When it comes to food, some of us stick to familiar staples. Maybe it’s a matter of convenience. The bagel and latte you grab during morning rush hour, or the burger joint you pass by on the way home, might be the only options when pressed for time. Or it might be the taste: you prefer to eat only what you already know tastes good.
Other people, however, tend to be more adventurous with what they eat. They’re the ones who’ll try anything, even the spurious-looking street food when on vacation in a faraway country. And they might not be professional cooks, but they’ll experiment with exotic ingredients or follow international recipes at home.
It might seem like a purely personal preference, with no tangible advantages either way. But research has shown that people who demonstrate food neophilia, or an adventurous eating style, are more likely to be healthy.
And if you’re not naturally inclined towards gastronomic exploration, you can start changing that in small ways.
The zones of adventure
In psychology, the Yerkes-Dodson law states that people perform at their best when they experience a moderate level of pressure or arousal. Get too bored, and you slack off. Take on a challenge too big, and you might succumb to fear or exhaustion.
This was reformulated by Karl Rohnke in a model of zones. We exist, by default, in a small comfort zone. Unfamiliar stimuli or activities can take us beyond this and into a panic zone, where we perceive danger and invoke the fight-or-flight response. The optimal area for growth through new experiences lies in the middle, which is labeled the ‘stretch zone.’
The zone model can help us understand how to explore unfamiliar foods in a way that’s fun, maybe a little uncomfortable at first, but never nauseating. For comfort zone, think comfort food. If you want to try something different, it shouldn’t be a Fear Factor-style dare but an experience that retains some familiar elements.
Health and adventures in food
The Cornell University team, who did the study that linked adventurous eating with health benefits, noted that they couldn’t establish a cause-and-effect relationship. In other words, adventurous eaters may be healthy not because they try different foods but because the two are linked by something else.
A potential mechanism linking those two might be found in human evolution. Our distant ancestors, out of necessity, had to consume a wide variety of foods from the environment through hunting and foraging. This variety ensured that their bodies received adequate amounts of macronutrients to survive and be healthy.
But the typical modern diet trends towards sameness. You might consume different soft drinks and fast food staples, but all are nonetheless variations on the same theme: calorie-dense yet nutrient-poor.
Without quite knowing it, an adventurous eater breaks that mold simply by following their taste buds to better nutrition. Consider The Oregonian’s guide to unusual comfort food in Portland. It will have you skipping the typical fare in favor of Korean soft tofu stew, Indian beef kati rolls, Lebanese mjadras, menudo, and Khao soy. These dishes offer a broader spectrum of nutrients than you’d get if you stick to what’s familiar, accessible, and likely not very healthy.
Exploring regional cuisine at home
Trying out new food can really be as simple as heading to a restaurant you’ve never tried before, one that serves dishes from around the world. Instead of the panic-inducing prospect of eating insects or durian, you’ll be served a delicious, prepared dish, with a menu explaining what’s in it.
Still, when you eat out, you don’t have full control over the nutrition in your food. Restaurants are generally more scrupulous in terms of nutrient content compared to fast food or fast casual. But the only way to ensure you’re healthily exploring food is through home cooking.
Thanks to the internet, you can look up authentic regional recipes from different countries with ease. If you’re not up to something fancy created by a chef, you can find the recipes shared by real home cooks through apps like Cookpad.
And it’s easier than ever to shop online for regional ingredients that make the taste of your dishes truly authentic. You can order Filipino coconut vinegar for chicken inasal, or gochujang for Korean budae jjigae, or garam masala for aloo gobi.
Home cooking has become more popular during the pandemic, and exploring regional cuisines is bound to give you fresh inspiration for your weekly meal planning and prep. But as the world returns to normal, and we get to travel again, don’t overlook the potential for cooking on the go. If your next Airbnb has a full kitchen, don’t hesitate to use it and whip up something based on your new location!