Slimy but meaty
The flavour of Place
Hello and welcome! This is the 76th issue of Place. Our sense of taste is informed in a variety of ways, from predisposed genetic preferences to changing taste sensitivities as we age. But a key formation of taste is exposure: How often we eat something and the associations we have with the places that we ate it. With that in mind, this week we’re featuring a series of mini essays from our editors and friends about how places impact flavour, from redefining the briny taste of olives to underscoring the sweet sourness of lemons.
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At Place, we believe that the experiences, sensations and conversations we have as we move about the world stay with us, stacking up as the years go by, forming who we are and the way we view the world. If you’re the social type, follow us on Twitter (@place_letter) where you can share your favourite pieces and Instagram (@placenewsletter) for a visual feast. Yours, The Place editorial team.
The first time I tried olives they were black, salty, thinly sliced and on top of a pizza from Little Caesars. For those unfamiliar with the American franchise, it’s famous for its $6 pizzas, thick with a coagulated yellow and orange cheese, a red sauce that looked and tasted like it didn’t have an expiration date, and a pillowy dry crust that shed semolina with every bite. The company primarily operates takeaway joints, usually in strip malls, fluorescent lit, decorated with laminate wood and orange piping. Atmosphere is not its forte. As a teenager, I loved it.
However, I liked my pizza plain. If I was going to have a carb and fat bomb, I wanted it to be purely this without the pretense of a vegetable on top. The first time I bit into a slice with black olives, the pungent fermented flavor hit the back of my tongue with vengeance, overtaking the salty comfort that I was enjoying. Olives do inspire controversy: The “slimy but meaty” texture can be off-putting and black olives in particular are typically processed in lye in order to take away from its inedible bitter taste straight off the tree. This renders them rubbery and with less of a distinctive taste beyond salt. I quickly developed a blanket taste ban on olives, avoiding them despite my friends attempting to convince me otherwise.
And then I went to Morocco, a major exporter of olives and olive oil. Olives are everywhere, piled in precariously balanced pyramids at markets, placed on the table with khobz before every meal, de-pitted and dotted in couscous on Fridays. It’s impossible to avoid, though initially I did. I was so excited to dive into Moroccan cuisine -- my favorite combination of savoury, sweet and minty -- and didn’t want my briny taste bud enemy to ruin it. But I also wanted to be polite -- so when a plate of fat green olives was placed in front of me with expectant eyes and encouragement to eat, I took a deep breath and a tiny bite. The pungent taste was there, but it was fresh, even lemony. The bitter flavors balanced the warmer spices of the tagine that followed. Out of habit, I began eating a handful before each meal, eventually buying them by the bagful for a snack at local markets, exploring those marinated in harissa, stuffed with garlic. Unlike with the comfort food they seemed to sully before, now the opposing flavors were a key part of the overall flavor profile of the meal.
Just as with travel, sometimes food isn’t about what is immediately palatable. It’s about how an experience fits into the larger picture of somewhere new. Life is about that balance; briny, bitter, spicy and warm.
- Karis Hustad is a co-editor of Place and a magazine reporter based in London, UK
Once I spent a year indulging in the myriad flavour palettes of Middle Eastern Mediterranean cuisine, no taste could rival the tart, brightening satisfaction of a freshly squeezed lemon. I remember the first bout of tahina I ever mixed – taught by a true mixologist. In her kitchen filled with pots and aubergines, a 9th generation Israeli walked me through the importance of sourcing the proper sesame paste, how much salt to add, and a tried-and-true technique for mixing the batch. And when it came to adding the lemon she said, “Now this is the secret ingredient – the one everyone guesses at but cannot name.” Lemon underscores every batch of tahina I make. It’s the first fruit I replenish in my fridge. It’s the one squeeze that I cannot bear to waste any of. She is sweet, she is vocal, she is sour, she is lemon.
- Jordhynn Guy is an artist currently based in Tel Aviv, Israel
It was probably only the third or fourth time I did it that I realised the novelty of what was happening. That the stinging wedge of a thing in my mouth wasn’t there due to force, but because I had willingly put it there. I was in Punjab, the northwestern Indian state which borders Pakistan. It was nearing the end of the month of May, a season in which the local temperature regularly rises to 45 degrees celsius during the day. I had not planned to be there at that time of year in particular, but so it goes when travelling without a real itinerary or end date in mind.
Every day was a physical battle against the heat. To venture out of the low windowless guest house I was staying in was to beckon an instant tide of sweat from the creases of my elbows, the backs of my knees, my sunburnt forehead. In my hand lay a limp rag of cloth that I constantly draped over my face to lick up the moisture that had accumulated there. I walked in a daze.
Mealtimes offered no reprieve. Stepping into a dhaba – streetside cafes that are commonplace across India – merely meant a seat on a plastic chair that your sweat would soon adhere your limbs to. The rich curries customary to the region, while delicious, were hot and heavy themselves, mirroring the state of the world outside – a place thick with desert dust and pride of its triumphant self, despite the traumas of its history.
But there on the table, before the sluggish gravy of a palak paneer arrived, was a gift in a silver tray – chunks of raw onion, sliced thick, arranged haphazardly, sometimes in a lick of cool vinegar. Maybe it was the heat, but I can’t remember the first time I reached my hand out and grabbed one of the clusters between my salty fingers. Through the haze, it finally dawned on me that I was eating the searing vegetable like it were a handful of grapes, something I would have never considered doing at home in Canada. Sure onions were fine, but I had until that point only consumed them chopped finely and simmered in butter or oil – a vessel of flavour commonly present, but hidden between the folds of a greater ingredient.
In Punjab though, on those rickety dhaba tables, the onion had its moment of glory. In hindsight, I think they were meant to be eaten alongside the food as a palate cleanser, and not as an appetizer on their own. But in those days of heat, they were the only thing that held their shape. That crunched. That let the coolness of their uncooked form flood my cheeks and throat. And I couldn’t wait.
It's possible that a food reflects a place more so than just the climate it's grown in, or the cultural and economic conditions under which it's adopted. Maybe that's true too with its flavour – in a city where the heat threatened to kill, even the dish meant to cleanse packed a punch in itself, lingering on my tongue long after the sun had set.
- Kylee Pedersen is a co-editor of place and a writer based in Calgary, Canada
A First Nations tradition I learned up river,
at fish camp,
as a young girl,
first remove the the eggs, the scales, and the guts,
and let the smoke do the work,
now, smoky fish always reminds me of home,
in the Yukon.
- Chantai Minet is a poet based in Calgary, Canada
Hogwarts in Iran,
and touring New York’s literary hangouts.
Join us next week for another journey.