x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Tastes that clash can be purely pleasurable

Strange combinations in food and taste can certainly be cringe-worthy, but sometimes, they just work.

One great perk of being an eldest child – and thus the first to acquire a driver’s licence – is the power wielded by a set of car keys. In 1997, before mobile phones and navigation systems were standard accessories, the combination of car keys and directions to the nearest ice cream shop could make a 16-year-old feel like a superhero.

We typically hit a jaunty clapboard shack called the Sundae School, with its line of languid, sunburnt allegiants snaking through the sandy lot. Wherever we ended up, both my sisters would agonise over the options, then order the same old thing, inevitably and inexplicably: a cup of lemon sorbet with chocolate sprinkles. It was a combination that made me cringe. Tart, watery ice and chalky nubbins of kiddie cocoa? No thanks. I’d focus instead on my order, which always contained multiple shades of brown, a chunky texture and a name inspired by the outdoors: rocky road, moose tracks, mud pie, tin roof sundae. I went for the mature charms of maple and mocha, the dull crunch of toasted nuts and, of course, the folky ambiguity of their names.

It’s hot and we crave long drinks, tart or bitter and sweating in mason jars, to motivate the summertime molasses. On a perfect day, I might rotate between iced hibiscus tea, known as “Jamaica” in these parts, and other agua frescas (Spanish for “fresh waters”), which are served at every taqueria and lunch counter in Santa Fe (either pineapple or watermelon, and cut with lime). I might have an Arnold Palmer (half lemonade and half iced tea), or my preferred caffeinated coldie: iced Earl Grey tea. Hot Earl Grey can be a little too floral for my tastes, like the smell of an old lady’s sweater, the bergamot taking on top notes of medicine cabinet, mothballs and potpourri. But iced? It’s aromatic, citrus-smacked perfection.

Last month, I woke up with an intense craving for grapefruit juice. Not just any grapefruit juice, but the pulpy, pasteurised, “tastes like sunshine” variety that comes in the refrigerated carton. You know it. You’ve had it. And I remembered myself as an adolescent, during an emotionally and academically stunted year that necessitated remedial after-school lessons. To express both approval and displeasure, my tutor would squeeze my cheeks. She did this with the fierce tenderness of a hot-blooded Lebanese aunt. At the half-hour mark, she would bring out a tray carrying a cold slab of chocolate layer cake and a glass of freshly squeezed grapefruit juice. Before those lessons, my knowledge of grapefruit juice began and ended with the sugary punch of the ruby red grapefruit juice “cocktail” that tastes about as much like pink grapefruit as pink lemonade tastes like pink lemons. My tutor’s juice was the colour of a sandstorm and it tasted just as cruel.

Still, I ate and drank diligently. The cake was fudgy, firm and black as tar; the icebox made it gluey and rich. Our reactions are highly immediate when we’re young, but by adolescence, they become more tentative. To my surprise, I fell in love with the wrongness of those tastes and the clanging, crashing, cacophonous discord they made in my mouth. Somehow, the novelty never wore off. It  made me think differently about pleasure.

So late tonight, I think I’ll hit the local Häagen-Dazs. One guess what I’ll be ordering.

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

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