You Don't Know What You've Got, Till It's Gone

A View of Stockholm

A View of Stockholm

No, this post won't be about Cinderella or Joni Mitchell's immortal "Big Yellow Taxi", although I am sure you all would enjoy that. The title actually refers to flavor, more specifically the lack of a specific flavor that we experienced on our recent Nordic adventures to Iceland and Sweden. That flavor was heat, and accompanying its absence was the presence of too much sweet.

We had an embarrassing amount of amazing food in both countries during our seven day trip, so this is not at all a condemnation of Nordic cuisine or flavor. However, it is amazing how the pallets of people from different cultures can differ, and gave me a new appreciation for the melting pot that is American food. 

I can't pinpoint when I started noticing the absence of heat, but I can definitely remember the first moment when too much sweet got in the way of my enjoyment of a dish. We were on a food focused walking tour of Reykjavik with this guy and were sampling some local cured meats in a small shop when he pulled out this syringe of dandelion syrup. He proceeded to squeeze some syrup on our next bite of meat (I think it was duck) which he claimed would enhance the flavor of the meat. It completely overpowered the duck and left me wanting a drink of some of that Icelandic aquavit. We had several other moments where there was too much sweet on a dish, but this is the one that sticks out in my mind.

The lack of heat in the cuisine did not have the same watershed moment for me, but rather it built overtime. Do you know when you have those out-of-control-throwback-to-college type weekends that involve way too much beer, cheap whiskey, grilled meats and fast food?  When you finally get home, all you want is a salad or a piece of fish with some veggies? Well that was how this lack of heat thing worked. When we got home (after only a week!) all I wanted was some Mexican food. Bring on the chilis! Pour some Tabasco on it! More pepper please! 

After we had satisfied our need for heat, I spent some time thinking about this phenomenon, and really how interesting it all was. When you look at a map, you can begin to understand how both the climate and the relative geographic isolation of the Nordic countries can contribute to this cultural flavor preference. It was also very obvious how homogenous the population of both Iceland (93% Icelandic, over 97% caucasian) and Sweden (doesn't keep ethnicity stats, but it is VERY white) contributed to the lack of spicy food from the influence of immigrants. New England is not as known as other regions in the U.S. for spicy food, but Boston is Mexico City, Bangkok or Casablanca compared to Iceland or Sweden.

This is just a small example of how traveling with a focus on food can lead you to understanding more about a place and a people. Travel also makes you appreciate things about your home, in this case the presence of heat in everyday foods in New England.