Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 October 2019

How to maintain your diet and social life in equal portions

Being on a diet is hard enough without the social pressure found in Arab dining culture

Food is not just a matter of digestion in Arab culture; it is intertwined with friendship, hospitality and honour Getty
Food is not just a matter of digestion in Arab culture; it is intertwined with friendship, hospitality and honour Getty

There is a game I used to play in high school called “What Would You Do?” The premise is simple: you confront your friend with an outrageous imaginary predicament and see how they would react. For instance, I once asked the gang if they would go up against the former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson in a boxing match for a full 60 seconds for a million dollars.

There was always one person who would say “yes” immediately, while another would bargain for a higher price and the third – usually the reserved one – would calculate the risks (in this instance the price of healthcare for the inevitable pummelling).

The joy of the game is that none of the situations will ever eventuate, of course. But as I get older, the chances of being in an increasingly high-stakes situation increase.

I discovered this last month. There I was, in the uzba (desert home) of an Emirati family on the outskirts of Al Ain. The plan was to spend a cool evening chilling in the majlis, chatting and watching the football. I never expected that I could jeopardise that friendship over a plate of rice.

But I shouldn’t have been surprised. I have been living in Abu Dhabi long enough to realise that food is not just a matter of digestion. In Arab culture, a good plate of grub is intertwined with friendship, hospitality and honour. This means, going on a diet becomes a matter that needs a real risk assessment, as life becomes full of dicey “what would you do?” moments.

Back in the uzba, I made the amateur mistake of refusing an extra portion of rice. His eyes widened and moustache bristled. “Don’t be stupid!” he roared. “You shall eat. What are you, sick?”

It is a similar query I have received in numerous Arab households over the three months of my new diet regimen. Where fasting is accepted on spiritual grounds (and the convenient fact that it is done together), going on a diet, willingly, is viewed as unnecessary punishment and an inconvenience for the host.

“Yallah, you can diet tomorrow,” said my Emirati friend, putting an end to my silly jabbering of “keto” and “carbs”, as he loaded my plate.

This would be the last time I would fall off the wagon, I promised myself then, and I began actively finding ways to navigate this fine line between offal and offence.

Fortunately, I sought the advice of a group of Arab mates, who seamlessly maintain social traditions with good health. This is their advice, summarised in four useful points:

Fight fire with fire: this applies to a male-dominated meal session. When the host, scandalised by your refusal of an extra serving of mansef, raises his voice in an accusatory tone, you reply back with equal intensity. To “Yallah eat, what’s wrong with you?”, reply: “What’s wrong with you? Khalas bro, I am done!” Like two lions, both of you will nod in acknowledgement and hostilities will cease.

Eat slow: this looks simple enough, but there is a subtle art to it. This method, to be applied in a group eating session, is all about illusion. The fact is, the host doesn’t really care about you satiating your appetite. Their joy lies in watching you eat. You can fulfil these wishes by eating in small but frequent portions.

Eat fast: also an option, according to my Kuwaiti colleague, Naser. In a Khaleeji majlis setting, where males share a large tray of mandi, it’s all about getting in and getting out. This means eating three and four handfuls and – before anyone gets a chance to complain – go to the bathroom, wash your hands and hang out in another room to make a convenient phone call.

Eat French: this one hints at a quirky part of Arab dining culture whereby the “salad border” is respected. Let me explain. During a family meal, where the food is served by the host, make sure you pile on the green stuff and leave a small portion for anything else. When handing over your plate, the host – almost, subconsciously – will avoid placing rice or curries over the salad and will stick to the meagre strip of plate available.

I have been using this advice frequently with some good results. May it help my fellow dieters avoid any future “what would you do?” predicaments.

Oh, and by the way, for the record, for a million bucks, I would totally take a swing at Tyson.

Updated: February 21, 2019 07:30 PM

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