Traditional Emirati Food is the Identity and the Heart of the UAE

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Why I decided to interview Emirati women who passionately enjoy preparing, cooking and passing on their favorite traditional Emirati dishes to their children.

Traditional Emirati food is the identity and the heart of the UAE!

Traditional Emirati food is the identity and the heart of the UAE!

The traditional Emirati food culture plays an important part in every Emirati’s upbringing. In fact, traditional Emirati food culture is powerfully reverential to those who understand the foundation and purpose behind the rituals. They are the ones who have decided to preserve this extraordinary culture for their families and generations to come.

In order to understand this powerful and magnetic culture, I decided to write a cookbook which would appeal to everyone interested in this remarkable culinary experience. I hope that Emirati families and Emirati working men and women will look at this book as a celebration of these recipes and how they bring people together. I interviewed as many Emirati families as I could to witness how they preserve their passion for cooking out of joy and love. It was amazing to see how every Emirati family has its own recipe adaptation for the same dishes, something which is very important for those who want to learn how to cook these recipes.

Every participant chose to give me their favorite traditional recipe(s) for this book.  I know that there are many more traditional recipes still to be discovered amongst Emiratis. Perhaps reserved for a second cookbook?

I was privileged to be invited to share exquisite traditional dishes which had a deeply historic and almost ritualistic element to them. This was important to me as I belong to a family of great cooks who also follow traditional and cultural rituals of their respective countries. My mother and father are of aristocratic Hungarian and Baltic descent and they taught me the same fundamental food rituals that I experienced at each and every meal with Emirati families.

These fundamental rituals include the importance of hospitality and traditional rituals during mealtime such as acknowledgment, respect, and communication. There is no doubt in my mind that this convention creates an element of serenity during a meal which for me is an important part of our life. Emiratis excel at hospitality, especially when the host or hostess receives guests. This is often referred to as the ‘fualah’ ritual and was performed while I was a guest in their homes. The fualah is a ritual that teaches manners in a subliminal and elegant way. It is still performed today in many Emirati households, predominantly by the women who feel it is of great importance in maintaining family traditions. Fualah often involves offering fruits, main dishes, dessert, Arabic coffee, perfumes and incense.

Traditionally, the fualah ritual is offered between main meals in the morning and in the afternoon, as well as on special occasions and when receiving guests. Most Emirati families today maintain their traditional fualah practice mainly when their families and guests are together during the main meal. It is also offered when the genders are separated, which is often the case amongst Emirati families.

To be part of the Emirati food tasting experience was something I would never have imagined possible. The families I visited kindly welcomed me into their homes and afforded me this deeply compelling fualah experience.  I have learned much about respect and communication, something future generations should embrace and pass on.

INTRODUCTION

My first posting as a German Diplomat`s wife was in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen in the Middle East. I came to realize quite quickly that my role as a diplomat`s wife was to entertain guests whose palates had developed a yen for the best.  I was nowhere near being able to offer these sophisticated visitors the type of cuisine they had grown accustomed to. At the time, my idea of a fine dinner was empanadas, tomato cucumber onion salad and mangos and papayas for dessert. During my one year stay in Yemen, I began a quest to refine my culinary capacities. Throughout my career as a diplomat`s wife, this quest has continuously fueled my desires to learn all I could about the food culture in the countries where I have lived.

Our last diplomatic posting was in the United Arab Emirates.  In this country, I was made aware that food, simple yet tasty food, can be as satisfying if not more so if shared with family and friends.  The Emiratis have shown me that tradition is what makes a meal special. During my five year stay in the Emirates, I have witnessed this constantly.  In fact, I became fascinated with the Emirati food rituals and welcoming ceremonies. I thought it quite fitting that as a parting gesture from the diplomatic circle, I should share what the Emiratis have so kindly and generously taught me.

With this is mind, I chose to share recipes given to me by 27 great cooks found throughout the vast and diverse expanse of the United Arab Emirates.  In so doing, you will learn which spices, exotic local plants, and herbs to use. I divulge what motivated the Emirati Bedouins to cook the dishes they created 40 – 50 years ago which still result in delicious meals that they adapted to their modern needs.

Why is Emirati cuisine becoming a symbol of national identity in the UAE? Why is the international community so fascinated and intrigued by the art of cooking traditional authentic Emirati dishes when we have convenience foods readily available?

You will learn how easy it is for you to recreate the authentic recipes within your own home, garden, backyard or even in the desert. You will be inspired to recreate original traditional Emirati dishes which you, your family and friends will be ecstatic about!

