The first time I invite someone to dinner, I ask if there are any food aversions I should know about. When a person responds that they eat everything, I often ask if "everything" includes liquorice. The answer is usually: "no".
I love liquorice so much that it's hard to write about, because there isn't any liquorice around to snack on. And that's because I've eaten it all. Instead of Swee-Tarts, the perennial preference of my fellow skeeball-playing peers at the mall arcade, I'd trade in my winning tickets for the fractal fascination of Haribo liquorice wheels or little boxes of Good & Plenty, which are pink-and-white flavoured capsules that look like the runty rejects of liquorice allsorts.
This was the mid-1980s, when public broadcasting in the US ran a lot of ads for awareness campaigns which warned us of the perils of our neighbourhood streets. I took the motto, "Take a bite out of crime", literally one night after a televised montage of unsavoury substances: the pharmaceuticals in the ad had looked suspiciously like my beloved Good & Plenty. I didn't know what drugs were, but I knew that they were bad and that people got hooked. Terror crept in as it hit me: if drugs could look like my favourite candy, might they taste like them too? I lay in bed, terrified that my addiction to liquorice would mean a gruesome fate. But like Roald Dahl, whose childhood love of liquorice was not shaken when he was told that it was made from rat's blood, I was committed for life.
My fondness extends to the entire family of liquorice flavours – and everything that hosts approximations of those flavours: fennel, tarragon, chervil, caraway, aniseed, star anise, and the many types of basil. Although Indian and Pakistani cuisines don't differentiate between aniseed and fennel seed, anise is favoured in the Arab World for use in the kitchen and beyond. The most delicious Emirati dates come from Ras Al Khaimah, and the most irresistible of those are the sticky, molasses-coloured dried khalas dates that are flecked with aniseed.
Americans have a weird relationship with liquorice, despite the fact that Good & Plenty and Crows liquorice gumdrops are true hallmarks of edible Americana. Still, few Americans indulge in the real deal, which is how liquorice candy acquired the redundant classification "black liquorice". Most of us purists just wish red liquorice would retire. (Personally, I wish the haters who are so incensed by white chocolate's perceived charade would redirect their vitriol toward red liquorice instead.)
"I know you don't usually eat much on the plane," said my friend Gretchen as she wielded a mysterious-looking bag from the health food store, "but it's liquorice!" She was dropping me off at the airport in Dallas before my long flight home to Abu Dhabi, but the liquorice didn't even make it to Houston.
In the UAE, Panda Finnish Soft Licorice, though not my favourite (that award goes to RJ's Natural Licorice from New Zealand), has two advantages: one, it's available (the selection at Spinneys is impressive) and two, it melts beautifully into desserts such as liquorice ice cream and liquorice pudding.