Strange food combinations you'd never guess are delicious

It is interesting how different food combinations which seem obvious to some are heretical to others, and how many arguments can occur over whether putting two different foods together is weird or genius. From my own experience, I know that desperation can lead to impromptu combinations of whatever is available, some of which fail terribly, but others that work. As preferred food combinations vary across on an individual and cultural basis, it's best to keep an open mind. To that end, this article is dedicated to my willingness to try strange food combinations to see what the fuss is about. These are all combinations which I had never tried before, and which seemed sufficiently strange (at least to me).

Peanut butter and pickle sandwich

According to a 2012 New York Times article, the peanut butter and pickle sandwich is a lesser-known American classic that emerged during the Great Depression. Despite a low-simmering cult popularity over the years, for many it is an unthinkable combination and the gut reaction is an unqualified disgust. And yet, when the NYT and later The Huffington Post actually had people try the sandwich, the overall reception was good. Considering I am a big fan of peanut butter, I knew I had to try it.

I combined some baby dill pickles with smooth peanut butter on white bread. The first two bites were confusing, but once my olfactory senses got over their discombobulation, I realized I liked it. The crisp, sour pickles balanced with the sweet cloy of the peanut butter. Usually I need a beverage with a peanut butter sandwich, but not so with a PB&P.

I then upped the ante slightly. Like the King, my favorite sandwich is peanut butter and banana, so I added pickles to that as well. I was more fearful this time, but again it all came together in a tasty crescendo. The only thing that was slightly weird was the mushy texture of the banana right up close and personal with the piquant crispy pickles. Even then, not a deal-breaker, as the peanut butter formed a bridge between the flavors that worked.

Hot sauce on ice cream

This is apparently a thing. The idea is to get your favorite hot sauce and dribble it on your favorite ice cream for a whole new taste experience. To me, it wasn't so crazy. Milk or ice cream are already a great cure for overly spicy food, so why not cut out the middle man?

I intended to use a pretty standard kind of hot sauce, like Tabasco, Sriracha or Cholula. But all I had was my personal favorite, Sambel Asli, and I was a bit wary because it's saltier than others. On vanilla ice cream, it wasn't bad! Taking bites with a dollop of hot sauce directly on top confused my tongue a little, but mixed together the milkiness of the ice cream cut nicely through the heat, and since the salty and sweet flavors were both relatively mild they played well together. The only off-putting part was the garlic, which made me feel like I was eating some bizarre dip.

I realized I was going to have to give it another try so I went out and bought some Cholula Chipotle. The results were much better, the heat livened things up while the creaminess dialed it down again, the tartness went well with the refreshing vanilla, and there was no garlic to confuse matters.

All in all, I was convinced. I would have liked to experiment with other ice cream types, such as chocolate, but I'll get in trouble if I buy any more while there's still a mostly full tub of vanilla in the freezer.

Oatmeal with soy sauce

Here we have a combination which sounded weird for about five seconds before I thought about it further and was baffled I had never tried it before. Oatmeal has a pretty neutral flavor as it stands, and the concept of a savory oatmeal is a lot less strange to anyone who has ever had congee. Chef Mark Bittman first pushed oatmeal with soy sauce and scallions as a lunch option on NPR back by 2009, and the Huffington Post gave a number of plausible suggestions, from a minimalist avocado and kale oatmeal to a highly intriguing turkey huevos rancheros oatmeal.

This experiment turned out real good, and real simple to make. For the first attempt, I just cooked oatmeal with a pinch of salt, stirred in four tablespoons of soy sauce, and added a fried egg and chopped jalapenos on top. The flavor worked so well that I was sitting there amazed I hadn't tried it before, and the fried eggs had a pleasant crunch contrasting well with the texture of the oatmeal. This worked out so well I was already thinking of tasty variations on the basic concept to try. Several days later, I tried it again with hot sauce and tuna, and once again I was highly pleased with the results.

Salt in coffee

We usually add milk and sugar to coffee to reduce the bitterness, but not everyone takes that route. One possible alternative way to cut down on bitterness is to add salt, which some believe can turn a nasty cup of coffee into a nice one.

