Fun Food Facts and Common Misconceptions

Fun Food Facts and Common Misconceptions

Many pervasive myths and misconceptions surround food and cuisine. Here are a collection of the most fun and intriguing food facts that I have collected over the years, many of which dispel common fallacies, challenge assumptions about the foods we eat, and shed light on what's really on your plate.

Herbs and Spices

  • Paprika is merely dried and ground red bell or other sweet pepper. In Hungary, spicier varieties can be found.
  • Sichuan peppercorns are not spicy, contain no capsaicin, and are not related to black pepper or chili peppers, rather they are in the same family as citrus and possess a tingling citrus-like flavor.
  • Cinnamon is tree bark. It is harvested from the inner bark of several tree species in the Cinnamomum family.
  • Vanilla is derived from the pods of an orchid.
  • Black, white, and green pepper are all produced from the same fruit (peppercorns) of the same plant (Piper nigrum). Black pepper is made from cooking and drying unripe peppercorns, green pepper from drying unripe peppercorns, and white pepper from the seeds of ripe peppercorns. Peppercorns are also technically stone fruit.
  • MSG, or monosodium glutamate, equates to umami in the same way that salt equates to saltiness and sugar equates to sweetness.
  • Hops, used in beer production, are flowers from the Hop plant, a member of the same family as cannabis.
  • Herbs are the fresh or dried leaves of plants, whereas spices are the aromatic parts of the plant: buds, fruits, roots, or bark, that are typically dried.
  • Many herbs—including basil, parsley, cilantro, tarragon, dill, fennel, mint, and chives—lose most of their flavor when dried and only possess their characteristic flavors when fresh.

Pasta

  • Fresh pasta is not a better version of dried pasta; rather, they are different ingredients used differently for different dishes, and are not interchangeable. For texture reasons, there are many Southern Italian dishes that should not be made with fresh pasta (e.g. Carbonara, Amatriciana, Gricia, Vongole, etc.), as there are many Northern Italian dishes that should not be made with dried pasta (e.g. Tagliatelle alla Bolognese, Tajarin/Tagliolini al Tartufo, Trofie/Mandilli al Pesto alla Genovese, etc.).
  • Fresh pasta cannot be cooked al dente. Dried pasta is firm and has a bite to it, whereas fresh pasta is soft and delicate and cannot, by its nature, be cooked al dente as it never possesses the necessary firm white core of ungelatinized starch.

Fruits and Vegetables

  • Red bell peppers are simply fully ripened green bell peppers. As bell peppers mature, their carotenoid content increases, and they change from green to their final color, which can be red, yellow, orange, white, purple, etc., depending on the specific cultivar. Red peppers will transition from green to brown or chocolate before turning red. As bell peppers age, their flavor becomes sweeter and less bitter.
  • Cilantro and fresh coriander are the same thing—cilantro is the Spanish word for coriander.
  • Limes, like lemons, are yellow when ripe. Limes are picked when green and unripe as they bruise less during shipping and last longer than yellow ripe limes; however, limes are considered by many to be tastiest when ripe.
  • Virtually all garlic and onions, aside from spring/green onions and spring/green garlic, purchased in grocery stores are not fresh but are rather cured for up to 6 weeks, allowing the outer skins to become dry and crispy protective layers that extend shelf life. The same is true for potatoes and winter squash.
  • Spring/green onions refer to a category of young onions or other alliums harvested before their bulbs have matured. Unlike their larger onion counterparts, they are not dried. Spring onions can be green, purple, or yellow and have a small bulb at the base. Scallions are a specific type of spring/green onion that have no bulb at the base. In the U.S., the terms 'scallion' and 'green onion' are often used interchangeably.
  • American supermarket tomatoes have been intentionally bred to remove flavor in favor of uniform size, shape, and color. American tomatoes taste very little like the robust flavorful heirloom varieties found in Italy, Spain, or Japan. This is also true of jalapeño peppers.
  • The above is also true of American mangoes, which pale in comparison to those of South Asia, specifically the ubiquitous Tommy Atkins mango, which has been intentionally selected for mass market farming due to its color and durability rather than flavor. (Bonus: The Tommy Atkins mango is a descendent of the 'Haden' mango, the ancestor of most modern American mango cultivars, which itself can be traced back to a single set of seeds brought to the U.S. from India in 1902.)
  • Most mangoes imported into the United States are required to undergo hot water treatment, which involves immersion in hot water for upwards of an hour to eliminate pests, significantly degrading their quality and texture. Imported and prized South Asian mangoes are irradiated instead of bathed.
  • Brussels sprouts today are vastly different than pre-1990’s highly bitter Brussels sprouts. In the 1990’s Dutch scientists bred out the bitter compounds fundamentally improving their taste profile.
  • Artificial banana flavoring (isoamyl acetate) tastes different than bananas consumed today as the flavoring more closely resembles the Gros Michel banana, which has a higher concentration of isoamyl acetate, and which was replaced by the less flavorful Cavendish banana in the 1960s due to Panama Disease—a disease now affecting Cavendish bananas, which also risk extinction.

