December 6, 2023


Travel Adventure

‘You’ve never eaten a banana?!’ 10 writers face their fiercest – and strangest – food fears | Food

15 min read

‘Bananas are mushy, musty and alarmingly yellow’

It’s not because they look phallic, OK? There is nothing Freudian or weird about the fact that I have spent my life recoiling at the sight of a banana. My banana aversion has nothing to do with me being gay. I like cucumbers! I like courgettes! I have no problem with phallic produce.

Anyway, there shouldn’t be any need for psychosexual explanations; it should be perfectly obvious to everyone that bananas are repulsive. They’re mushy, they’re musty, they’re alarmingly yellow. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I have bananaphobia (a rare but real condition), but for a long time I was so nauseated by the fruit that you couldn’t have paid me a million dollars to touch one.

Arwa Mahdawi poses with a banana

Now, however, I have accepted a far smaller sum to try one. Is this personal growth, or an abandonment of personal dignity? Either way, my small child is partly to blame. One thing I hadn’t anticipated about motherhood was how many bananas would be involved. I have had to feed my kid “nanas” so many times that my fear of them has dissipated slightly.

Still, it took me a few days to work up the courage to do the deed. For a brief moment, I thought about cheating and pretending that I’d done it. Obviously, I’m far too ethical for that, but I did make sure to negotiate the terms with my editor. “Do I have to eat the whole thing?” I asked. “Just do your best and give it a go,” I was told. OK, I thought. Just the tip. I can do that.

“Oh my God, I can’t believe you’re doing this!” said my wife as I took my first nibble. And you know what? It wasn’t as bad as I expected. I mean, yes, it was extremely disgusting, but it was disgusting with creamy undertones and hints of … I took another little nibble … were those notes of apricot? I will never know, because two small bites were all I could stomach. I rushed to the sink and washed my mouth out.

In the end, it was a repulsive but enlightening experiment. My two main takeaways are:

1) Always trust your gut – if you hate something, there is probably a good reason.

2) I should have asked for hazard pay. Arwa Mahdawi

‘Maybe the real reason I avoided chip butties was self-preservation’

It’s not just that I have never eaten a chip butty – the phrase has never passed my lips. I’m from the home counties, land of baps and sarnies; the word “butty” always makes me feel as if I’m cosplaying Noel Gallagher. When a teenage boyfriend took me to a Yorkshire chippy and a slice of buttered white appeared along with my order, I assumed it was in place of a bread basket.

Felicity Cloake’s chip butty
Felicity Cloake with a chip butty
Felicity Cloake with a chip butty

I’ve had ample opportunity subsequently to correct this embarrassing deficit in my culinary education, but this particular carb-on-carb combination has never really appealed. I had my order down pat (cod in the north, haddock in the south, chips – salt, no vinegar, please – and mushy peas) and saw no reason to branch out.

Now, facing my fears in the service of serious journalism, I notice my local chip shop has a box of bread rolls on the counter. I ask for my butty wrapped, so it’s not until I get home that I realise the bread is crammed so full that it’s a bit-part player in this particular sandwich – chips are spilling out in every direction. I shove as many back in as possible and take a cautious bite.

Felicity Cloake tries a chip butty – video

The roll is soft, fluffy and saturated with salty melted butter, the chips deliciously dense and potatoey. It’s a three-note masterpiece of fat, salt and starch, gloriously simple and wonderfully comforting. Before I know it, I’ve eaten the lot. Maybe the real reason I avoided chip butties thus far was self-preservation, I reflect, crumpling up the grease-soaked paper. But there is no going back. It will still be a chip roll to me, though – you can only change so much in one lunchtime. Felicity Cloake

‘Two spoonfuls of trifle in, I feel bilious’

For a start, why do people say “a mere trifle”? There’s nothing mere about this layering of jelly, custard and cream. Trifle is the opposite of mere. It is conceptually, physically and digestively enormous.

Which leads me to my second question. How have I – an English person! – managed to avoid it for 40-odd years? Well, I don’t understand jelly, because I’m not four. Fruit compote is fine, but I’d rather have a banana. Custard is best treated like a naughty bowl of soup: served warm and eaten with a teaspoon in front of Gardener’s World, not as a substratum of a monster pud that dates back to the 16th century. Sponge fingers are just nifty conveyers of cream – and cream makes me volcanic.

Chitra Ramaswamy eats trifle for the first time

We get a strawberry one from an M&S garage, in accordance with the UK law that if one is eating trifle for the first time it must be an M&S trifle. Back home, I peel off the plastic wrapper and dig my spoon down into the mass. I’m looking for a little bit of everything, but my spoon emerges looking more like it’s just been in a fight with an Eton mess. Taste-wise, it’s all very soft, sweet and reminiscent of nursery days. In cheffy terms, there are textural issues and I’m not happy about the mouthfeel. Two spoonfuls in, I feel bilious. After three, the eruption begins to bubble up beneath my body’s crust. I’m too old for this crap.

