Few things can quicken my pulse like a pile of hot, fried potatoes. I love a haystack of parsley-flecked julienned shoestrings – or pommes pailles – drifting warmth and garlic and cooling faster than I can eat them. Or, preferably, a paper cone crammed with hot, fat frites to dunk in tangy Belgian-style mayonnaise. Or, alternatively, give me steak fries – chunky, American-style potato wedges that don’t call for steak so much as evoke it. But my Platonic ideal chip has the silhouette of a cigarillo; a deeply bronzed and russet baton, skin on and salted hard.
After a month travelling through the American South, I’ve enjoyed – and at times, endured – radical volumes of fried food, but I just can’t help myself. It’s a tricky class of dishes that can produce food as delectable as it can be foul. One night in Oxford, Mississippi, dinner was a fine fried chicken that had been brined in sweet tea – breakfast at the place next door was fried chicken brined in Coca-Cola. And so it went: in New Orleans, after a conservative portion of exquisitely fried catfish, with a craggy, fragile cornflake crust reminiscent of tempura giving way to a fluffy white interior, I overestimated my appetite for a cream cracker-crusted chicken fried steak. It was smothered in milk gravy as thick as my blood began to feel. I’ve backed off the hush puppies since then, but I’m reminded of how wonderful fried food can be.
Like most Emirati households, we ate fish every day when I was growing up. Once a week, we had whole fried fish as a treat; usually safi (rabbitfish) or jesh (gold-spotted trevally). It was crunchy and auburn, and the best part was the brittle amber skin that shattered with each bite. In Ras Al Khaimah, we craved our grandmother’s luqaimat – yeasted doughnuts fried to crispy golden goodness and rolled in dark honey.
To fry at home, you’ll need to be able to tolerate messes and make peace with calories: there is no neat or virtuous way to go about it. Homemade chips, especially, tend to be rather lame because they need to be fried at least twice – and most home cooks lack the time, patience, ventilation, oil and disposal system. In his BBC Series In Search of Perfection, Heston Blumenthal says the perfect chip is first boiled and then fried after two lengthy dry-outs and steam sessions in the freezer, a process that can take the better part of a day. All perfectly fried food should be rich but never greasy.
Personally, I like to leave deep-frying to the professionals and keep it shallow at home with green salads topped with rounds of fried goat’s cheese. It’s a dish that can be pulled together in minutes by slicing a log of chèvre into half-inch rounds, dredging each one in beaten egg, then coating with seasoned breadcrumbs or Panko and frying in a light slick of olive oil.
The quality of any fried item is only as good as its contents. If I don’t enjoy Mars bars, I’m not likely to go wild for one that’s been battered and fried. But in my university years, when I deviated from my standard order of a baked ricotta calzone and tried the pizzeria’s signature fried version at the owner’s behest, my mind was blown. Now encased in fried dough, the fresh cheese oozed irresistibly. I was a goner. And judging from my diet lately, I still am.
Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico