Alex Rushmer recalls the disappointment of foods that are only theoretically delicious. But is it too late for him to change his mind?
There are some foods I enjoy solely on a hypothetical level. For several years, I very much enjoyed century egg, despite never having actually consumed one to confirm my hypothesis. The combination of familiar and exotic was enough to convince my brain that, yes, century egg is something I can, and will, enjoy. When I finally sat down to a Thai breakfast of congee and topped it with spring onion, ginger, chillies and a generous amount of egg preserved in quicklime, it came as something of a surprise to me that the egg aspect of it was utterly horrendous. From then on, I vowed my breakfast would always be ammonia free.
Lobster is another food I enjoy on a theoretical basis. There is a ceremony to it that pleases me, an element of luxury, not to mention the inevitable addition of French fries, mayonnaise, herbs and much melted butter. But I’m yet to eat one that has convinced me it is worth either the fuss or the expense, and I know for sure I would be equally happy if left with just the chips, and happier still if I was given a couple of Cromer crabs as an alternative.
Other foods that fall into this category of ‘great in theory’ are almost all expensive mushrooms (most of which are only ever equal to – and never better than – the humble button mushroom) and a classic (British) Chinese takeaway, the desire for which occasionally takes hold early in the day and cannot be shaken until I’ve picked up the phone and actually ordered it.
I was delighted there are still new flavours to be discovered
From that precise moment, the excitement wanes until the point at which I pop the first sweet and sour chicken ball into my gob and realise that my memory has once again failed me, and I’m destined to spend the next 45 minutes ramming a series of claggy, deep-fried items into my face and wiping sickly, cornflour-thickened sauces from around my mouth until I collapse into a sweaty mess on the sofa before finally admitting defeat and going to bed.
For many years, the mango has also been a food I was a hypothetical fan of. I remember, as an undergraduate, seeing an older (and far cooler) architecture student effortlessly preparing a mango – carefully slicing off the sides and diligently cross-hatching the fruit before pushing it out from the underside so the flesh popped up like a cubist hedgehog. But the promise of a mango was always far greater than the reality. A muted scent, surprisingly starchy fruit that offered little in the way of flavour and a frustrating amount of stringy bits that got caught in the gaps between my teeth convinced me there was something I just didn’t get about this particular fruit that seemingly made others go dewy-eyed.
But then my wife returned from north London last week with a box that, judging by the retro branding, seemed to be from the early sixties: a case of 12 Kesar mangoes imported directly from India, each housed in a little foam jacket to protect them on their journey. The advice she had been given was to wait until the pale green tinge on the fruits’ skin had all but transformed into a golden yellow, but we are impatient. We plucked the ripest one from its little house, sliced off its sides and trimmed the skin from the central piece. And then we ate. It would be an understatement to say the experience was revolutionary.
The perfume was joyous: complex, dark, almost savoury, the sort of cologne I imagine the Oscars smell like. The flavour, too, was staggering: a playful interplay between sweetness and acidity that bounced around the palate, dazzled the tongue and surprised my brain. I was delighted there are still new flavours to be discovered, and frustrated at the sad, substandard supermarket mangoes I’ve eaten over the years – pale, underwhelming facsimiles of what they should be. But it wasn’t their fault. As it happens, all I needed was a new dealer.