You will also discover the reasons behind Emirati Bedouin food rituals which include food harmony and blessing of the dishes. Luxuriate in the food preparation which always includes smelling, tasting, touching and observing when buying, preparing and cooking these authentic Emirati dishes steeped in the fascinating culture of the Emirati people.

Through the extraordinary openness of all the Emirati women and Chefs whom I interviewed for this cookbook, one thing became clear. All had a special wish: to have their stories and recipes passed on to everyone passionate about cooking. Collectively they have left a legacy of Emirati values through their food rituals. Now you can experience the same culinary magic through this cookbook.

EXCEPTION: I decided to include one non-Emirati Executive Chef in this recipe compilation for a very simple reason; he is well-known for his delectable and innovative Emirati sweets. His name is Danny Kattar of the Intercontinental Hotel in Abu Dhabi (at the time of his interview).  His passion is to design light desserts resulting in the most divine fusions between traditional Emirati sweets and Lebanese desserts.

ALEXANDRA von HAHN

Culinary Magic of the Emirates

Emirati Traditional and Modern Food Rituals: Traditional Emirati Food is the Identity and the Heart of the UAE!

Anyone who has visited or plans to visit the Emirates will soon discover the fascinating undercurrent of Emirati hospitality and their food culture. It`s expressed in their daily lives, and at all official, private and religious events.

We should realize that they are indeed of immense value and importance to everyone who is interested in the culture of Emirati food rituals. Although the food rituals mentioned herein represent only a glimpse of the whole, they still are of great importance for the next generation of Emiratis and everyone else who is interested in learning and appreciating what Emirati families have left as a legacy to all of us.

You will often see variations in the spelling of main dishes, breads, spices, pickles, beverages, soups and desserts in cookbooks, online, and recipes found amongst the Emirati families. For instance, the popular chicken stew is known as ‘Machbous Diyay’ is often seen spelled as Machboos, Machbus, Machkbous, etc… It’s easy to see why it can be confusing.   The more you cook, the more you will become used to the different variations of the spellings for the same dish.

Emirati Cuisine

In the past, the food was very limited due to the extremely arid and harsh desert conditions and lack of produce. The Bedouins, who lived along the coast, survived on a diet based on camel milk, dates and fresh fish.

Bedouins who lived inland consumed dried fish, dates, fruits, vegetables and locally grown cereals. They raised chicken, fowl, camels, sheep and goats. The consumption of camels was reserved for very special occasions because the camel provided milk from which butter, laban or buttermilk was produced and because the camel was their only means of transportation. Leafy greens were taken from indigenous trees such as the wild Ghaf tree which today is the national tree of the UAE. Ghaf leaves were either chopped and sprinkled with lime juice and eaten raw or they were cooked and the semi bitter flavors developed during the cooking process.

From the Machicha tree*, which is also known as the Arta tree*, the young Machicha bitter-sour shoots are chopped up and pounded in a mortar and pestle to ensure softer chewing. Radish tails and a variety of aquatic green plants were consumed as well. In fact, the ladies whom I interviewed for this cookbook, still serve leaves from the Ghaf and young shoots from the Machicha trees.

During the time when pearls were sold from the UAE to India via dhows**, traders brought back spices, rice, clothes, kitchen utensils, pots and pans and much more. During this period Emirati cuisine was strongly influenced by Middle Eastern and Asian countries.

Bedouins are very talented and inventive with the resources available to them and have developed many dishes that Emiratis still enjoy today such as harees (porridge with meat), ghouzy (grilled or steamed lamb, goat or camel), maleh (salted fish), margooga (stew mixed with soft bread dough), farni (rice pudding) and breads such as the chbaab, rgaag and khameer.

To leaven the bread, Emirates made their own version of yeast; they fermented dates under the sun and used it as a rising agent for some of their breads. Thareed, a meat stew layered with Rgaag, (paper thin bread) and sweet dates are a natural symbol of hospitality.

Batheetha (dates and roasted flour) is a popular comfort dessert and is also offered as a sign of hospitality.

Bzar Emirati Spice

One must not forget the popular Emirati bzar which is a spice mixture often composed of chilies, coriander, cassia, cumin seeds, black peppercorns, star of anis, garlic, fenugreek, ginger, turmeric, dried lime, nutmeg, fennel and sometimes dried mountain mushrooms from Fujairah. Cardamom was considered to belong to the sweet dishes and was only added much later into the bzar spice mixture. Saffron is added to dishes, however, not blended into the bzar spice mixture. Women considered it important to harmonize the dishes by balancing the taste with their own spice mixture.

