro I wouldn’t avoid the dish completely. I would just pick out it out and eat everything else. I also never liked lamb. I had this psychological aversion to the smell and taste I imagined it would have. I had never tried it but I was convinced I wouldn’t like it. I always hated cilantro as well. But it was because it had a flavour that I just detested. If its flavour was imparted onto the dish then there was no way I was going to put any of it in my mouth. If it was just a garnish, I would pick out every little green bit I could find because I would not let the cilantro flavour ruin the dish for me.
Now that I’m older, I have no problem with peas! The texture doesn’t bother me anymore and I enjoy cooking with it as much as I enjoy eating it. I discovered a joy for lamb as well this year (only took me 35 years). My friend cooked a lamb shank for me, braised in the oven for hours until the meat was falling off the bone like pulled pork. We ate it in a panini sandwich with arugula, roasted red peppers and a homemade horseradish aioli. After my first bite I was in love! The meat was so tender that it melted in my mouth like butter and to my amazement, none of the lamby (gamey?) taste and smell was present at all. I really should have listened to all those people who tried to convince me how much I was missing out on not eating lamb. All it took was one bite to change that. But the problem was getting to that first bite because appetite is emotional and psychological.
Taro, I still hate and cilantro still repulses me. When I was helping my brother out at his restaurant Vien, many of his customers would ask me if there was cilantro in the garnish or ginger herb sauce. Instantly I knew it was because they hated it and we formed an instant bond over our aversion to the herb! Science has shown that the reason why certain people dislike cilantro so much is genetic. Even the great Julia Child was also a cilantro phobe! In a 2002 interview with Larry King, on the topic of cilantro she said, “I would pick it out if I saw it and throw it on the floor.” My sentiments exactly, Julia! And there are many more of us united on this aversion to cilantro front.
My cousin Lei, on the other hand, grew up with a list of food aversions much longer than mine. I don’t exactly know her reasons but I do know her list included almost all vegetables and most things outside the ground beef and chicken breast realm. She shied away from anything that ‘looked’ funny and stuck to just eating the same dishes she was comfortable with. She ended up marrying a man who hated eating even more things than she did! It was a match made in picky food eaters’ heaven.
A year ago, Lei told me she wanted to learn how to cook. Her son was starting to eat solid food and she was worried that he would grow up to be as picky an eater as she and her husband. Lei knew that in order to prevent that from happening she had to get out of her comfort zone and make a change in her diet and her perception of food. She decided she was going to learn how to cook and wanted to learn how to eat better. That summer, we started a weekly cooking class. One day a week I would go over to her apartment with an easy menu that she could learn how to prepare. We started with dishes and ingredients that she loved. From there our menus progressed to incorporate more healthier ingredients like leafy greens, vibrantly colored vegetables, and healthy grains like quinoa.
It’s been a year now since our summer of cooking and last week Lei invited us over to her new house for dinner. She made a cream of tomato soup and a butternut squash and spinach quinoa salad with a tahini dressing. I was so proud of her! Imagine, she didn’t even know what tahini was a year ago and now she is making dressings with it. Let’s not forget she’s actually voluntarily eating and cooking butternut squash and spinach now! My adorable nephew gobbles up everything she cooks. Nothing processed, everything homemade. This is living proof that a mother’s love for her child is truly unconditional and that she will move mountains for them. Even when the mountain in her way is herself.
Since Lei loves carbonara, I decided to teach her how to make it that night. It’s also one of my personal pasta favourites and it’s just the easiest dish to put together when:
1. You don’t have a lot of ingredients in the fridge
2. You don’t have a lot of time
I know what you’re thinking, carbonara isn’t exactly the healthiest dish. But the whole point of getting Lei to try new kinds of food wasn’t just to improve her diet. It was also to get her to open up her mind and encourage her to enjoy food as much as she used to hate eating it. This dish only requires 4 ingredients (the peas are optional) and can be done in the same time it takes for the pasta to cook. I used an entire package of bacon (don’t judge me) because we love bacon and can never have too much of it. Just don’t eat this everyday! You don’t have to stop eating things you love, just eat it in moderation. This is my guilty pleasure (although I honestly don’t feel guilty at all). What’s yours?
Other ingredients I’m not a fan of:
Chinese Black Vinegar (I CANNOT STAND THE SMELL)
Maraschino cherries (and anything with an artificial cherry flavour, but I love real cherries!)
Black Licorice (anything with a strong licorice or anise flavour really, e.g. Pernod)
Chicken Feet (I know, I totally break the Chinese stereotype here but I just can’t bring myself to put a chicken foot in my mouth)
Frog Legs (I ate it one time by accident. I thought it was chicken but wondered why there were tiny bones in my mouth….I spat it out IMMEDIATELY. Clearly this aversion is completely psychological.)
Escargot (it’s psychological….They’re snails…I. Just. Can’t.)
Tripe, Brain, Heart, Kidneys (but I love liver!)
Cloves (that’s why I’m not a fan of chai tea)
Here are other polarizing foods that commonly divide the lovers from the haters. It’s interesting because as much as many of the things I hate are on the list, I also love a lot that are on it. For example, I LOVE anchovies. I love it with breads and on pizza and my favourite is using it in pastas. I also love all cheeses including goat cheese, blue cheese, and the stinkiest ones out there. I also love okra despite its slimy texture. What kinds of food do you love, hate, and love to hate? Let me know because I’d love to hear!
FEEDS 4 HEALTHY APPETITES
What you’ll need:
1 lb. spaghetti or linguine
500g bacon, cubed (pancetta or guanciale would be even better)
As little or as much peas as you want (completely optional, most of the time I make it without)
For the sauce:
5 eggs (or 4 large eggs)
2 cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (can combine or substitute with Pecorino Romano)
Generous amount of freshly cracked black pepper
What to do:
1. Boil your water for the pasta in a large pot. Add a generous amount of salt to your water as well as a little bit of olive oil to keep the pasta from sticking together.
2. While the water is boiling, prepare your pasta sauce. Beat the eggs in a large bowl, add the cheese and black pepper and then whisk to bind it all together. Set aside.
3. Once the water starts boiling, add in the pasta and follow the instructions on the pasta box to cook it until it’s al dente. Normally it’s 9 minutes. Add the peas in 3 minutes before the pasta’s done.
4. While the pasta is cooking, heat up a large saucepan. Add the bacon and cook on medium high heat until the bacon is crisp. Turn the heat off once crisp so you don’t burn the bacon (Don’t venture too far away from the stove, you’ll want to be around in case it crosses that dangerous boundary between crispy and burnt. Trust me, I’ve been there).
5. Once the pasta is done, transfer the pasta and peas into the saucepan WITHOUT throwing out the pasta water. Toss it in the bacon/bacon grease mixture in the saucepan (Yes, I leave all the bacon grease in because that’s where all the flavour comes from! Again, don’t judge me).
6. Transfer the saucepan off the stove onto a cooler surface and then mix in the egg-parmesan-black pepper mixture.
7. Add a few tablespoons of pasta water to loosen it up but you still want the sauce consistency to be creamy.
8. Add more black pepper to taste (I like my carbonara extra peppery)
9. Serve immediately.
Don’t forget the golden rule when making Spaghetti Carbonara: Take the saucepan OFF THE HEAT before adding the egg cheese sauce mixture. You want the heat from the pasta to cook the eggs without scrambling it.
Did I mention Lei sent us home with homemade granola??