x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Passing on the unwanted foodie gifts

With my cousins and I, our receptacles of harees and warm date cookies go in a month-long game of social, cultural and culinary ping-pong.

A couple of months ago, I got rid of 16 years of history (and several kilos of it, too) by having my crazy-long hair cut off. My appointment with the incomparable Eddie at Abu Dhabi Country Club’s Freestyle Beauty Salon was supposed to be for a trim, but getting a haircut when you’re adrenalised is a lot like going grocery shopping when you’re hungry: while you might not end up making decisions you later regret, you’re pretty much guaranteed to do something impulsive.

Donating my old hair to a non-profit programme wasn’t a possibility because it had been colour-treated but, as it turns out, women pay good money at salons for yard-long ponytails, including dishevelled ones that look like they belong on the backside of a horse. One woman’s rubbish is another’s brand-new, genuine human hair extensions. I’m glad my hair was made into something useful for someone else, because who doesn’t love recycling?

I love the custom of never returning an empty receptacle to its original owner. During Ramadan, we don’t make our own harees; instead, we are lucky to have it sent to us each afternoon by cousins whose cook makes a peerless version of the Emirati speciality. We send the dish back every morning filled with warm date cookies. Back and forth the receptacle goes, in a month-long game of social, cultural and culinary ping-pong.

One friend of mine makes jars of homemade poached raisins to distribute during the holidays, despite admitting to not really liking them herself. What do you do with poached raisins? “Whatever you want,” she says. Once inclined to seek out more practical and personal gifts to bestow upon others, I’m inspired by her sassiness, an innovation in conserving time and money. A jar of raisins is less of a nuisance to store than the random cast-offs that I seem to accumulate. Somewhere between the two polarising non-options of consumption and disposal lies the grey area of re-gifting.

A few years ago, I bought a box of Christmas cards that said something forgettable on the front and the punchline inside was one of my favourite Erma Bombeck quotes: “Guilt: the gift that keeps on giving.” You may have heard – and I can’t prove it’s not true – that there exists a lone box of mulling spices; one whose destiny is to be passed along from one person to the next for eternity. 

Much inventory ends up orphaned in similar ways to the dreaded mulling spices, due to overstocking or simply their inherently unlovable nature.

There’s an entire class of items that is particularly susceptible. It includes fruitcakes, all tri-coloured comestibles including, but not limited to, pasta, which has frequently been subjected to other forms of abuse or embarrassment, such as being twisted into novelty shapes. In this category, you’ll also find decorative, hammered glass bottles of oil and vinegar with various objects of questionable edibility suspended in them, such as chilli peppers, rosemary sprigs and things that resemble Christmas wreaths.

It seems a cruel fate, even for inanimate foodstuffs, to end up on clearance racks and in bargain bins where well-meaning shoppers buy them for friends who have no idea what to do with them.

Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food writer who lives and cooks in New Mexico