Seafood

  • American Maine Lobsters come in hard- and soft-shell varieties. Hard-shell lobsters are several months past their last molt and can be kept alive refrigerated. Tastier soft-shell lobsters have recently molted and do not survive more than a few hours out of water.
  • Fresh is not best when it comes to sushi. All high-end Edomae sushi involves some degree of jukusei, or fish aging, which is necessary to soften the texture of a fish and bring out its inherent flavors. If served too soon after being caught, many finfish, especially tuna, will have very little taste, with no umami flavors, as well as an unpleasant, tough, and chewy consistency. Similar to beef, flavors in fish like tuna (maguro), sea bream (tai), fluke (hirame), and yellowtail (buri), develop when aged for a week or more, with some chefs aging tuna for fifteen days or more. (Bonus: In order to properly age fish for sushi, they must first be killed by ikejime, the Japanese technique for humanely dispatching a fish that delays onset of rigor mortis, prevents the buildup of lactic acid, and facilitates the gradual accumulation of inosinic acid, allowing for more complex flavors to develop.)
  • In many parts of the U.S., sashimi and other raw fish often must be frozen before serving. The FDA recommends freezing seafood—except for tuna, farmed salmon and other finfish, fish roe, and shellfish—destined for sushi or raw consumption in order to eliminate parasites. Many local health departments, including New York City's, have mandated this recommendation, requiring restaurants to freeze fish for up to 7 days depending on freezer temperature.
  • Salmon is not traditionally used in sushi.
  • Raw mussels can be shucked and eaten just like oysters and clams, and are in parts of Italy, New Zealand, and elsewhere. When sourced from clean waters, handled properly, and consumed fresh, the risks associated with eating raw mussels are largely comparable to those of raw oysters.
  • Atlantic salmon is virtually synonymous with farmed salmon, as all commercially available Atlantic salmon is farm-raised, regardless of its country of origin. Although wild Atlantic salmon still exist, and were once abundant in the Northeastern coastal rivers of the U.S., they are now considered an endangered species due to habitat destruction and overfishing, and commercial fishing for wild Atlantic salmon is now illegal in most countries.

Meat

Eggs

  • Raw eggs are as safe to consume as any other animal product in many highly developed countries, other than the U.S., including the United Kingdom, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Norway, which all implement rigorous Salmonella control measures that often include hen vaccination against Salmonella. In Japan, raw eggs mixed with rice, or tamago kake gohan (卵かけご飯), is a delicious and widely consumed breakfast dish. Raw egg yolks are also a common topping for yukhoe (육회), a Korean steak tartare, and tsukune (つくね), a Japanese skewered chicken meatball.
  • Eggs are not refrigerated in most parts of the world. In the U.S., commercial eggs are washed to remove any contaminants from the eggshell's surface. However, this also removes the natural protective barrier known as the cuticle or bloom, making the porous eggshell more susceptible to bacterial infiltration, especially by Salmonella. As a result, refrigeration and cooking become necessary to reduce the risk of bacterial growth and infection—rendering raw eggs less safe to consume. In most regions of the world, including Europe, the egg's natural protective cuticle is left intact. As a result, these eggs can be safely stored at room temperature and have a lower risk of Salmonella contamination when consumed raw.
  • Egg yolk roundness is a reliable indicator of an egg's freshness. The egg's vitelline membrane holds the yolk in place. As the egg ages, the yolk absorbs water from the albumen—the egg white—and increases in size. This enlargement weakens the vitelline membrane, causing the yolk to become flatter. Thus, older eggs tend to spread out more when cracked. Additionally, the above-mentioned washing of the egg’s cuticle can hasten this process.
  • Outside of North America, egg yolks tend to have a deeper, richer, orange color. Hens with diets rich in carotenoids, specifically xanthophylls, produce darker yolks, and, if natural, can indicate that the hens have been fed a more diverse and natural diet, which may include fresh greens, vegetables, or free-ranging forage, rather than a solely grain-based feed.

Sauces

  • Light soy sauce is not the same as low sodium soy sauce. In many East and Southeast Asian cuisines, there are two main categories of soy sauce: dark and light. Dark soy sauce is typically much thicker, more complex, and slightly sweeter, whereas light soy sauce is thinner and saltier. Dark soy sauce is used for cooking, while light soy sauce is commonly used as both an ingredient and a dipping sauce. Low-sodium soy sauce in the U.S. is a subtype of light soy sauce with reduced sodium. Japanese soy sauces are most similar to Chinese and other Asian light soy sauces, with the Japanese using the terms dark and light mainly to describe the color of the liquid.
  • Aioli is not flavored mayonnaise. Mayonnaise (a French mother sauce, as described by Escoffier) is made from the emulsion of egg yolks, olive oil, and acid (either vinegar or fresh lemon juice), whereas aioli (a chiefly Spanish sauce) is made from the emulsion of just garlic and olive oil. Older French recipes for mayonnaise also include a small amount of mustard powder.

