Emirati Food Explored
By Samantha Cook
‘Sam, my dear! Is this halal?’
Mohamed says, handing me an empty jar. ‘Mohamed, what is halal?’
Mohamed was one of my university housemates. He was born and raised in the United Arab Emirates raised as a Muslim. Mohamed was in the UK to study Engineering. This was his first experience of using a cooker. I yelled for my mother, who appeared in the tiny kitchen of my university residence. “Mum, is this halal?” Erm? Samantha, do you know what is halal?
Mohamed had made his first meal outside of the UAE using products from our local supermarket. He wanted to share his spaghetti bolognese with such generosity. Sadly the jar of bolognese mix had contained pork, therefore not halal (not permissible). Disheartened, he could not have any of his first attempts of the jar to pan Masterchef delights, his takeaway journey began. For me, this was the day I learned about halal food, and not long after, I moved to Dubai and started my introduction to Emirati cuisine and some Muslim traditions.
I often find myself asking; What is traditional Emirati food? Are there any dishes that are indigenous to the nomadic Bedouin? Also, what are the influences from surrounding countries like Oman and Saudi Arabia?
Living in the UAE for the last ten years, I am starting to question these. I still do not fully understand traditional Emirati dishes. An abundance of restaurants and cafes surrounds me (I have heard 10,000 just in Dubai), yet I only have visited a couple of truly “local” Emirati restaurants in a decade.
Interestingly, I have not encountered an Emirati restaurant outside the UAE despite visiting many exciting cities working for Emirates Airlines. From My research, I have only found three restaurants outside of the UAE, one in London, another in Saudi, and the third in Montenegro, all owned by chains based in the UAE.
Dubai, currently the most popular of the seven Emirates, was established as a small fishing village in the 18th Century, and you can get a feel for this when you visit places like the old Jumeirah harbour and Dubai creek. Dhows were initially used to import items like freshwater, fruit and heavy merchandise, but now they are used for buffet dinners with live entertainment that you see lit up in the night in the waters. Alive with Sufi music and Tanura dancers believed to have originated from Turkey and Egypt. Spinning with fluorescent skirts whilst guests feast on Arabic buffets. The fish markets are still alive and an exciting visit for any pescatarian. Every stall is keen to show you today’s catch. You can feel the buzz of the haggling. Often escalating to shouting from both the customer and the fishmonger, yet after the purchase, both grin at each other, wishing one another good health. I’d ponder to myself, “who got the deal there?” You can never be sure. Watch out for the odd cheeky cat wanting to grab a piece of the action.
Seeking to learn more about contemporary Emirati cuisine, I visited a famous restaurant amongst the locals and ex-pats called Arabian Tea House, specialising in local cuisine. Here, You will find dishes like their homemade Emirati bread called Chenab, a pancake flavoured with saffron and cardamom. This is often eaten for breakfast or Sohour during Ramadan, usually served with cream cheese and date syrup. The star dish is the Tahta Laham, a typical dish based on meat, rice and finely ground peppercorns, cumin, coriander, cloves, cardamom, chillies, cinnamon and nutmeg, mixed with ginger and turmeric in a saffron-rose water gravy, with steamed rice, cashew nuts, raisins and fried onions. Again the flavours felt the Indian influence.
Saloona is a classic Arabic stew also on the menu, which is believed to have bedouin origins. It is made with chicken boiled for 1 hour, but can also be prepared with fish, beef or lamb. It is a dish that feels like it feeds the soul that you can have as a soup or serve with some rice — beautifully spiced with cinnamon, cardamom, and saffron. Saffron is used in many dishes here and IS sometimes even on the tea menu. It is a sweet milky breakfast tea with added saffron. Another delightful local treat is the Karak tea which translates as tea with spice. It is originally from Indian and Pakistani households; however, has become very much a tradition within Emirati families. Karak Chai is made with black loose tea leaves, crushed cardamom saffron and sugar. The critical ingredient for the colour and taste of Karak Tea is made with evaporated milk.
One of the Emiratis’ most famous dishes is Machboos, a local take on biryani. It is made with basmati rice, chicken, lamb or fish. The spices used are cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, lemon, and sometimes saffron. Among all types of Machboos, lamb Machboos is the locals’ favourite. This is usually eaten with their right hand or using bread, reqaq, a very traditional bread that is like a savoury crepe and served as s street food topped with ready salted Omani crisps and cheese. Machboos originates from Yemen but is commonly regarded as a national dish in all the countries of the Arabian Peninsula (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Yemen. It is also known as Kabsa, which is from the Arabic word Kabasa which translates to “squeeze” or press.
Daqoos is a homemade tomato chutney that is a condiment that accompanies most dishes. Sometimes it has a kick which is the Indian influence. I add chilli sauce for the milder ones, which you will find in most local restaurants. Although rice was not originally traditional Emirati food, it was introduced to Dubai by the Indian and Persian traders who came through over the centuries.