I put the spoon down and watch my five-year-old – also eating trifle for the first time – mainline a giant wobbly bowl of the stuff. She gives it “twenteen out of twenteen”. Five minutes later, she is laughing maniacally and throwing all the cushions off the sofa. For the next two hours, she bounces off the walls while I belch. In conclusion? Never again. Chitra Ramaswamy

‘Tomato Cup-a-Soup is a mysterious miracle powder’

Growing up, my house was a tomato-free zone. It was banished in all its forms, thanks to my dad’s deep hatred of its taste. No cherry tomatoes for salads, no giant beef variants for sandwiches, not even a sun-dried husk lingering in a jar. Bursting with seeds and filled with watery juice, tomatoes seemed so unappealing that I was happy to forgo them.

Thanks to pizza, pasta sauce and ketchup on chips, I worked tomatoes into my diet as I got older, but in soups they have always been strangely absent. So, sitting down to taste tomato soup for the first time, at 29, I decide that I need to get the full gamut of recipes in me. I am holding out for a revelation, to make up for lost time.

Ammar Kalia holding a can of Heinz cream of tomato soup
Ammar Kalia pouring Heinz cream of tomato soup
Ammar Kalia sniffing Heinz cream of tomato soup

First up: Heinz cream of tomato in a can. The everyman staple, the soup I imagine every household has lurking in the cupboard. It has a pleasingly smooth consistency when I dump it into the pan, but on the first try it tastes like a watered-down ketchup – sweet, tangy and slightly synthetic. No revelation yet.

Tesco’s Finest is next, promising a luxury experience thanks to its sun-dried tomatoes and the addition of lentils. Unfortunately, the former make the soup too sweet and the latter add strange fibrous lumps. It’s sauce without the pasta.

Finally, Cup-a-Soup, the sachet to which you add boiled water. My expectations are low; the powder smells musty when it goes into the cup. But it is surprisingly delicious. The grains dissolve to create a tomato soup that is lip-smackingly savoury. It doesn’t have the tang and texture of tomatoes, but I slurp the whole thing up anyway. It’s a mysterious miracle powder – one that might even be worth sneaking to my dad for a try. Ammar Kalia

‘Hard-boiled egg? I’d rather eat a fistful of cat litter’

For a hen-keeper, I’m funny about eggs. It’s the texture: whatever witchcraft happens when heat meets albumen spooks me. I only ate my first at 17, in the most palatable, un-eggy format (omelette). I have improved since, but barely. I can eat fried eggs if the yolk remains completely liquid – the slightest hint of solidity and I’m out. I place a protective spatula under yolks to stop them cooking. Shut up – that’s not weird.

I’m trying hard-boiled today because it’s the scariest of variants. I hate the smell and the naked, indecent look of them; they’re absolute wrong ’uns. For extra cruelty, my editor suggests I try that horrendous pub staple, the pickled egg, too. Great: if there is anything I hate more than the thought of a hard-boiled egg, it’s vinegar. I agree, though, because I’m spineless.

Emma Beddington tries a pickled egg
Emma Beddington recoils after trying a pickled egg
Emma Beddington poses, relucantly, with a pickled egg

I eat only my hens’ eggs, for welfare reasons, so I have to pickle my own. Resentfully, I heat vinegar, sugar and various spices that will in no way make the whole outrage any more palatable, then pour it over the hard-boiled output of my beloved bantams. They go in a jar to fester – sorry, “mature”. Weirdly, this British depravity thrills my French husband. “Eggs and vinegar,” he keeps saying, happily. “What’s not to like?”

A few days later, it’s the moment of truth. First, my spouse hard-boils me a fresh egg and hands it over with obscene glee as I glare at him. I take a big bite: foul. The white is like biting into an eyeball (I imagine); the yolk is sulphurously wrong in every way and its fudgy texture disgusts me.

Emma Beddington tries a hard-boiled egg – video

It is, however, ambrosial compared with the pickled egg. The vinegary white has become dramatically rubbery. How? Why? The yolk is less vinegar-soaked, so marginally better. I’d rather eat a fistful of cat litter, though. I manage one mouthful and give up; my husband adds mayonnaise and polishes off the lot, eggstatically. For me, un oeuf is more than enough. Emma Beddington

‘Nothing could be less tempting than thick, pink tubes of saveloy’

Saveloys, those gleaming, sweaty red cylinders you see in the cabinet at the chip shop alongside the battered sausages and Pukka pies, have always filled me with a nameless dread. Their dyed flaming colour is jarring, as is their enigmatic name, suggesting something strange inside. What might that be? Blood, kidneys, spleen, hearts? Traditionally, it was pigs’ brains, but today, apparently, they merely contain ground-up pig and cow, along with vegetable matter and the eye-catching colourant.