My experiment was conducted with Brazilian Cerrado Medium Roast ground coffee. I began badly with salt — four scoops of coffee grounds to half a scoop of salt was not the right ratio. I got through one mouthful of what tasted like a steaming hot cup of the sea. Now, realizing the fault was in my terribly projected ratio, I gave salt another try with just two pinches in the second batch. It tasted...like coffee. There was a slight reduction in bitterness and just a mild salt tone, and realized I had messed up again. My baseline coffee was too nice! I needed some vile swill so the salt would actually serve a purpose. I sourced the cheapest instant coffee I could find, and my control cup was pretty bad. A second cup with a pinch of salt – still bad, but less so. So there is some method to the madness.

Fried chicken and chocolate

The concept of chocolate fried chicken attracted pushback as soon it became somewhat popularized with the opening of the Chocochicken restaurant in Los Angeles, which sells chicken fried in a chocolate batter with sides like chocolate ketchup and white chocolate mashed potatoes. LA Weekly published a snide review which amounted to "not as disgusting as it sounds but still pretty bad", while The Independent posted a judgmental piece characterizing it as the product of a decadent culture in decline. On the other hand, Pop Sugar's test kitchen whipped up a version which they attested to being lip-smackingly good. Conceptually it's really not that far from classic Oaxacan mole chicken, so it's not that crazy.

I have to admit I was a bit lazy with this trial. I just melted dark chocolate on the stove and dipped a piece of fried chicken into it. Trying to keep things simple. It was not good, the greasiness and the bitterness clashed in a really bad way. I also tried it with chocolate and hot sauce. Also not good. I wasn't too upset, as I still had fried chicken, but I was put off any further experimentation. I admit the problem was with my methodology, and if I really wanted to figure out if chocolate fried chicken worked I should have probably followed an actual recipe. In the end I was too put off to try, but your mileage may vary. Do it for science!

Lemon on pizza

The thinking behind this combination is pretty sound. Good tomato sauce needs a piquancy which can be achieved through balsamic vinegar, cooking alcohol, or pure fruit juice, so the flavor profile is already pretty self-evident. Cheese and lemon go together often, in spaghetti, tarts or frosting, and no one seems scandalized. So I wasn't terribly concerned about this experiment, because how much can you truly mess up pizza?

I tried this first with lemon juice, on a slice of mushroom pizza and then on a slice of spinach and feta pizza. For each, I ate a piece of the same pizza unadulterated first in order to get a baseline. In both cases, the lemon juice did add something interesting. It was not intrusive and didn't dominate, but it did raise the acidity in a pleasant way. Second attempt was cooking a Gorgonzola pizza with lemon slices on top. One bite of this convinced me I really did not want the whole slices on the pizza, but after peeling them off the flavor they left behind was just as good as before. Lemon juice on pizza isn't a true game-changer, but the logic behind it is pretty sound. I got the impression it would be particularly good on a non-optimal pizza, one where the sauce was too sweet or bland, or one with too much cheese.

Watermelon with feta

I have to be honest here, this proposed combination threw me for a loop when I first stumbled across it. Upon asking around, I realized this was an established thing. Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, and Tori Avey all have their own variations on the concept, incorporating other ingredients like mint, olives, and onions. Combining crispy fresh watermelon with pungent feta cheese is said to be a Greek summer favorite, so if a whole country and a slew of famous chefs attest to the dish, who am I to doubt it?

I kept things simple, combining watermelon and feta with a dressing made from lime juice, sesame oil, pepper and salt. The results were amazing. From the first bite I was impressed by how well the flavors went together. Since I was skeptical going in I had imagined it would take a few bites to get it, but from the first sample it made complete sense. I ate this in winter, so it wasn't as refreshing as it would have been, but I could easily see myself making it again in the summer. In fact, I've still got watermelon and feta in the fridge, so I'll probably try it again this week.

Don't knock it 'til you try it

For almost all of these combinations, I either found something I liked, or at least something that made sense. It's all too easy to knock combinations of food and declare them "just wrong" but everyone has a different opinion on the matter. For myself, I'm going to at least try combinations people recommend before dismissing them out of hand, and you should, too.