A dish or dishes worth mentioning is Seafood is also widely eaten in the UAE. There are several restaurants where you find a seafood menu with plenty of fresh fish options that offer a choice of charcoal grill, deep fry, pan fry, -90 oven, sautéed and different restaurants have different sauce options. I had the privilege to meet the chefs from one of these famous restaurants Al Banoosh. It is a great place to observe the clientele, from exhausted-looking labourers to business people with shiny watches and fancy suits. You get drivers pulling up in their large cars tooting their horns for someone to come outside to take their order — This is Common in the scorching Middle East and often newsagents. You always know the good spots with a continuous flow of cars usually causing traffic along the Jumeirah Beach Road.
Popular dessert dishes include what I can only describe as mini doughnuts called luqamait, which translates as “small bites” They are fluffy light dough balls topped with sesame seeds and served with date syrup. They are deep-fried, and often at Emirati events, you will see older ladies making them on the side in large deep frying pans frying them in batches. Recipes have been found in cookery books as early as the 13th Century and were cooked in the palace in the Ottoman Empire for centuries. You will also find similar variations in Turkey, Greece and Cyprus. I intend to try them all! They are pretty delightful, drizzled heavily with thick sticky date syrup. I read somewhere that the wives would prepare luqamait whilst the husbands were out diving during the day. The history of pearl diving in the UAE extends to more than 7,000 years ago. A time when UAE pearls travelled to Rome, Venice, Sri Lanka and even India.
Today I visited one of the most famous Emirati restaurants Al Fanar, which revives the Emirati ambience from the 1960s. The signature desserts are date based. As dates are a bounty full throughout the UAE, they had two or three date-based desserts, including dates sizzling pudding, identical to sticky toffee pudding. This is a delicious bouncy sponge topped with vanilla ice cream served in a hot skillet, with the sauce poured at the table for a dramatic smoky finish. It had an interesting, pleasant burnt flavour.
One of my earliest brushes with Emirati food was on a camping trip to Hatta. The camp owner had dug a hole that I thought was a little odd on a scorching day. But unfortunately, his English was quite broken; he excitedly gestured for me to come and see his digging achievements by showing me the process of what he was going to do. Next, he had a leg of lamb covered in spices, wrapped it in leaves, placed it in the hole, and buried it, where it would cook for seven to eight hours. At the bottom of the hole, they lay a unique burning wood from the Samr tree, which is popular in the desert and the mountains.
I have since learnt that this is a traditional cooking method in the UAE originating from Oman. They are called Tanoor, an “underground oven” they are usually made from stone and in UAE, they use Al shoo’ and Al shakhs which are leaves commonly found in the mountains. Families have their blend of spices used to marinate the meat, traditionally goat. The meats are wrapped in the leaves and placed in a marked sack so they go to the correct family. The Tanoors have a large, heavy concrete lid placed on top for the meat to slow cook for 24 hours, producing incredibly tender, succulent meat. They would also then share with families in need. Rarely is this method still used, and now meats are slow-cooked in the oven.
Harees is one of the most popular traditional foods in the Emirati kitchen. It is most often eaten during important family gatherings, such as weddings, as well as at national and religious holidays, particularly during the Holy Month of Ramadan. The English translation of harees is “beaten wheat and meat” It is simply delicious. It is not dissimilar to congee, which is made with broth; in fact, I like to add a little soy sauce to mine.
There are other traditions that have held fast. Traditionally Arabic families will eat on the floor sat upright. Then, using their right hand, they take some rice and press it into the palm of their hand, squeeze it gently, lean forward towards the plate and push it in their mouth. The other way is to take a piece of meat and place it on top of the rice, squeeze it and put it in your mouth. The men usually wear pristine white kanduras, which I have never seen marked in any way, so leaning forward now makes sense! It is not seen as polite to use your left hand, and it is the same when paying for taking anything. As Muslims in Islam, they are taught to use their right hand.
The population of Emiratis is 11.48% in the UAE, this reflects in the amount of Emirati restaurants. The traditional dishes show that their cuisines have so many influences, particularly from Asia. I am excited to watch their cuisine grow and see more families showcase their precious recipes, and hopefully, we will see more Emirati restaurants pop up around the world. I hope this will happen despite fast food and untraditional takeaways becoming more popular with the younger generation. It seems the more traditional food is more favourable to have within their homes amongst their families. Maybe that is why it took me nearly ten years of living in Dubai to start to discover more traditional dishes. I hope to see more recipes shared from families that have been passed down generations. This would be a positive change, and we can enjoy some of these beautiful dishes that have been adapted from generations and differ from different households.
Samantha Cook is originally from the seaside city of Brighton, UK; She has now lived in Dubai for over ten years with her husband and lovely little dog Talulah. Before becoming a food and travel writer, Samantha worked as cabin crew for Emirates Airline, visiting over 63 countries and countless cities, and discovering food adventures in every town. Before that, Samantha lived in America and Spain, working in the hospitality industry and studied Education at Kingston University.
Samantha loves sailing and creating recipes in her home kitchen and often posts her recipes online, and works with brands to develop new recipe ideas. Samantha also has a kombucha business that was the first in the UAE.
This article is the work of Le Cordon Bleu Online Learning 10-week Food Writing for Publication course participant, Samantha Cook. Le Cordon Bleu is not responsible for the content, and the opinion and view is that of the author.
To find more information on all Le Cordon Bleu Online Learning courses, visit our website at https://online.cordonbleu.edu/