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Feeding friendships

Finicky feeders can ruin a meal and also a friendship. It takes the delight out of dessert to see a vegan buddy pick at dry toast on one side, while the weight-watcher on the other side eyes my nutty caramel cheesecake with disdain - or disguised desperation.

Dining out with friends is challenging. In one group, there is a person who hates prawns, while the rest of us love seafood. Another won't eat pork, a third refuses beef and a fourth won't go for the compromise option of Indian vegetarian food - she dislikes the taste of cumin, an essential spice.

Another posse includes a person who won't eat meat on Mondays or Wednesdays, while I avoid it on Tuesdays. This makes it difficult to take advantage of weekday buffet offers.

There is the vegetarian who will eat cake and drink alcohol, the one who will munch on cake but not gulp beer and the third who will refuse to harm a potato or onion.

I don't consider myself a finicky eater. I prided myself on not being part of the problem until a friend invited me to dinner at her home.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

"So is this one of your vegetarian days or not? Beef is a definite no. Is quinoa an acceptable grain or should I make rice as well?"

Then the coup de grace. "Don't worry, we have coffee."

I stopped eating beef some years ago and avoid meat at some times of the year. I like quinoa in salads, not as a substitute for rice.

Some months ago, this same friend invited me to a meal in her caffeine-free household. My badly disguised desperation for post-prandial coffee led her and her husband to empty and restock their overstuffed storage cupboards while searching for a single-serve packet of instant coffee brought back from a hotel stay.

It was no trouble, the couple assured me, 10 minutes into taking out boxes of biscuits, herb tea, dried mushrooms and cereal so they could rummage through the deepest recesses of their shelves. No trouble at all.

They found a jar of chocolate-covered espresso beans, which I assured them would keep me going. (It wouldn't, but I was brought up to be a polite guest.)

Clearly understanding my subtext, my host and hostess continued their search. Another 10 minutes and they unearthed not one, but two, packets of instant coffee picked up during their stay in Australia almost a year ago. The coffee would still be good, they hoped. (It was.)

Fine, I'm a finicky eater too and should rethink my attitude towards accommodating other people's quirks.

My parents tear their hair out over planning meals and I have always told them that they don't need to bend over backwards. So what if my mother doesn't eat fish? Why should I have to give up salmon fillets? So what if my father doesn't like mushrooms? Why should I be deprived of succulent fungi in my stir-fry?

Watching my friends' frantic hunt for coffee pointed out what I overlooked at every meal my parents made. This was a meal not just to feed the diners, but to delight them. This is the sort of meal that nourishes souls as well as bodies.

Food is about relationships. Sitting at the same table forges connections between people. Start a new job and the first lunch with colleagues is the beginning of a tribal bond.

To figure out group dynamics at school or work, see who shares the same table. People with similar tastes - in more ways than one - band together.

Food is one of the hardest things to compromise on, but compromise is part of a successful relationship. I realise that all my friends have had to sit through meals where they enjoyed the company and I enjoyed the food.

It takes some of the delight out of dining together when not every diner finds the food delicious.

There is the "mixed" couple where one partner is vegetarian and the other is not - my relationships have foundered on that rock - the person who dislikes desserts of any kind, the teetotaller in a group of wine-lovers (me).

The best way to accommodate different tastes is a dinner party at home. I receive a pre-dinner checklist from the host and send out the same when it is my turn.

I join my parents now in tearing my hair out over menus. I could prepare a giant platter of cheese and fruit and biscuits and suggest everyone else bring a dish but pride won't let me. Not when one friend makes chicken curry just for me when everyone else is coming over for beef rendang. Not when a lactose-intolerant friend has served homemade tiramisu to me several times because she knows I love it.

My loved ones are feeding our relationship through their kindness and consideration. I have to try and do the same.

Even if it means sometimes saying a sweet farewell to dessert.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 07, 2016, with the headline 'Feeding friendships'. Print Edition | Subscribe