Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 January 2020

1,001 Arabian bites: The cherry is as meaningful as the cake

Arabs are masters of food garnish, as we take matters of ornament seriously, and are known for being somewhat unrestrained in certain matters of aesthetics.

If it’s about the journey and not the destination, then my first experience travelling alone as a minor was a chance for nutritional revolt that wasn’t wasted. In transit and delayed, I was stashed in an airline lounge, where the spread was irresistible. Ignoring the cereal and fruit, I hit the wet bar to load up on gherkins, pimento-stuffed olives and marinated onions – all intended as cocktail garnishes – and then savoured them one at a time on the end of a toothpick. When I got up for refill number three, draining the tray, a man in a suit scowled and outed my peculiar hoarding to an attendant, who shrugged, as if to say, “She’s not mine. I don’t care if she eats her weight in sodium at 2am.”

It may not seem like real food to the rest of the world, but I’m always happy to make a meal – and not an ­insubstantial one – out of garnishes: anchovies, ­capers (both tiny nonpareils and plump caperberries), ­Hungarian goathorn peppers, Peruvian Sweety Drop peppers and anything else spicy and submerged in oil.

Long before kale was trendy, I knew it as the ­rubbery green bedskirt peeking out from beneath our fried seafood platters. Used for traction, we tossed it out with our empties. Curly parsley and a twist of tired lemon are no longer standard garnishing protocol, but Santa Fe’s finest restaurant still finishes every dish with a smattering of chives, and I don’t think any other purpose for curly parsley has been realised.

At a dinner in rural France eight years ago, Cape gooseberries accompanied every course – from steak tartare through pot de crème. The French call them “love in a cage”, but they resemble golden cherry tomatoes in a papery husk and look like something that’s fallen off a Thanksgiving wreath. Now, garnishes tend to appear more deliberate, and they can be eliminated with resolute elegance, or presented in shamelessly elaborate ways that bring to mind Escoffier at the Ritz in Paris a hundred years ago, but with better gadgetry.

Arabs are masters of garnish, as we take matters of ornament seriously, and are known for being somewhat unrestrained in certain matters of aesthetics. Tabbouli is frescoed with tomato rosettes and a starburst of romaine spears (to be used for scooping, but the visual effect is dramatic nonetheless). Monochromatically humdrum mezze such as hummus and labneh get bedazzled with trails of sumac and olive oil, nigella and pomegranate seeds, pickles and pine nuts. Pastries in the Arab world might be adorned with clotted cream, candied rose petals, buttery toasted almonds, walnuts or coconut, but they are rarely seen without a dusting of pistachios ground to a fine chartreuse powder.

Here in New Mexico, I often order a bowl of red chile with a side of “garnish”, which gets me a mound of the cool shredded iceberg lettuce and diced tomatoes reserved for crowning enchiladas. It’s important for garnishes to be both edible and logistically sound. You can hide gaffes under a garnish, or you can create new gaffes with them, as I did on Saturday night, when plating ricotta dumplings with shards of crispy smoked shiitakes that wouldn’t stay put, and slid off dourly. Naturally, I set them aside and enjoyed them on their own.

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

Updated: July 2, 2014 04:00 AM