Cuisines

  • In Italy, garlic is used sparingly, mainly to infuse flavor into olive oil, and is not typically consumed directly. This is in stark contrast to Italian-American cuisine, which can be characterized by its heavy use of garlic, both for cooking and consumption. The same is true for many dried herbs—for example garlic powder, onion powder, and dried basil are not found in Italian Cuisine.
  • Chicken tikka masala (not to be confused with chicken tikka) is a British dish that is not found in Indian cuisines; in much the same way that General Tso’s Chicken and Fettuccine Alfredo are American dishes that are not found in Chinese or Italian cuisines, respectively. (Bonus: Vindaloo is derived from the Portuguese dish carne de vinha d'alhos).
  • The word "curry" does not exist in any Indian or other South Asian language. Derived from the Tamil word "kari," which means a spiced sauce or relish for rice, "curry" was originally used by British colonialists in the 17th century initially to describe various spiced dishes from South India and later to refer to a wide range of sauce-rich dishes throughout British India. Today, "curry" is widely used to describe almost any spiced, sauce-based dish from South Asia, but the word itself remains absent from the Hindi lexicon except as a loanword.
  • Omakase means "I'll leave it up to you," and is not synonymous with sushi. The term is used to describe any chef-driven tasting or progression, be it yakitori, kappo, kaiseki, etc.
  • Breakfast syrups found in most American grocery stores and restaurants—commonly served with pancakes, waffles, and other sweet American breakfast items—are merely maple-flavored high fructose corn syrup, known as table syrup, and not actual maple syrup.
  • Jewish-American rye bread, a staple of Jewish delicatessens, is made using primarily wheat flour and little rye. Whereas rye bread in Scandinavia, such as the Finnish reikäleipä or Danish rugbrød, is made almost entirely from rye flour. These breads bear little resemblance to one another, with Scandinavian rye being much denser and darker.

Miscellaneous

  • Pine nuts, which are seeds, come from within pine cones.
  • All tea comes from the same plant, camellia sinensis, and the process of fermenting the tea leaves results in various types of tea, such as black, green, oolong, and pu-erh.
  • Hibachi refers to a bowl-like vessel in which food can be cooked, whereas a teppan is a flat top grill, and teppanyaki is the method of cooking on the teppan.
  • Miso paste is made by fermenting soybeans (edamame) with salt and a mold known as koji (Aspergillus oryzae). During fermentation, a dark, flavorful liquid forms on top of the miso paste known as tamari—a rich variety of soy sauce (shoyu). Tamari is typically used to make nikiri-shoyu, the subtly sweeter soy sauce used in sushi.
  • American chocolate bars, particularly Hershey's, are often considered inferior by international standards due to their artificial and tangy taste, which results from the lipolysis of milk fats during production that leads to the formation of a byproduct known as butyric acid. This substance, also commonly found in Parmigiano-Reggiano, is known for its odor, which closely resembles that of vomit.
  • Contrary to popular belief, regular olive oil, which is refined, does not have a low smoke point; it has a rather high smoke point of ~465°F (240°C)—higher than peanut, sunflower, vegetable, and canola oils. Extra virgin olive oil, in contrast—which is unrefined and made from pure, cold-pressed olives—has a relatively low smoke point of ~375°F (190°C).
  • Canola oil is a portmanteau of "can" from Canada and "ola" from "oil, low acid," and is merely food-grade rapeseed oil, produced from the bright-yellow flowering rapeseed plant.

Cereals, Grains, and Gluten

  • Cereals refer to grasses cultivated for their edible grains. Grains are the hard, dry seeds harvested from cereals, which can be consumed whole, ground into flour, or refined—and include wheat, oats, barley, rice, maize, rye, millet, and sorghum. Refined grains are grains that have undergone a process where parts—the bran, germ, or endosperm—have been removed; this includes white flour and foods produced from refined grains like white bread and white rice. On the other hand, whole grains are grains that contain all of their parts, retaining more nutrients compared to refined grains. Wheat is the dominant grain in Western diets and is used to make food, including bread and pasta through the production of gluten, whereas rice is the dominant grain in Eastern diets.
  • Gluten is a protein complex found in wheat, barley, and rye that provides elasticity to dough by trapping the carbon dioxide given off during fermentation, allowing the dough to rise.
  • Oats are another type of grain commonly found in porridge and granola, as is barley, which is used in soups and for beer production.
  • Sorghum is a key ingredient in the production of Chinese baijiu, a national spirit distilled from fermented sorghum.

Alcohol and Spirits

  • The flavors in most tequilas available in the U.S. come from additives, including caramel coloring, vanilla extract, glycerin, and sweeteners. These substances often mask the natural agave profile with flavors that resemble popular confections or vanilla frosting, catering to a broader market that favors sweeter spirits.

Have other interesting or little known food myths or misconceptions? Drop them in the comments below!

 

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