x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Youthful days of enjoying sweets give way to greater food pleasures

Sugary treats are not just the domain of the young.

My friend Dee is an adult with a candy habit. I'm not talking about just any old candy, either. Last week, while she was home nursing a broken heart, I called and asked if I could bring anything to cheer her up. "Nerds," she wailed. "Nerds to end my suffering."

Unfortunately, there were no Nerds at the gas station where I first stopped, and none at the nearest convenience store either. The fluorescent-lit junk food aisle of a pharmacy was where I found Dee's land of milk and honey: a pink and purple box of neon, amoebic, fruit-flavoured solace. They looked exactly as I had remembered them.

In Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America (2004), author Steve Almond, a dedicated chocolate consumer and sugar geek who claims to never once have missed his daily candy fix, writes this about his childhood relationship to a lifelong addiction: "I wasn't fat, but I understood the appeals of gluttony, how a certain frantic gratification might numb the sting of sorrow." Almond's combination of hummingbird metabolism and charming transparency are irresistibly likeable, but the gratification of which he speaks hits close to home. Uncomfortably close.

I used to be a sugar junkie. More interested in hoarding than eating it, I once started a "candy club" with a devious cousin whose candour I only began to question years after she had cited a series of mysterious "ant" infestations that had obliterated my personal stash, which had been stored at the back of her closet.

I'll never forget the impact that reading Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had on me in the fourth grade, turning me into an insane person for a week until I finally broke down - and broke the rules, buying a forbidden Snickers bar with my lunch money during morning recess, then scarfing it in huge whole mouthfuls like a starving person and channelling Charlie Bucket; imagining I was having the experience through his taste buds, and him through mine.

During summers, I'd play skeeball at the local arcade until my arm was numb, determined to accumulate as many tickets as possible. After that, I'd wait in line to trade in those tickets for a paper bag of dime-store penny candy (back when it really was just a few cents apiece), with an emphasis on disc-shaped, pastel-coloured satellite wafers, shaped like little flying saucers that melted instantly upon contact with the tongue, and filled with dozens of tiny, crunchy candy beads that rattled within. And I coveted endless bags of Fun Dip, with the sandy flavoured sugars and smooth "Lik-A-Stix", whose marshmallow flavour was uncannily reminiscent of licking an envelope.

I don't remember when it happened, but my taste in sweets grew austere, and by the time I was in high school, I was requesting small fruit tarts - often La Brioche's pear and frangipane tart - in place of a layer cake with buttercream frosting for special occasions. In college, I made chocolate truffles constantly because large quantities of good chocolate were not a difficult thing for me to have around, and I wasn't tempted to touch it.

Fast forward 15 years, and the little town I live in is abuzz with news of a new bakery that's just opened. But its daily offerings include cupcakes, muffins, cinnamon rolls and scones, with just one savoury offering of a pathetic, anaemic looking quiche, reminding me that our global addiction to sugar is alive and well, at least where the general public is concerned.

Meanwhile, as the Paleo Diet steadily gains popularity, it seems as though sugar is falling out of favour with groups of people who identify as informed and health-conscious. Sugar is the new bogeyman.

A couple of days ago, I brought a small box of Lebanese-made halawa to a brunch; the host sliced it and served it alongside breakfast. Personally, I like mine on hot bread with some grilled halloumi cheese for a salty-sweet combo that's hard to beat, but I'm not complaining. The word halvas/helwa was traced back to 7th-century Arabia, and was derived from the Arabic word for sweet.

Italians maintain a similar tradition of afternoon dessert, and the British have afternoon tea. Like many in the Arab world, if I must have something sweet, I want it in the mid-morning or the afternoon, not after dinner or late at night.

When I'm home in Abu Dhabi, this generally means hitting Al Samadi Sweets in Khalidiya for a big slice of knafeh bil jibn: a thick slab of milky melting cheese sandwiched between two warm slices of moist semolina cake, crammed into a fresh ring of baked dough showered with sesame seeds, then doused with fragrant orange blossom-scented syrup, wrapped, and to be eaten immediately while on the run.

When I was little, my aunts would gaze pitifully at my cousins and me, shaking their heads while we walked around brandishing side ponytails and candy necklaces that melted appallingly against our throats in the sticky summer heat. In retrospect, I'm sure we looked ridiculous, but at the time, we thought we were amazing - and we defended our right to candy in a relatively health-conscious family. "You'll grow out of it," predicted my mother, and her words settled over me like a dark curse. Grow out of it? What kind of joyless, soulless human did that mean I was destined to become? I was certain she was wrong. As usual, she wasn't.