Friday, March 30, 2007

A Taste of Arabia by Jessie Kirkness Parker

People in other countries often ask, “What food do you eat in the United Arab Emirates and can you get all the food items you want?” To which, I say, you can get it all and more, even Australian Vegemite!

The range of restaurants is broad and varied. Even in the small city of Fujairah, there are numbers of Indian, Chinese and Iranian restaurants and a Lebanese restaurant that looks like a giant version of Freddie Flintstone’s home.

If you asked a local to tell you their favourite food, chances are they’ll say, ‘Chicken Biryani,’ such is its popularity. It is harder to define what is quintessentially, Emirati cuisine.

Jessie Kirkness Parker’s book, A Taste of Arabia: Recipes and Customs from Arabia and Beyond, is most helpful in defining the essence of Emirati food. The book is stylishly presented, illustrated with mouth-watering photos and delightful pictures of early UAE when the author and her husband first arrived in the country in the early 1970s. The book is not just a collection of recipes but fascinating descriptions of Arabian or Emirati culture as they relate to the selection, preparation, serving and enjoyment of food and drink.

With a wash of the hands and a ‘Bismillah’ (Praise be to God), the meal begins. Rice is normally on the menu in the Emirates. Often flavored and colored, it is generally served on enormous platters. Sometimes the rice is mixed with meat, fruit and nuts. The locals don’t worry about rice exceeding its expiry date. On the contrary, they greatly value mature rice and will lay it down for ten years or more.

With the UAE in its earlier incarnation being a sparsely populated country of fishing villages, the harvest of the sea is still common on Emirati tables. There is a variety of fish in the markets and, compared with many other countries, fish is most reasonable. Prawns and hammour, the meaty fish from the groper family, are usually on the menu in UAE restaurants.

Chicken, Parker asserts, has now replaced fish as the major accompaniment of rice. Lamb and beef, stewed, grilled or barbequed, are also popular, with pork not making a show.

Expect to be offered plenty of bread, often served as appetizers with sensual dips, such as hommous. Beans and grains abound—lentils, dahl and chick peas—along with salads such as rocca and tabbouleh. Herbs like za’atar or Arabic thyme, add to the robust flavours.

Some of these recipes might be found in Iran or India, as they are often passed on as people have traveled and settled. So, is there a dish as unique to the Arabian Peninsula as kim chi is to Korea or suishi is to Japan? Jessie Parker says that “the mysteries of the region’s flavors are locked into a unique Arabic spice mixture called biz’har (Arabic marsala)… Secreted into [the biz’har recipe] is the exotic flavour of dried lime, called loomi with its souring qualities of both lemon peel and the bracing freshness of a spritz of lime.”

The Arabian culture has its special food and customs, from the pre-dinner serving of coffee (gah’wa) poured into dinky cups from the curvaceous pot, to the highly versatile dates and distinctive garnishes. Some of the dishes have a strong association with Ramadan and other festive occasions.

Teas, whether traditional or spiced with za’atar or mint, are always at hand and are often used to break a fast. Jugs of lime juice are popular in this hot country but for something more substantial there is laban or drinking yoghurt, derived from the milk of goats or cows and often spiked with ginger and served with a dash of salt.

Interestingly, sweets are rarely served at the end of a meal but are offered with a mid-morning coffee or tea. Parker says, “Middle Eastern desserts are irresistible, mouthfuls of nutty, crunch and sweet, sticky luscious creaminess.”

With such descriptions of down to earth dishes and an appreciation of basic, fresh ingredients one only needs some gastronomical adventure and be able to say the word, Sa’ha’tian—bon appetit!

Geoff Pound

Source: Jessie Kirkness Parker, A Taste of Arabia: Recipes and Customs from Arabia and Beyond (Dubai: Jerboa Books, 2006).