But a challenge is a challenge, so I am in line at my local chippy to order saveloy – which, incidentally, is a hell of a lot cheaper than cod. Nothing could be less tempting than the five thick, pink tubes in the glass-fronted warm display area above the chip fryer. Its shelves are otherwise empty: towards the end of Saturday lunch, every other sausage and pie has sold. Only the unloved saveloys lie on top of each other, like shagging snakes. Then one is plucked out and plonked in a carton with my chips.

Jonathan Jones’s saveloy

In the street, I tentatively open the polystyrene box and pick up the warmish block. The first bite is … OK, actually. No gristle. Not like a tinned frankfurter, then. It has a consistent, mild flavour and firm but yielding texture – a good, if unexciting, sausage. Suddenly, half is gone. I had genuinely expected it to be so vile that I had assembled a load of condiments at home to help get it down. But by the time I get there it is just a stub.

Someone should reimagine this venerable British street food. It’s not as outrageous as an andouillette, but it sure beats the average hotdog. I should have bought two. Jonathan Jones

‘Eating my first oyster, it’s as if my tonsils have come loose’

I’m no foodie, but I like to try new things and I’ve got a strong stomach. I’ve eaten haggis, crocodile, snails, some ambiguous meat stews. But one thing I’ve never been tempted to try is seafood. Because of its sheer strangeness, it seems unwise to consider it food at all – like eating creepy-crawlies from outer space.

I am especially revolted by oysters, attributable to an episode of Mr Bean that I watched repeatedly as a child, in which Bean gets food poisoning at a seaside B&B and has a fever dream of slurping green goo from shells.

The stuff of nightmares … Mr Bean’s run-in with an oyster.

Twenty years later, Mr Bean is less obviously someone to look to for life lessons – but, at 32, my taste is hardly more refined than it was at 12. Could gaining a taste for oysters help me feel more like a grownup? At The Bay seafood bar, at Jarrold’s department store in Norwich, I intend to find out.

Even in my ignorance, it’s clear that these are superior examples, glistening as though they have just been plucked from the sea. Indeed, I’m told they have come from Brancaster, on the north Norfolk coast, fresh this morning.

On their bed of ice, they look like works of art – but, though I am admiring them, I don’t want to eat them. They are also huge – the size of a cow’s tongue. I have no idea where to start.

Elle Hunt eats an oyster for the first time
Elle Hunt eats an oyster for the first time

Sensing my nervousness, Helga from Jarrold’s instructs me to sling one to the back of my throat, without toppings in the first instance, then bite down. “You know on I’m a Celebrity, when they have to eat the eyeballs?”

I raise a shell to my nose then tip my head back, scrunching up my face like I’m about to jump into the sea. At once, I feel as if I have inhaled a mouthful of saltwater.

The only impression I get of the oyster is as a foreign body that I’ve unwittingly caught in my mouth. It’s as if my tonsils have come loose and are swilling around – something is forcing its way down my throat, or up it, but fighting me either way. After all, as Helga points out, these creatures are still alive.

I don’t retch, exactly, but I certainly fail to disguise that I find the experience deeply unpleasant. The second oyster is even bigger. This time, I drown it in red wine vinaigrette, but I end up with that all over my face as the creature clings on to its shell. I eventually succeed, but my unhappy expression makes clear the cost.

Helga is diplomatic: “At least you’ve tried them now.” The fishy, salty, shallotty aftertaste, which persists for hours, is a reminder: I had a new experience – and it was exactly as I had imagined. Elle Hunt

‘School shepherd’s pie had a diabolical pea-to-meat ratio’

Although my childhood fussiness has given way to a general inclination to stick anything in my gob, I have stoically refused to eat a shepherd’s pie. To some, it may represent a hot mess of homely delight, but to me it is a triumvirate of unpleasantness: peas, mash and British mediocrity. It epitomises our tendency to settle for less.

My cynicism stems from the institutional setting in which I first encountered it. My mum is not British, which meant the lovingly prepared meals I had at home weren’t, either. On Sunday, we had bolognese, steak bavette or Nigerian rice and stew. Shepherd’s pie came at school; it was soggy, overcooked and with a pea-to-meat ratio that can be described only as diabolical.

Sasha Mistlin tucks in to shepherd’s pie.

Sure, British food has been US sitcom fodder for decades, but to truly illustrate the horror of 00s UK school food, know that it took me until adulthood to appreciate fish and chips.

