x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Learn to take your appreciation beyond the familiar

For me, having a good time has a lot to do with a level of comfort that's only possible if the senses are suspended.

One of the marks of adulthood is learning that things and people are rarely what or who they appear to be. I’ve always found it easy to placate my trust issues with visual distractions from the familiar: parsnip-coloured carrots, pumpkin-coloured tomatoes and and rosy-cheeked Rainier cherries, the color of lemon chiffon stained with strawberry.

Golden raspberries are often bland but black raspberries are even more intense than the blackberries that grow in the nearby thickets all summer long. The most animated flavour is that of Concord grapes, which taste as endless and dreamy as the colour purple itself.

Visualising what things will look like on a plate is a natural part of planning any menu and I’ll occasionally change things to balance them out. To substitute for an abundance of earth tones, I might want to add more green (Crispy kale? Tabbouli?) or purple (Borscht? Figs? Braised red cabbage?) or orange (Persimmons? Sweet potatoes? Carrots? Salmon?) – but it’s hardly something I’m religious about.

Like the marigold autumn aspens against a turquoise sky, or vermilion geraniums in a cobalt-blue planter, contrast gives us pleasure. I have a friend who feels that there’s no excuse for a monochromatic dinner and arranges colour schemes as strategically as chess moves. Aesthetic reorganisation can represent either a welcome or an oppressive opportunity to control one’s environment.

You can taste the rainbow, as the Skittles advertisement suggests, but reality is more skittish than this brand of sweets – and much less consistent. Nature comes equipped with its own quality-control centre, but we’re it. The day I start thinking of my senses as more of a factory than a fallible resource, I’ll fire myself.

For me, having a good time has a lot to do with a level of comfort that’s only possible if the senses are suspended. I don’t want to be seated near a bathroom where I’ll be subjected to a draught of air freshener every time the door swings open. But if I’m not happy about the experience, I’m much more likely to never return than to complain about it.

A chef friend was recently fired from her job over an argument with the owner; she had argued that the powerful smell of the soap in the restrooms was overpowering diners’ senses. The Santa Fe chef and restaurateur Eric Stapelman has gained considerable notoriety for turning perfumed guests away from his fragrance-free restaurants. His anti-fragrance policy is hardly a secret; all parties are forewarned. Because I can’t stand most perfume or any men’s cologne, I love Stapelman, but it’s a divisive stance to take in a floundering market.

All rifts are relative. “Personally, I could never marry another picky eater,” says one friend, who had recently divorced. There are worse things than a fussy eater – I’m sure of it, and I say so. “You mean, like Hitler?” asks another friend.

“I mean, like not caring,” I said. “Being inflexible. Fear of change. And worst of all, being too proud to admit when you’re curious, or sorry, or wrong.” My friend makes an awkward gesture toward my hair, which is dangerously close to dangling in my soup. What I lack in pride I make up for in consistency.

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