A well balanced, harmonious bzar spice mixture is another important sign of hospitality. Traditionally spices were bought whole, washed and left to dry in the sun until they exuded a strong smell. Then they were pounded and stored in jars in order to protect the essential oils from escaping.  Today, many Emirati families still buy whole spices which they roast and then either pound or use an electric spice grinder. Their unique homemade bzar mixture is used for meat, poultry, bread and rice dishes. Emirates are often seen selling bzar at Emirati traditional festivals.

If you happen to attend Emirati traditional festivals, you will be able to buy unique compositions ofbzar from amongst the Emirati women who still enjoy preparing home-made bzar spices. I recommend that you also try to find bzar with roasted mountain mushrooms, a delicacy from the mountains of Fujairah!

Family values

Emirati families started long ago to teach their children about their values. They learn by observing the family’s behavioral patterns, through their daily life actions and participation. Every special occasion, such as Ramadan, weddings, birthdays, deaths, and all other family festivities are all based on strong family values that create an invisible common communication network amongst Emiratis.

Family values are transmitted through very clear messages and intentions. Values are applied every day and are always part of their daily routine, during meal time, and daily prayers. Their words, dress code, and actions are consistent and are a very noble art of communication by itself.

Family values are passed from one generation to another throughout the UAE and those living, working, studying abroad exercise and respect the continuity of family values as well. In fact, each member is held accountable for their family’s values to ensure that through this commitment and responsibility they are able to depend on each other as one large family.

It takes many years to create a legacy for the next generation.  In fact, it is a lifelong commitment. This is accomplished through storytelling, especially when sitting together on the floor in a circle around a plaited palm leaf matt called ‘sarrut’ or modern tablecloths laden with traditional dishes which are always shared. Sharing is also part of the family values system.

Today, empowered Emirati women have an active role in leadership at work and within the family. For example, women have repositioned themselves as active educators of their children in addition to their career in order for their family values to become an integral part of their children’s stability in society. Women have noticed that through the multiculturalism in the UAE their children need far more attention and acknowledgment in order to preserve the Emirati values which are becoming of primary importance.

I was impressed by Fatima Al Ghufli (Chapter 8) who explained the following about her family values: “The patriarchal order in my family plays a strong traditional role but is modified through conscious adjustments and adaptations to the modern way of life. Educated women enter the work force and earn their own income which remains their personal source of earning.””

Women get-togethers are another very important family value for network maintenance amongst women. That is best described by Latifa Tayeeb Al Khaja (Chapter 27) during her interview with me:“Henna get-togethers are a woman’s time to re-connect by creating a deeper bond with herself and empower others. We take time for ourselves to feel emotionally nourished by other women while having our hands dyed with henna.” 

Food Rituals 

Emirati food rituals are not only adaptable to modern lifestyle but most importantly they are the signature of Emirati culture!

Ramadan

Ramadan is declared when the crescent of the moon is sighted, and the beginning of the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar has begun; it lasts from 29 to 30 days. During this period of fasting and prayer, Muslims refrain from eating and drinking from dawn to sunset.  Fasting is one of the Islam’s five pillars and it is mandatory for everyone who has reached the age of puberty and is healthy. Exemptions from fasting are made for pregnant women, the elderly and the chronically ill.

Ramadan is a time of reflection and charity. Many people sponsor charity tents including traditional Emirati dishes to all those in need. In the Emirates many Mosques serve Iftar Saem; the food is donated to the Mosques by Emiratis as well as the International Community. Food is served to all those present and those who wish to eat a meal at the Mosque. About thirty minutes before the call of the Muezzin declaringIftar, it is impossible to hail a taxi and public transportation comes to a halt. Drivers make sure to reach a nearby Mosque to be able to arrive on time and enjoy Iftar with the community.

The Ramadan food fasting ritual is based upon two meals: one taken in the early morning before dawn known as ‘Suhoor’ and the other after sunset known as ‘Iftar’.

Pre-dawn meals should provide enough energy for the long fasting hours which last until shortly after sunset. A traditional Suhoor menu is composed of foods such as fruit juices, milk, water, dates, lentil soup, bread, fruit, vegetables and ‘harees‘, the Emirati food of choice: a warm porridge composed of slow cooked wheat with or without meat.

Breaking the fast shortly after sunset is traditionally done with three dates and water before moving to the other dishes during Iftar such as harees, lentil soup, bread, rice with meat or fish, vegetables, fruits, sweet desserts, Emirati beverages, Emirati coffee, and karak. You can enjoy any or all of these dishes from amongst the recipes found in this book.

