x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

1,001 Arabian Bites: They are regulars at Arab parties, but there’s more to nuts than Jordan almonds

I’ve found that a dish's content consistently takes a back seat to form. What I’m cooking and eating matters less in the long run than 'how'.

I don’t formally exercise, but I admire people who do. When pressed, I can be relentless in my half-baked defence that a cocktail of adrenalin and caffeine blend to approximate a form of passive cardio. But at the end of the day, when my mind and body are twitching with the momentum of a cooped-up animal, I, too, crave an outlet for release, focus and meditation – and it’s not at the gym.

What cooking does for me is not merely therapeutic; it’s essential. The trade-off it provides mentally – and physically is similar, I’m guessing, to what other people get from biking, hiking and yoga. Still, I’ve found that content consistently takes a back seat to form. What I’m cooking and eating matters less in the long run than “how”. And care is not an intangible ingredient.

Lately, I’ve been roasting a lot of nuts for brittle. I’m especially fond of making Tana Butler’s spicy roasted herb nuts and using the resulting flavour bombs in a recipe for “best-ever nut brittle”. Both recipes require a casually watchful eye, but nothing that will break a sweat.

My inspiration was a gift of Jordan almonds in a little mesh bag fastened with a wire chrysanthemum, and if you’ve ever been to a formal party hosted by an Arab, you know the ones I mean: smooth teardrops encased in sweets shells of white or pastel or silver – whatever the colour scheme of the festivity.

Italians give them away at weddings, too: traditionally, five almonds in a bag to represent fertility, happiness, health, wealth and longevity. At Greek weddings, the almonds are distributed in odd numbers to symbolise the newly indivisible lives of the couple. And in Greek folklore, if an unmarried woman places Jordan almonds under her pillow, she will dream about her future husband.

I’ve eaten too many Jordan almonds to find them interesting anymore. While the roasting process is kind to pecans and walnuts, mellowing their astringency into deep chestnut goodness, raw almonds and pistachios have a juicy, marzipan-like sweetness. But a thick sugar shell mutes such nuances. Jordan almonds are blank and milky, creating the most characterless manifestation of nuts and sugar in the history of confectionery.

In the case of this most recent offering, I ate two almonds and gave the rest away, but they left me with a craving for candied nuts. As with most simple things – and especially those containing just a couple of ingredients – what you can make at home will be astoundingly superior to anything you can buy. As a bonus, you’ll forgo the consumption of the titanium dioxide and carnauba wax that goes into most Jordan almonds.

You can buy roasted nuts, but I don’t if I can help it, preferring instead to buy raw nuts from sources with high turnover – your best guarantee of freshness. Store the nuts in the freezer and roast them in small batches as needed. If you must buy them roasted, try to get dry-roasted nuts, which won’t list oil as an ingredient. Oil-roasted nuts are usually deep-fried, which offers shortcuts and advantages to the grower and processor that are not transferred to the consumer. And eating nuts should be nothing if not advantageous.

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