x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

I, too, have been guilty of using ridiculous 'foodie' terms

The choice of terms used to describe food makes all the difference.

Soon after the launch of my first food column, a reader wrote to alert me that I had used the word "ambrosial" two weeks in a row. She advised me to more carefully monitor my vocabulary.

Objection sustained. My little sister does a knockout impersonation of me to entertain family and friends, during which she rolls her eyes a lot and describes a dish as "sublime" seven or eight times. Hilarious, yes.

Words are evocative and also provocative - just like everything else that can move us to scream in laughter or in frustration. Even though I'm often the culprit, I have gripes about how words are applied to food. Tracking this association and its resulting discord leads me to my childhood, of course, and the spring my uncle opened a steakhouse outside of Boston. He phoned us in Abu Dhabi with regular updates, and we'd crowd around the phone listening to his extravagant descriptions of the new restaurant's signature menu item, a filet mignon that he promised would be "like butter".

"You'll see for yourselves when you visit this summer," he said. "This steak is so tender you're going to cut it with a butter knife."

We were delirious with anticipation. Really, a butter knife? That steak didn't leave my thoughts for months. This was the 1980s, and filet mignon was big, as were keyboard synthesizers and hair. As June approached, its reputation in our household grew legendary. Finally, the school year ended, and we flew east, toward steak. And on the first night of our summer holiday, we went to eat that steak.

But the filet was nothing like my uncle had said it would be. With a cramp in my wrist, I sawed at my dinner with a serrated knife, swallowing my heartbreak with every leathery mouthful. I was crestfallen. From then on, my juvenile gullibility - at least for steak - was damaged.

The use of hyperbole when describing dishes has annoyed me ever since. If it's the "world's best", then I hope you have seven billion affidavits filed. If it's "to die for", then back it up with a death certificate.

Still, exaggeration rates relatively low on my list of grievances. These days, that list is topped by the terms that make me want to give anyone who uses them a bottle and a nap: "yum", "yummy", "scrummy", "nummers", and worst of all, "nom", an evil piece of internet slang that's short for "om nom" and means exactly what it sounds like - if you're four years old. I'm not sure what it's supposed to sound like to an adult. Other abbreviations and diminutives, such as "veggies", "sammies" (for sandwiches) and "resto" are equally unacceptable.

There are the unnecessarily moralistic terms, such as "sinful" and "wicked" (considering the state of our world, a placid piece of cake seems pretty innocuous); the redundancies, such as "fresh", "perfectly cooked" and "oven-baked"; the awful clichés, such as "falling off the bone", "sealing in the juices", and, my least favourite, "belly up to the bar", which sounds simultaneously jolly and belligerent, like an angry Santa.

There's also the host of invented words: "melty", "moreish", "pukka", and your word of choice with a "licious" tacked on to the end. Words like "molten" and "unctuous" seem more suitable for a workshop than a kitchen, but I'll take them over the crazy-making trend of willy-nilly hyphenation, such as "fork-tender" and "harpoon-caught". I don't need the image of a hunting weapon superimposed on my sashimi supper.

I hate the words "munch" and "nibble", which are to eating what "chortle" and "snigger" are to laughing, in that I'll never be convinced that anyone actually does these things. For similarly aesthetic reasons, I once resolutely refused to enter a restaurant on the premise that it was named "Delectables".

There are the ridiculous attempts to euphemise things that just don't warrant it - such as using "bruléed" to mean "browned under the broiler". Far worse, though, are shameless lies that insult the diner, such as "seasonal" fruit plates that are anything but. And on that note, why should I care if my potatoes were preciously "fork-mashed" rather than put in bulk through a food mill? Just focus on making them good.

Of course, reacting badly to the misuse of a word differs from reacting to its overuse or to a plain dislike of the word and its implications. The North American insistence upon using the word entrée to mean "main course" drives me nuts, as does "au jus" when preceded by a preposition.

"Foodie" is particularly contemptible, and not only because foodies are the 12-step recovery programme term for compulsive overeaters. "Gourmet" is repellent, too; in addition to sounding like the phoniest thing ever, I've never heard the word used in earnest by anyone who actually enjoys food.

What freaks me out more than anything, though, is bawdy talk about food. These associations are implicit to anyone who eats and thinks - and they are almost impossible to convey without sounding like a complete moron. If it's needless to say, don't say it.

And yes, I have committed many of the above. Bless me, reader, for I have sinned – and I did it all by myself. I didn't even need the wicked piece of cake to tempt me.


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