To celebrate the end of fasting, a three-day event takes place called ‘Eid Al Fitr’ and as with all occasions, it is celebrated amongst family, friends and neighbors. The traditional ritual calls for sitting on the floor in a circle which results in being connected with each other, and all this while sharing and savoring exquisite traditional dishes!

If you happen to be in the UAE just about one month prior to Ramadan, you will be swept away by the aromatic fragrances of nuts, spices, sweet Arabic pastries, while Emirati families are stocking up in anticipation of hosting and entertaining during this very special occasion.

Food and ingredients such as rice, wheat, grains, sugar, dates, date syrup, paste and juice, nuts, rose water, orange blossom water and spices are all bought in bulk quantities. Pre-orders of a great selection and large quantities of Arabic sweet pastries and cakes must be taken care of as well.

A lifetime experience, and not to be missed especially during Ramadan shopping hours is when you go to the Spice Souk in Deira, Dubai. Allow the exotic fragrances to slowly impress and entice you to savor the traditional spices, rose petals, traditional Indian and local medicinal plant based products, incense, oud(aromatic resin) and baskets and bags filled to the rim with herbs.

The pre-selection of poultry, lamb, beef and camel takes place at their favorite farmer. The livestock are left with the farmer to be fed with quality feed until they are ready to be consumed during Iftar. As Mona Al Zaabi (Chapter 14) explained during her interview for this book, “during Ramadan fresh dishes are prepared daily and Iftar is the time when there is a lot of hosting and home entertainment for their large families, friends, guests, their neighbors and the women and men who enjoy cooking. This is a great opportunity to showcase their cooking talents; another sign of a grand hospitality gesture.

Bedouin Coffee

Bedouins have successfully passed on the art of celebrating, honoring, and welcoming their guests with Bedouin or Arabic coffee. Today it is known as Emirati coffee, reflecting rituals and signs of hospitality!

Bedouins have long treasured their coffee rituals. It is part of their essential and elegant way of greeting, welcoming and honoring their families and friends. Today, Emiratis still continue to respect this tradition; their gatherings are always supported and beautified with coffee poured from a dallah (traditional brass coffee pot with a long spout) with the left hand and served with the right hand. The receiver holds the demi cup in the right hand, and slowly sips from it. Coffee is a catalyst in establishing connections.

The demi cups are filled one third full so as to honor the person by never having to experience a mouth burn. The host or hostess always makes sure that everyone is served again unless the demi cup is jiggled from right to left, a sign that no more coffee is desired.

When you return the demi cup, Mariam Al Kaabi, (Chapter 1) said to me: “You must say: ‘May God greet you’ (Hayyach Allah).”

Coffee drinking is an elegant way to foster get-togethers resulting in renewed friendships, reconnection, and getting to know each other; an essential part of establishing friendships and all this through the magic of coffee rituals.

Bedouins learned to benefit from their date palm tree that not only provided them with dates, fronds, wood and trunks used for the construction of their homes, but they also created their own Bedouin coffee from date pits!

Bedouins collected date pits, let them dry under the sun and delicately roasted them until they exuded an elegant mild roasted woody fragrance, which they mixed with pounded cardamom, and cooked on a very low fire.  Amongst my interviewees they mentioned that some of their families added pounded ginger; ‘qahwa’ or Arabic coffee as it was known.

Bedouin coffee is the magic hospitality beverage that has digestive virtues and so is appreciated after meals. Qahwa is the sign of hospitality, a sign of welcoming a guest. Qhawa is served with dates for every occasion, upon arrival and departure of guests.

Later the roasting of date pits gave way to the Indian coffee beans, which are still used today, often mixed with a great selection of high quality green coffee beans imported to the UAE.

Bedouin Food Quality Inspection Rituals

Bedouins mastered the art of quality food inspection through their unique and very effective methods: touching, smelling, tasting and looking before they consider buying fish, meat, seafood, fresh fruits, vegetables, dates, nuts, spices, coffee, tea, rice, cereals, tobacco etc.

My friend Fatima Al Qubaisi (Chapter 9) showed me how to apply the Bedouin food inspection method which is in fact still exercised today in the same way as the Bedouins used to do it. “Emirati women know their food rituals.” The dry fish chosen by Fatima was touched, smelled, tasted (by quickly and discreetly placing the finger that touched the fish onto her tongue) and last but not least, the dry stockfish was finally inspected visually from all sides.

