In their worst form, food obsessions can carry competitive undertones. I suppose that’s to be expected from an essential function that requires the lowest skill set ever: if you eat, then you, too, can be a “foodie” – a word too reprehensible to say without a sneer. It’s like a fan club that revolves around breathing or sleeping, but with a greater capacity for conscious expression and with more blogs devoted to it.
Whether you’re into cooking, being cooked for, dining in, dining out, cooking shows, celebrity chefs, tattooed and tabooed chefs, inventing a newer and better sous vide machine, or discovering the next “It Cut” of beef to drive lamb “bacon” or fried chicken skin into the dark ages, club members can be relied upon to attempt one-upmanship in all kinds of ways. Some of those pursuits benefit the greater good of humanity more than others.
Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Shelved categorically within this logic are those things that we should know better than to consume, such as hot sauces guaranteed to make you wail for mama and any energy drink that advertises its turbo-fuelling properties as if hyperactivity were a superpower. Horseman’s Haven, a local cafe here in Santa Fe, makes a perfectly acceptable green chilli for commoners and other sane folk, as well as a level two green chilli, to which pure capsaicin is added. Eat it and weep – just don’t come crying to me.
Subtlety is not that elusive an art form. While I may lack a palate that can appreciate a snack of plain yogurt or raw, unsalted almonds, I don’t live in the camp of more-is-more. Things are potent enough in their natural and unadulterated states if you can be bothered to look for them – fresh habaneros, real wasabi, English mustard – and chocolate has a clearer and more pronounced flavour when it’s not pushing nine-tenths of its weight in cocoa.
Nine years ago in San Francisco, I had one of the most obnoxious meals of my life at The Stinking Rose – a garlic-themed nightmare of bulbs and blondes and psychedelia, cherry-red walls and pale cloves suspended lifelessly in oil-like fractals that didn’t quite make it to infinity. I got what I deserved – who eats at a place called The Stinking Rose unless they need a slap in the face?
I was back in the Bay Area last week for the first time since that meal (which I think I’m actually still digesting) and I had a great cup of plain black joe at Blue Bottle Coffee. The Chiapas Triunfo is a Mexican light roast that tastes like jammy, buttered toast and smells toasty and nutty and fruity and sweet, all at the same time, without any suggestion of bitterness. People go gaga over dark roasts, but most good coffee today tastes even more repellent than the politics of the companies that promote it, and are caustic and burnt. Call me a wuss, but I’ll pass on skunky red-eyes and drink lemonade instead.
Taking a good idea to macho extremes for no reason doesn’t make you look like a rock star – it makes you look like a caveman. Of course, for followers of the Paleo Diet, who embrace their morning dose of Bulletproof Coffee – coffee whipped with butter – that may be a compliment.
Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico
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