And so to the pie. I opted for a local greasy spoon – although finding a fitting location that did a shepherd’s pie was more of a challenge than anticipated. I got a lot of “no can do mate, but I do a beautiful lasagne”.

Eventually, a cafe obliged. For £8.35, I got a shepherd’s pie, a mountain of chips and peas, all served in a gravy soup. I have to admit, it looked delicious and reassuringly lasagne-like. Without hesitation, I tucked it.

It tasted so good. Or, at least, I think it did, because it wasn’t so much eaten as deleted. Immediately, I realised the error of my ways. Yes, lasagne and chips is the ultimate cafe combo – double-carb delight in an £8 package that you know is as offensive to Italian culture as Mario the plumber. But maybe – just maybe – the shepherd’s pie is an improvement on perfection. Sasha Mistlin

‘For such a subtle taste, taramasalata’s impact is spectacular’

I have spent years pretending not to like taramasalata, even though I have never tasted it. This felt like the surest way of never having someone attempt to get me to try it, the way people do when they find out you’ve never tried a divisive food: oysters, blue cheese, Angel Delight.

When I finally decide to face my fears, I go for something tried and tested – a big-name brand from a local deli. “Smooth and indulgent”, the packet promises. It certainly looks lovely, like a delicious strawberry milkshake. Which would be great, if it weren’t 8% fish roe. Apart from the “v Wade” kind, I am no fan of roe. That tapioca quality is fine when it’s in tapioca, less so fish eggs.

Ellie reaches for an emergency pear

First, the smell. Subtly fishy is the best way to describe it. Although the unmistakable whiff of the sea is there, it isn’t the kind of seafood dish that knocks you round the nostrils like a lobster pot. I can’t pretend I am not a bit relieved.

I gamely put a big dollop on some flatbread – go hard or go home, I think – before thinking better of it and taking a delicate sample via a brief lick. The effect is immediate. For such an incredibly subtle taste, the impact is spectacular: pure, unadulterated disgust. I can barely taste anything, but what I can taste I find to be revolting. Then there is the texture, which is not, as I feared, like tapioca. It is much, much worse: inexplicably grainy.

I won’t go into details, but I will say there is some retching, some involuntary water streaming from my eyes, some emergency eating of a pear to try to rid my mouth of the memory. To mangle Macbeth, this pretty pot of taramasalata seems the innocent flower, but is very much the serpent under it.

None of this is taramasalata’s fault. It is my fault. But it is time for us to consciously uncouple nonetheless. I know I shouldn’t let this one run-in put me off all future encounters; I should try it at a Greek restaurant or make my own. But this is, without a doubt, the end of the road for me and taramasalata. Ellie Violet Bramley

‘Ribs sounded naff, meat cosplaying as masculinity’

It’s the name that has always put me off ribs. And the fact it’s mandatory to eat them with your hands. And because of the way the American ones, all sweet and red and sticky, have permeated British culture; they remind me of Keith Urban, stag nights and red pleather banquettes. Homer food, tough-guy food, except that you need wet wipes on standby, as if you are a baby.

It’s not because I don’t eat meat. I grew up on a smallholding and we ate what was previously walking around our field. As an adult, ribs just sounded a bit naff, meat cosplaying as masculinity, but I appreciate I’m a meat snob. Plus, I’m told they’re fun to eat in a carnal, Wolf Hall way.

Morwenna Ferrier gets stuck in to pork ribs

  • ‘The pork transcends the sweet, soy, salty sauce’ … Morwenna gets stuck in. Photograph: courtesy of Morwenna Ferrier

The question was which ribs to go for. There are plenty of excellent Turkish restaurants that do great lamb ribs near me. But the classic idea of ribs in the UK probably involves pork from the US or China. In a nod to the new cold war, I opt for China (sorry, Biden) and head to Yipin on Liverpool Road in Islington, north London.

Yipin specialises in food from Hunan province – its signature dish is called Chairman Mao’s pork; Mao’s childhood home also appears on the inside of the menu – but it also does classic Mandarin ribs.

Eight gleaming ribs arrive on an oval platter, a little too quickly, piled up like railways sleepers. The sauce is secret – of course it is – but the waitress mentions Worcestershire sauce. I try to eat them with chopsticks, but embarrass myself, so I use my hands.

The fatty, crisp-edged meat slips off the bone the moment I bite down. I hit a charred bit at the end, then a shred of connective cartilage so soft and rich you can bite through that, too. Suddenly, the pork transcends the sweet, soy, salty sauce. Ribs, it turns out, are about texture. Good ribs, anyway. You do, however, need to eat them with your hands, so that rules out a second run. Morwenna Ferrier


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