It’s Ramadan again, and so-called pastry chefs around the country are throwing all the sweet scraps they can find on top of classic Middle Eastern desserts and calling it an “innovative product.” Kunafa, basboussa, Nutella, Red Velvet (which is just red food coloring), fruits, chocolate, marshmallows, cream, Oreos and even M&Ms have all been scraped off the kitchen floor and stitched together into culturally confused abominations that taste of everything and nothing.
I am tired of explaining to people that food is most certainly not just ‘a matter of taste.’ There’s an old Arabic saying that translates to “Eat whatever pleases you, but wear whatever pleases the people.” This notion might be the very explanation of the pastry disasters we are seeing today. There are culinary fundamentals and clear guidelines in flavor-pairing, which are the direct cause of why the recipe for a simple butter cake or pastry cream have not changed in centuries! So, I’m sorry, but you cannot just eat or bake whatever pleases you.
It would be pointless to start discussing why classic flavor combinations have been so successful throughout the ages and across cultures, but let me just propose something here. Close your eyes and imagine yourself holding a bar of chocolate—say it be Cadbury’s Dairy Milk to standardize the experiment, because we all know what it tastes like—and now imagine a bowl of sugar or, better yet, a bowl of orange- or rose-infused simple syrup. Imagine dipping the chocolate in the syrup and then eating it. In case you don’t know what simple syrup is, it’s basically a mixture of equal parts water to granulated white sugar, that is heated until slightly thickened and then cooled; this eventually produces something that tastes and feels like commercial honey. Simple syrup is used to smother most Middle Eastern sweets like kunafa, basbosusa and even baklava, and which gives them all that characteristic sweet taste. Now, back to that chocolate bar. I don’t know if you will like what you are eating, but I can tell you for sure that from a scientific perspective, you will probably be unable to properly taste either the chocolate or the syrup! You would just be getting an overdose on the sweet taste receptors of your tongue, which can be very rewarding for your brain and, therefore, convince your subconscious mind that you are indeed eating something that tastes really good.
While I might be a big fan of traditional desserts, I am not saying that we have to eat the same classic, unmodified stuff forever. There is much room for creativity in the Ramadan desserts department. Using the simple basic building blocks along with some very specific elements from western or French pastry can indeed result in something marvelous and the options are quite endless. Use the Maillard browning on the wheat kunafa or basboussa and add something nutty or creamy to complement it. Think of a special tart shell made of semolina instead of all-purpose flour and fill it with a custard-based pastry cream covered in dried fruit or Qamar el-din.
Ice-cream? Try to combine ingredients meaningfully to create some kind of synergy between taste and texture. While some food establishments have made a real effort to balance originality and flavor this year, others did not shine bright enough for me to remember them. But some of the kunafa concoctions, among other Ramadan disasters that I wouldn’t like to try (ever), remind of me something that would be in the trashcan of a Middle Eastern pastry shop and a school, mixed together in one bowl.
Cheese on a pizza tastes good, right? Soy sauce with sushi tastes good, right? Mayonnaise in tuna salad tastes good, right? And so does chocolate with banana, balsamic with rocket and dijon with steak. So, for those who for some bizarre reason enjoy eating Om Ali with Nutella, kunafa with marshmallows or basboussa with a layer of red velvet cake on top, please tell me why I can’t cook something with cheese, soy, mayonnaise, chocolate, balsamic vinegar and mustard sauce all in one?
The saddest part is that I could probably sell that with the help of some clever marketing! I rest my case.
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