Bedouin Food Quality Inspection Rituals

Breakfast: Emiratis usually have breads such as chbaab, rgaag or khameer served with date syrup, dates, white cream cheese, laban, buttermilk or tea and honey from the mountains of Fujairah or Oman.

Lunch (main meal) & Dinner: Lunch is the most important meal for Emiratis. A variety of dishes are served such as Machbous, Maleh, Jasheed, Margooga, Tahta Maleh, Thareed, and Ghouzy just to name a few. Mealtime is where you socialize and reconnect with one another. 

Fualah/Dessert or Sweets:  Often consisting of legeimat, a one-biter doughnut drizzled with date syrup or honey and sprinkled with sesame seeds; khanfaroush a three-biter thick fried pancake drizzled with date syrup; khabeesa, toasted flour crumbs mixed with sugar, saffron and cardamom; batheetha, semolina with pureed dates mixed with cardamom and Emirati clarified butter or ghee. At the end of a meal, it is customary to be served Emirati coffee and dates or tea. Emirati coffee is considered to be the most significant ritual and expression of hospitality in the UAE.

God Bless the Food and Eating Etiquette-Ritual

Before sitting down for a meal, hands are washed and prayers are conducted either before or after the meal depending on the time of the day.

Mariam Al Kaabi and Zahra Al Nahdi, who were both interviewed for this book, conveyed the importance of blessing the food when their families, friends and guests are seated on the floor on a round pleated mat. Blessing of the food is said by everyone in unison: “Bismillah” or “In the name of God”, expressing appreciation and gratitude for the meal.

Mariam Al Kaabi (Chapter 1) told me that blessing the food causes the dishes to taste better. Food, she said, is one of Allah’s greatest gifts to us.  After the blessing of the food, the host or hostess says: “Samhuna ad”, or “Forgive us”. This is to let the guests know the modesty of the food display despite the mat or table being laden with dishes. The guests respond: “Masmulla” or “You are forgiven.”

Zahra (Chapter 25) explained: “If you are invited by Emiratis, the host or hostess will serve you the food on your plate. The more food on your plate is a sign that you are a guest of honor. You will most likely be told that you have not eaten, despite having eaten, and you are no longer hungry. This is when you wash your hands elegantly in a bowl, if provided, which is a clear sign that you no longer wish to eat; if the washing bowl is not available you may say: “Akramch” or “May Allah honor you.”

Food is eaten with the right hand. The left hand is reserved for bodily hygiene. Each person assigns themselves a section of the rice platter, often placed in the center of the sarrut or plaited mat surrounded by smaller side dishes.

The assigned section of the rice platter and of the other plates is a sign of harmony and order. It is a sign of courtesy to ask for permission to pick a piece of meat that is further away from you or if the piece of meat is only on your side. This food ritual encourages sharing, respect and team work according to Mariam Al Kaabi!

You are going to be impressed by the mastery of how Emiratis are able to scoop up a ‘mouthful’ or‘Logmah’, a food ritual explained to me by Halima Al Attar (Chapter 18).  Scooping a little rice, meat, sauce and vegetable into the hand is followed by pressing the collected food several times against the palm of the hand using all four fingers until the food is shaped into a small ball referred to as a ‘mouthful’. You are now ready to bring the hand close to your mouth and use your thumb to elegantly push the food into your mouth without causing the food to drop or dirty your mouth.

From Salha Al Shamsi (Chapter 7) I learned three seating positions which is a ritual introduced by Prophet Mohammed in order to feel the earth given to us by Allah. Everyone is equal when sitting on the floor. Any of the following three sitting positions may be selected when sitting on the floor making sure that the soles of the feet do not show:

  1. in sitting position, legs crossed over each other and knees flat on the floor.
  2. in sitting position, one leg bent flat on the floor, foot is towards the body, the other leg held vertically outwards with the knee bent at 90 degrees.
  3. in sitting position, legs and feet tucked under the body to one side.

Salha also revealed that Prophet Mohammed passed on the legacy that in sitting position number 2, there is less consumption of food due to the leg being held vertically outwards with the knee at 90 degrees, thereby permitting some abdominal space left for water and air. This position is therefore a natural weight and health maintenance sitting position!

*arta: http://tinyurl.com/h28d98s  or

http://www.ddcr.org/florafauna/Detail.aspx?Class=Plants&Referrer=Polygonaceae%20%28Shrubs%29&Subclass=Shrubs&Id=232

**dhow:  The ‘dhow’ is a varied type of sailing vessel that was used by Arabs on the Arabian coast; they were usually lateen-rigged on two or three masts.

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