x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

1,001 Arabian Bites: the land where bitter is sweet

In the Arab world, bitterness is alive and well. Many of us developed a taste for sautéed chicory and dandelion at a young age.

Of all the acquired tastes in my personal collection, lemon rinds are my hardest sell. What came first: the chewing or the craving? I don't know, but anyone with a natural preference for downing juiced lemon slices over discarding them knows the bewitching appeal of that bracing, bitter perfume. It isn't in the juice, but in the skin, and though to most palates it probably tastes about as clean, efficient and compelling as a cleaning solvent, to me, it's like floating on fumes from heaven.

In the Arab world, bitterness is alive and well. Many of us developed a taste for sautéed chicory and dandelion at a young age, having been weaned on mountains of it that were likely prepared with caramelised onions, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice.

Dandelion is widely considered an invasive garden weed, and although it is grown commercially, I've never bought it - it's too easy to forage. If you're thinking of doing the same, seek out dandelion with smooth leaves that can be enjoyed raw during springtime. As the plant matures, its bitter flavours develop, and these can be tempered by leeching out the liquids after blanching the leaves. Just wash your hands well and squeeze away.

The bitterness of chard, endive, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, rocket (arugula), cress, broccoli, rutabaga (swedes), mustard greens, grapefruit and certain varieties of cucumber and aubergine had me equating bitterness with bliss from the get-go. And I have always loved the refreshing astringency of tonic water, bitter with quinine, which dries it out, lending it a thirst-quenching quality that soft drinks lack. With a juicy squeeze of lime, it has been my airplane fallback drink since adolescence. Chinese medicine uses the cleansing vigour of bitter bupleurum and gentian roots to purify the liver and aid circulation.

Some western palates, and especially those in the US, have not been strongly cultivated to appreciate and seek out bitter flavours; online sources cite that only between 50 and 80 calories of bitterness are consumed there for every 1,000 calories or so. This seems like a pretty arbitrary percentage when considered within the context of how calorically scant most "bitter" foods tend to be, by nature.

"It was supposed to be bitter," says the chef. The whole table is laughing at this point in the story, which is one the chef and I have been asked to recount together countless times over the course of our friendship. Years ago, I had been assigned her restaurant to review. We didn't know each other at the time, and I worked my way through her menu anonymously. The review was published, and objective readers saw it for what it was: overwhelming delight and praise (something I was not known for being generous with). The single exception was a critical note about shrimp in a grapefruit sauce that I had found intolerably bitter.

The chef, a classic perfectionist, read the review, zeroed in on the sole complaint and went directly into mourning. Eventually, her staff was able to reassure her that my review was, in fact, positive. One year later, after I'd given up reviewing, the chef and I got to know each other through an unrelated channel, and my identity was revealed. But she's still indignant about that grapefruit sauce. One might even say she's bitter about it.