x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

1,001 Arabian bites: The fine line between eating your freebie and buying it too

It’s the traditional Arabic sweets shops' wares that I tend to favour – dated storefronts with modest interiors, concealed from street view and found on the ground floors of old residential buildings.

In most of Abu Dhabi’s European-style patisseries, the charm lies in the location. It’s not hard for me to order a pastry and a coffee to enjoy on the premises, then breeze past the display case on my way out, leaving empty-handed. Instead, it’s the traditional Arabic sweets shops whose wares I tend to favour when I’m in the Emirates. (When in Rome, avoid the shawarma.)

Typically, my places are dated storefronts with modest interiors, concealed from street view and found on the ground floors of old residential buildings. Parking scenarios that induce a sense of panic are also promising indications of good things to come.

Set up to accommodate primarily custom and takeout orders, these places are sometimes furnished with a few simple tables and chairs. If you haven’t experienced the magic of watching a man wield something that looks like a spackling knife and attack trays of buttery basma, burma, birds nests and the endless coils that get sliced into plump columns known as fingers, you’re missing out on a treat, in more than one way.

Your ace finger slinger will weigh the slabs of baklava on large scales with such objective indifference that you’ll think you’re watching the personification of moral justice itself.

And he will take a small handful of pastries with his gloved hand, drop them on a slip of wax paper, and slide them across the counter to you while you wait. With that gesture, he might say, “Tafadali: diyafah.” While “diyafah” means hospitality, the phrase basically translates to “Help yourself: these are on us.”

Obviously, this isn’t something that happens only in baklava dives in Abu Dhabi. But those are the places where I remember first noticing that it was standard protocol, not special treatment. I’ve always understood the gesture to be a reward for patronage and patience. And while you’ll see it in the local malls, too – just go into any Patchi chocolatier or that biscuit shop La Cure Gourmande in Al Wahda Mall – there’s something about the human connection across a partition that’s always made it impossible for me to reject the offering, even if I don’t really want to eat it.

Part of my generalised aversion to accepting free samples handed out in grocery stores is context: I’m just not a big fan of eating around people who aren’t, or can’t. Another issue is that I don’t think I have any business consuming samples of a product I’m not remotely interested in buying, such as raw coconut energy bars and chia seed smoothie mixes. But when I’m at the deli counter, I’m not afraid to ask for a taste of this meat and that one, as long as there isn’t a line behind me.

I consider it my right as an adult to cash in on all the ice cream samples I was too shy to ask for as a kid because I thought it looked ridiculous to stand with a dozen plastic spoons in hand, shuffling your feet in indecision. I had a lot of respect for people who seemed to know what they wanted, like my mother (vanilla) and my father (mocha almond fudge, or the closest thing to it). I felt it was important to appear certain even when in doubt – and I ate a lot of punishing sherbet in those days, long after I should have grown out of it.

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