Taste Tea Blog

Taste is in the Mouth of the Beholder

Differences in Taste and Cultural Reference Points

In China, it is common to stumble upon pizzas that force you to question whether a higher power exists and if there is a point in carrying on living. Shrimp, chunks of corn, bits of seasoned ground beef, all with sweet mayonnaise drizzled over the top of the lifeless processed cheese and wonderbread crust. It’s as if the chef was using pizza as a vehicle for a cruel joke. Its only purpose is to taunt honest people who wanted a delicious pie.

Or at least, that is my perspective.

Chinese Pizza
Just look at that…delicious…pizza

I grew up on different styles of pizza. When I was a kid, I gobbled down Little Caesar’s craptacular pizzas while taking breaks from playing NBA Jam and Killer Instinct. In my teenage years, it was higher quality pizzas in Chicago and New York styles. Later on, more of the Italian-style pizzas crept into my repertoire. But, like anything, pizza and pizza preferences are learned. The reason shrimp and sweet mayonnaise pizza makes me borderline violent is because it is “wrong”. But, what is wrong anyway? Local Pizza Huts are full of eager diners, patiently waiting for their corn and squid covered abominations. Such is the mystery of culinary preferences that vary amongst humankind.

 The Flavors of Rightness and Wrongness

Many Puer tea drinkers will rise up in arms over the inherent “rightness” or “wrongness” of flavors and characteristics. “This tea has smoke on it! They burned it! WRONG!” is one common battle cry. “This tea is bitter! Nobody would want to drink this!” is another oft hurled insult. However, as a man who receives Puer related correspondence from all over the world, I can safely say that some people want bitterness. Or want smoke. Or want sweetness, thickness, thinness, sharpness, or smoothness. That is to say, some people want shrimp and sweet mayonnaise while others want mozzarella and fresh basil.

Pizza Hut China
Merry Christmas! Hug for Love. Thanks, Pizza Hut.

These judgments, whether for Puer or pizza, stem from the same cultural and flavor backgrounds that we all learn. If your mother served you bitter tasting medicine when you were a child, of course the bitter flavors will conjure up cerebral connections of sickness and medicine. If you have been told that smoke is the result of imperfect processing, the smoke is a signal of low quality, whereas a seasoned Scotch whisky drinker might associate smoke with peat and a fine bottle of Laphroaig. Referring back to my personal pizza dilemma, for someone who has been eating American- and Italian-style pizzas, toppings such as shrimp, corn, and sweet mayo don’t make a hell of a lot of sense. But, what is inherently wrong with bitterness, smoke, shrimp, corn, and sweet mayo?

eating wasps
Sweet, nourishing wasps and minnows

Similar trials and tribulations happen all the time when I am traveling to tea mountains in China. My hosts gleefully tell me, “We knocked down a fresh wasps nest!” Which means I will be dining on wasps. Or the wide variety of marmots, bug larvae, and organ meat that farmers happily serve to me when on the road in small tea villages. Tea farmers will often describe with delight how these fried bamboo worms are prepared just how his mother used to make. I try to keep an open mind and remind myself that taste is in the mouth of the beholder. Though sometimes that is a test of my willpower; especially when two friends begin arguing about whether they had properly cooked out the venom from the wasps. Not reassuring fellas. Pass the minnows!

Viewing Puer tea flavors through a wider and more open lens has allowed me enough distance to reconsider my own perspective of what is good and bad. In the future, I will kindly nod when I pass by a gleeful family munching on shrimp and corn pizza – or someone happily drinking a Puer that I dislike. After all, the most important factor with food and drink is whether it can bring a smile to your face.

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