x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

1,001 Arabian Bites: best to keep standards high and expectations low

By nature, we are designed to seek out novelty, our brains are stimulated by it.

In spite of a wonderful childhood, there isn’t much I miss about being a kid. Back when I was certain that grown-ups got dizzy from being so high off the ground, I got stoked for frozen treats – specifically for ice cream novelties – and eventually, I got sick of them.

Twenty-five years later, I wince at the warped melody of the dismal grey ice cream van, about as inviting as an ambulance siren. The pitch drops on the sound waves as it weaves through the neighbourhood. Word on the street is that the pied piper of Blue Bunny brand ice cream novelties is legit and that he also sells good paletas, which are Latin American ice pops, often containing fruit.

We are designed to seek out novelty. Our brains are stimulated by it, releasing dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with the enjoyment of food and music, as well as other cravings, addictions and desires. Last week, while walking around Denver’s Cherry Creek neighbourhood, I spotted a storefront for Penzeys Spices and felt giddy and restless and manic, like a child who’s had too much ice cream. I’ve ordered spices from Penzeys' wonderful online store for years, but had not yet had the pleasure of browsing its palpable inventory.

More than 250 spices and seasonings are available to sniff in sampler jars. I scrapped my short mental shopping list and let myself go wild, ending up with five kinds of cinnamon and a half dozen spices I had never tasted, such as Scandinavian white cardamom in its ivory pods. I bought star anise that smelled like Play-Doh and Dutch blue poppy seeds shaped like kidney beans in the colour of dried violets. The secret to keeping my relationship with novelty as uncomplicated as possible lies in high standards and low expectations: a universal rule that I also apply to shopping and friendships.

I’ve also learnt that while arrogance can kill enthusiasm, novelty can resuscitate it.

Illusion – or the illusion of novelty – is the only consistent element in the 20-something-course tasting menu at José Andrés’s Saam in Los Angeles, but novelty isn’t enough to keep the palate engaged. Magic tricks involving dry ice or sodium alginate won’t keep me up at night, although I have lost many a night’s sleep worrying about originality in the realm of creativity. How important is it to be the first to do something, or to simply do it in a new way? Pleasure has multiple dimensions, and novelty is only one of them. Sometimes it’s only a cursory one.

When I’m on the road and peckish, I prefer a bag of good plain Kettle chips to just about any easily available fast food. Having been suckered into new seasonal flavours too many times, I’m no longer the customer Lay’s has in mind when it launches campaigns such as the recent Lay’s Arabia “Flavour Me” contest, which invited fans to concoct and ultimately nominate a new potato chip flavour to be produced and launched later this year. The winning entry, pizza, leaves me cold (which, of course, is the best way to eat bad pizza).

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