Eating outside my comfort zone: How spicing up my palate spiced up my life


Vassili Prokopenko

As people cultivate a passion for the adventure of life, this includes adventuring into new cuisines.

By Lucia Gutierrez

“My favorite food is spicy cow tongue.” 

My second-grade lunch table momentarily froze before bursting into a chorus of laughs, and “ew’s.” I knew that my spicy beef tongue leftovers stood out from my classmates’ buttered noodles, but it was a comfort dish I grew up eating in a Bolivian household. 

Like the average American household, I enjoy pizza with my family on Friday nights and weeknight dinners of roasted chicken with rice. While there’s nothing wrong with these “normal” meals, I’ve developed over time a not-so-“normal” adrenaline rush for trying new foods. Growing up, I watched the television series “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.” As a food journalist, Bourdain dove deep into different culture’s cuisine, snacking on bugs with Namibian tribes and dining on live octopus in South Korea. As an eight-year-old, I quickly became mesmerized. At restaurants, my eyes slowly wandered past the kid’s chicken tenders and onto new parts of the menu. Trying new spices, meats, vegetables and sauces began to open my mind to an enhanced palette and inspired me to explore new possibilities. 

A year later at age nine, I stood 100 feet in the air, on the brink of jumping and ziplining across a dense rainforest before a mental block left me frozen. My historical fear of heights muddled my mind with thoughts of cables snapping and me falling to my death — but the feeling I was experiencing was all too familiar. Nerves overcame my body, making my heart race and legs tremble. I had no choice but to jump with discomfort and uncertainty. 

While visiting my family in Bolivia when I was eleven, my uncle challenged me to eat an eye directly from the goat’s head dish he had ordered in front of my relatives. With a split-second to respond — and a feeling of disgust at the notion of eating an eye — I hesitated. To add to my growing embarrassment, everyone at the table held encouraging smiles. With nothing to lose, I motivated myself by the thought of that moment being the only opportunity I’d ever have to try a goat’s eye. I leaned in, took a bite, chewed a bit and smiled upon swallowing one of the most delicious mouthfuls I’d ever eaten.

I sampled my first bites of alligator meat and frog legs the following year in New Orleans. Shortly after, I ate through a lollipop with a sweet Arizona scorpion trapped in the middle. 

Around half of American children are picky eaters by the age of two. The technical term for this is “food neophobia,” the fear of trying unknown, novel foods. Neophilia, on the other hand, refers to having a love and enthusiasm for trying new things. Scientists have found that neophilia is positively correlated with happiness. As people cultivate a passion for the adventure of life, this includes adventuring into new cuisines. I learned to approach the uncomfortable aspects of new life experiences not as a picky eater, but rather with an open and curious mind. If I had stuck to my close-minded ways and hadn’t tried the goat’s eye or alligator meat, I would’ve found more comfort in saying “no” to ziplining, but instead I ventured outside my comfort zone. 

On a recent monthly run to a Latin market in Rockville, I spotted yet another food I hadn’t tried: jarred pig feet — so I added it to my cart, feeling excited to try it. The pig feet proved too vinegary for my taste, but it was yet another new food I could cross off my mental bucket list. 

Contrary to popular belief, you aren’t defined by what you eat, but rather by what you are willing to eat. While there is still a short list of foods I don’t enjoy, like cooked beets and fondue, eating new and unique foods from a young age has shaped me into a flexible eater and helped me discover my adventurous side. 

This summer I plan on conquering the steep climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Nine-year-old me standing 100 feet in the air wouldn’t have believed that I would’ve been open-minded to such an expedition. 

Food should be just that, too: an expedition. Not every step will be a comfortable one, but the perspective you gain is invaluable.