x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

1,001 Arabian Bites: Our low tolerance for less than perfect food

Given all the choices we have, it’s amazing we can commit to anything — although oxytocin, the hormone also known as the "Love Molecule”, can be credited for that.

In The Day Sky, one of my favourite poems, Hafiz refers to a secret but sacred love. “Let us be like/Two falling stars in the day sky/Let no one know of our sublime beauty…” You don’t have to be a lovesick Sufi mystic to know the private mystery of longing, or to imagine moving dynamically but still obscured, or to appreciate the irony of being eclipsed by the light of the sun.

I have my favourite poems and you have yours. Each of us carries a set of personal ideals, whether it’s for our preferred brand of denim, or the perfect chicken soup for curing our ills. It’s good to know what you want out of life, but a vision board isn’t going to cook you dinner. This is about being specific and knowing thyself – because there are some areas in food and in life that demand a strong opinion. Like Goldilocks in search of the perfect-temperature porridge, our tolerance tends to be low for anything that isn’t just right.

Given all the choices we have, it’s amazing we can commit to anything – although oxytocin, the hormone also known as the “Love Molecule”, can be credited for that. Responsible for feel-good instincts such as trust and bonding, it’s also what makes it possible for a mother to gaze at her newborn with tenderness in an instantaneous transition of focus after 36 hours of brutal labour. Oxytocin also increases our pain threshold, makes us feel connected to our friends and might inspire the desire for monogamy.

In October, a German study concluded that when oxytocin was administered to healthy men, it curbed their “reward-related energy intake” – meaning their interest in chocolate cookies – by 25 per cent. Hunger for regular meals wasn’t affected; it was only the tendency to snack. However, considering that it can turn people into the emotionally sophisticated equivalent of a Labrador retriever, it’s logical to assume that oxytocin is also responsible for a fair percentage of human regrets.

For some of us, it’s enough to find something that works and just keep doing it over and over again. While I feel that way about Toyotas, MacBooks and Pears soap, my inner world of food is spared such indifference. Given how much there is to try, I’d have to really love a recipe to revisit it.

We’ve all been fed something or other after being assured that our minds would be thoroughly blown by it, only to be left wondering what all the fuss is about. “You’re right, this is great,” I’ve lied, while questioning the objectivity of the person serving me the dish. Family recipes are particularly susceptible to let-downs of this sort. Kitchen wisdom is largely about learning from our mistakes and I’ve served my share of mistakes to others. By watching their reactions and taking a genuine interest in their input, I get more out of a meal and I like to think they do, too. I don’t like being told I’m about to eat something I’m going to love, because it sets me up to play devil’s advocate.

It’s faith, and not logic, that makes a believer. And I suppose a little oxytocin probably helps.

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