x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

1,001 arabian bites

From honey to Vermont maple syrup to agave nectar -- an Emirati journeys through the world of sweet things.

When I was little, I was scared to touch the honey. My father treasured the darkest of amber mountain honeys, decanted into recycled Vimto bottles and sold roadside in the hills of the northern country. At home, we stored them on small trays into which an inch of water had been poured to form a moat intended to drown the ants attracted to their scent. Dying ants swirled languorously around the bottles all day long.

I wouldn't go anywhere near them. Though honey wasn't something to which I instinctively warmed, I ate a great deal of it growing up. Sloth at its most adolescent and inspired involved pouring the palest, mildest honey over huge spoonfuls of sesame tahini to make a sort of halwa à la minute. While in college in New England a few years later, dark Grade-B maple syrup from Vermont was something I latched onto as naturally as breathing. It became one of my pillars of nourishment, and I still use it in more savoury and sweet preparations than any other form of sugar. Then, when I found myself in the southwestern United States for graduate school, something unfamiliar was passed my way over brunch. It was agave nectar; a syrup much milder than both maple syrup and honey, but also sweeter, and it could be had in light, amber, dark, and raw varieties. Generally available in squeeze bottles, agave has the revolutionary merit of being one of the only non-synthetic sweeteners that dissolves easily in iced beverages with no discernible flavour profile or residue.

The food writer and editor Beverley D'Cruz, a reformed sugar addict, favours agave nectar for its low glycemic index. It is one of many adjustments she and her husband made after his brain tumour diagnosis last year. "Research has shown that sugar encourages the growth of tumours... My husband isn't allowed to indulge in anything sugary very often so I tend to enjoy it rarely even though I have an extreme sweet tooth," she writes.

Since Dr Mehmet Oz's highly public promotion of agave nectar, Oprah's sweetener of choice, it's become clear that despite its popularity, its sceptics are none too keen to hop on the agave bandwagon. Dr Michael R Eades, a low-carb diet wonk and author of Protein Power, believes that fructose, the primary sugar in agave, "despite its 'fruity' sounding name, is better avoided irrespective of how attractively it is packaged, ie, as the healthful-sounding 'agave nectar'." Indeed, Eades believes fructose to be a significant contributor to insulin resistance, and he puts it rather bluntly: "Avoid it like death." But fructose is also found in honey, berries and melons, and Eades suggests that fruit is superfluous when he writes: "Who says you have to have fruit? Other than berries occasionally, I almost never eat fruit". And that's a bandwagon I'm none too keen to hop on in return.

As Harvey Steiman said: "Everything in moderation - including moderation." My personal choice is to forgo artificial sweeteners. Instead, I choose minimally processed foods, real sugars from natural sources, and the occasional genuine treat in moderation (though it's a kind of moderation that I must admit is often met by stubborn resistance). The fact is, people consuming 2,000 calories a day should not be exceeding 10 teaspoons (40 grams) of additional sugar in their diet, and that is the equivalent of a single can of Coke. Is it any surprise that studies suggest that refined sugar activates the production of opioids, the same brain chemicals responsible for addiction? The reward-punishment roller coaster on which so many people consume sugar is no way to cultivate an appreciation of things that should be primal and instinctive to us by now: good food and good health: the path of least resistance.

There are five intensely-sweet sugar substitutes that have been approved for use in the US: saccharine ("Sweet'n Low, Tab), sucralose (Splenda), aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet, and Canderel), acesulfame potassium (found in many pharmaceutical products, especially chewable and liquid medications) and neotame, not widely used since its approval in 2002- an artificial sweetener made by NutraSweet that is between 8,000 and 13,000 times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar). Not one is anything like true sugar, but this is particularly apparent when it comes down to the business of applying heat to sweet.

Whenever you need evidence that food is love, look no further than caramel, that queen of sweets whose lovely nuances are attributed to the simplest of ingredients: butter, sugar and cream. For this, use the mellowest, moistest light brown sugar you can find, the best butter you can afford, and slightly more sea salt than you'll think reasonable. This recipe is adapted from Vancouver, British Columbia-based Chef Neil Wyles' caramel sauce: Melt one stick (113 grams) of sweet butter in a sturdy saucepan over medium-low heat until it melts, foams, and begins to look and smell nutty and rich. Add one packed cup (220 grams) light brown sugar and raise heat to medium. Stir for one to two minutes until the sugar absorbs the butter and forms a mass that pulls away from the sides of the pan. If it splits, don't worry; it will all reintegrate later. By now, it should begin to smell toasty, so remove the pan from heat. Whisk in one cup (240 grams) of heavy cream and add two big pinches of sea salt to taste. Store in an airtight glass or porcelain container, chill until set, and consume within three days.