x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Food obsession can be a beautiful thing in moderation

"How do you get your friends to partake in your obsessions?" asks my friend Amy. The answer is I like to feed them, so they get stuck eating what I eat.

I adore Joni Mitchell. She might even be my favourite performer of all time. But I don't listen to her so often anymore, and that's because I can't. Something happened one day, midway through the album Miles of Aisles. Call it saturation point, supercritical mass, or maybe an overdose of A Case of You, but I was over it, or, at least, I was over the part where Mitchell's golden voice provided the soundtrack to my every waking and sleeping move. As we all know: Obsession in the Calvin Klein sense is hot; obsession in the Glenn Close sense is not.

Not very long ago, there was an Adele song - and I'm not going to say which one, but let's just say that you've probably heard it - that I needed to hear on endless loop. Deep into this infatuation, after I had the song playing repeatedly on my home stereo for about 18 hours, a friend stopped by. She had to bang on the door to combat the volume of Adele's soulful trilling. When I let her in, she mouthed something; I turned down the music so I could hear. "I hope your neighbours like Adele as much as you do." Well, I hoped so, too.

When I was a grown-up with a desk job, I brought packed lunches to the office or ordered in from a place on Salam Street called Breakfast to Breakfast, then routinely posted photos of these lunches in online food forums. I don't do that anymore, now that I have the perceived advantage of working from home, where I can be as weird as I please. My lunches generally consist of the same thing, day in and day out, until that thing gets replaced with a new thing. And so it goes.

I've featured some of those obsessions in my column: wedge salads, sardines, Chicago-style hot dogs, pickles, grilled cheese sandwiches. Sometimes they become obsessions after I've written about them. Other times, I end up writing about them because there's nothing else I am capable of writing about. My obsessions are part of my eating life, and I write about my eating life.

The end of my Adele story is: no sooner than 72 hours after the tune had brought me to my knees, it brought a gag to my throat. I'd had my fill - because this is what I do. I get obsessed, and then I move on. This happens most remarkably with food, and less notably with people, thank goodness. My attention span in that department seems to have settled down over the years, and I'm blessed with friends who tolerate my vicissitudes in other areas. Short attention spans and distractibility are meant for gnats and magpies, we're told, and not for human beings.

"What I'm wondering is, how do you get your friends to partake in your obsessions?" asks my friend Amy. The answer is that I like to feed them, so they often get stuck eating what I eat. Amy's the one who showed up when Adele and I were at fever pitch. She's eating a pickle, but only because there's actually nothing else to eat in my fridge, which, this week, happens to contain about 40 kinds of pickle. Poor Amy will break into a cold sweat now at the mention of grilled cheese sandwiches, after tasting about 20 of them with me last autumn in the name of what I called "nostalgic research". It was a lame attempt to disguise my obsession of the moment, but nobody was fooled.

While some of the battle scars from these broiling affairs have healed (avocados, Joni), with others (Sriracha, Adele), the damage runs deep. I write to friends and ask them whether they've hurt themselves in a similar fashion, or if I'm all alone. "We used to melt down our cheap Easter chocolate and dip bananas in the big pot until we couldn't breathe. I guess you could call it 'juvenile fondue'," admits my friend Grace. "Now, the only time I can see myself breaking down and eating bad chocolate again is if I end up as a plane crash survivor in the Andes."

Food start-ups that focus on one product to the exclusion of almost all others are nothing new - just take a look at Dunkin' Donuts, Subway and Starbucks. But businesses that have taken this concept and elevated it to a boutique format - or more intensely, a lifestyle - are a more recent trend. Santa Fe's Whoo's Donuts serves doughnuts like their signature pistachio cake with white chocolate lemon ganache (very good), and restaurants such as New York's awesome Peanut Butter & Co Sandwich Shop offers a menu of almost two dozen different peanut butter sandwiches, such as The Heat Is On (spicy peanut butter, grilled chicken and pineapple jam). It's described as tasting "like a Thai satay - only better", but that really doesn't do it justice. I'm glad I don't live in New York because if I did, I'd eat the sandwich every day until I never wanted to look at it again. And that would mean that I wouldn't have the pleasure of obsessing over it right now.

What does it take for a restaurateur to succeed while serving exclusively rice pudding (Rice to Riches, also in New York) or almost exclusively macaroni and cheese (Homeroom in Oakland, California)? I'm going to guess that obsession is a common theme here, if only because it makes me feel a little better about mine. For one thing, it means there are people out there who are way more committed to their obsessions; mine usually last only a few days, which could indicate some commitment issues, too. But who's counting issues? The way I see it, a restaurant that specialises on one thing also represents a focus on doing one thing well, which happens all too rarely in the restaurant world. And if it happens to be a restaurant that serves the one thing I want to be eating, well, even better.

Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico


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