Your average UAE teenager can't exactly be described as being in touch with Mother Nature. The food we eat, as far as we are concerned, appears by magic on supermarket shelves, conjured up no doubt by the food-conjuring elves that visit Spinney's every night. The words "Apple" and "Blackberry", to us, have nothing to do with fruit. The only edible things actually suspended on plants I see on a daily basis are dates. I just don't picture the pears and plum tomatoes and carrots in my fridge growing on trees. Tomatoes and carrots don't grow on trees, but I only became aware of this fact a few days ago.
My grandma in India has devoted a giant slice of her garden to fruit and veggies. She'd just put some tea on to boil and asked if I'd be a darling and fetch her some mint or basil leaves to add to her afternoon cuppa. Not in the kitchen, she clarified, as I began poking about: I'd have to pick some. From outside. "Er," I said, to convey that I hadn't the foggiest as to which plants were the mint and basil. Just break off a bit from that plant in the far-left corner, Gran said, shooing me out.
The patch she had vaguely indicated didn't contain anything like the basil sprinkled on the cream of tomato soup you get in restaurants. It was spiky, and smelt nothing like mint-flavoured Colgate or Wrigley's. The laboratory concoction of esters they use in strawberry ice cream possesses a far superior flavour to the genuine fruit, so perhaps mint was no different.
Grandma was aghast when I presented my pickings to her; it was, she squeaked indignantly, aloe vera. I could rub a bit of it on my angry flare-up of acne if I liked, but would only add it to Gran's precious tea if I wanted to make her very sick and feel her wrath. This was distinctly unfair. Since when did aloe vera make the transition from extract in a Bath and Body Works product to a spiky green plant?
Gran decided that the time had come to cure me of my woeful ignorance and I was marched to the garden at the crack of dawn to pick bitter gourd and aubergines.
The air was fragrant with the lingering scent of queen of the night flowers and I was promised that the satisfaction of seeing my hand-picked produce on my plate would be incomparable. Still, it's not easy to pick okra when the bristles make your hand itch, or venture near the lemon tree when an enormous beetle is glaring belligerently at you from beside the fattest lemon.
Once I got into the swing of things, though, it was fun hacking at the stem of a juicy papaya, at least until the papaya dropped down on my head. The lemon juice seeped into a nick I got cutting the lemons and I wasted a fair bit of time screaming my lungs out, but the resulting mint lemonade was divinely refreshing. Happily, made with real mint, too, which I can now proudly tell apart from aloe vera.