Here's a hypothesis I've had for a while: Beyond a certain age, your brain punishes excessive novelty in food. Sure, small extrapolations of things you already like are fine: fried chicken is chicken + crispy and so it's universally loved, even by those trying it for the first time. But novel tastes and textures are initially rejected by your brain.

If you try these foods a few times though, your brain begins to accept them. You begin to enjoy the tingly flavour of a Sichuan peppercorn, the sharpness of English mustard, the sweetness in a Moroccan tagine.

I suspect it just takes a while for your brain to process the flavour and texture profiles of novel foods.

I've got a list of such things I've acquired a taste for over the last few years:

  • Tagines
  • Bell peppers
  • Blue cheese
  • The 'fishier' kinds of fish: Sardines, mackerel. Still can't stand anchovies though.
Moroccan tagine. Photo credit: Khammal92 / CC BY-SA 4.0

So my suggestion to people trying unfamiliar foods from other cultures is to give it more than one try. Three attempts is usually good enough, and I find some time left in between (maybe a week or more) allows the brain to process the new flavour and texture and decide whether it enjoys it or not.

If you aren't used to sweetness in anything but desserts, you might find the sweetness of a tagine unappetising at first, especially if you're comparing it to a typical Indian curry. The second time you try it you find there's something novel about it. After the third time, one day you find yourself pining for a good lamb tagine. You've learned to enjoy the flavour and texture profile of the tagine: the sultanas and raisins, the sweetness of the slow cooked onions, the mild warmth of the cinnamon, the taste of the preserved lemons.

A similar mechanism works for music. A novel genre of music is compared to existing genres the listener is familiar with and initially rejected. It takes a few tries for the brain to decompose the structure of the music and understand what to look for. If you don't understand the pattern, it just sounds like noise. When you begin to grasp the pattern, you start to enjoy the music.

To some extent the opposite also seems to be true. If there is no novelty left in the food or the music, the brain again loses interest. If you eat a tub of ice cream, the last few spoonfuls don't give you much joy. If you've heard a song a hundred times you don't get any joy from listening to it any more.

So maybe there's a sweet spot for novelty in food, music, and other things. Too much novelty, and your brain doesn't recognise any patterns to latch on to; it doesn't have a framework for making sense of the novel experience. Too little novelty, and it is bored.