x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Take a risk with strange food and be pleasantly surprised

You can be put off a food by its unnatural colour or smell, but it's worth trying new things, and improving our palates.

One summer in the mid 1980s, an itinerant family friend drove past an Amish farm stand and bought a beautiful and unusual watermelon, monstrous in size. He brought it to our house for dinner the following day, and my cousins and I took it into our custody, eight little hands bearing its weight while we lowered it onto a bed of ice. It was our unicorn, and we guarded it throughout the evening.

After burgers on the deck, our travelling friend said his goodbyes and hit the road. We finally convinced an adult to hack the watermelon open and gathered around the picnic table to watch. He brought the axe down hard and the fruit split open.

We stared into the watermelon, our appetites evaporating faster than summer sweat at dusk. Had we known that it was a prized “moon and stars” watermelon, known for the cosmic patterns on its rind and sometimes golden flesh, we might have done more than gape. But the melon’s jaundiced innards were simultaneously intriguing and terrifying, and none of us, including the lone adult, had any idea how to proceed. Eventually, someone handed us some cash and dispatched us to the nearby convenience store for a less exotic dessert.

A heightened attraction to monochromatic foods seems to be hard-wired into a lot of kids and it’s often accompanied by equally illogical aversions. Luckily for me, my mother was a born educator. I remember her inviting me to sit with her while she ate things that she knew were new to me, so that I would develop a curiosity about them – something that wouldn’t have happened had I been made to eat against my will.

So I grew curious about the edible garnets in ruby red grapefruit’s fractal chambers, pitied the aneurysmal bruising of the blood orange and was delighted to learn that honeydew is not just an immature cantaloupe.

We use multiple senses, including sight, to taste. Without them, our palates are dumber than we’d like to think. Studies show that people struggle to identify flavours when they are not matched with the colour they expect to see. Until I saw that watermelon, neither my prejudices nor my imagination where food was concerned had ever been trumped – but it took a strange and captivating fruit to challenge my distinctions between what was “natural” and what wasn’t.

The yellow watermelon made pink lemonade look passé. Before that, the most exotic juncture I’d reached with food, aesthetically and epistemologically, was the dilemma of deciding whether to be a Granny Smith or a golden delicious apple kind of girl, having already rejected the baneful red delicious type. Twenty years later, I tasted my first Hawkeye apple, the heirloom antecedent of the red delicious, and discovered that I’d been wrong about those, too. But if I hadn’t been tricked into eating it, I might never have given it a chance.


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