Food traditions in the UAE
The Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (adach.ae) published some very interesting leaflets about Emirati customs and culture, so I thought it would be interesting to share them on the blog. All the data below has been taken from these pamphlets.
Much of the Arabian Peninsula, an area of more than 3 million square kilometres, has been occupied for millennia. In some areas, settlements developed into cities, and along the coast fishing villages and busy ports grew. However, the vast desert regions were populated by nomadic Bedouin herdsmen who moved between the oases scattered throughout the interior.
Although vegetables such as cucumbers, pumpkins and onions were cultivated, together with lemons, pomegranates and melons, it was the wheat and dates grown in the oases that formed the staples of Bedouin diet. Dates keep well, can be eaten fresh or dried, are easily transported and have excellent nutritional value: there are over a hundred different varieties of dates.
For thousand of years, wheat was used to make gruel or porridge, or ground into flour for bread which was baked over coals, or even directly in the intensely hot sands.
Some of the many wheat-based dishes include the harees, a mixture of ground wheat and meat, and the bathitha, a sweet made of wheat flour dates and ghee.
The harees is one of the most famous meals in the Arab world and has been cooked for centuries. It is usually served in a deep dish at weddings, during Ramadan and at the religious feasts Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adha. It is also served to new and nursing mothers since it is believed to have restorative properties: ground wheat and meat are cooked together over a low heat until the texture becomes creamy.
Rice is eaten either alone, or with meat or fish, using the right hand only. Popular rice dishes include the makbous and the.mashkhoul.
The makbous recipe has been passed down through the generations and it is a very popular dish in Abu Dhabi: meat, chicken or fish is cooked with onions, dried lime and spices such as turmeric, cardamom and nutmeg. When tender, the meat is removed and rice is cooked in the remaining stock. The meat is then mixed back with the rice, the dish covered and hot coals heaped upon the lid to complete the cooking process. The meat and rice are served on a large dish or tray, garnished with nuts, raisins and fried onions.
Fish is still very popular, and a wide range is available even inland. The fish market (Suq As Samak) in Al Ain sells around thirty species such as barracuda, prawns, shark and anchovies.
Milk from camels, goats and sheep provided a healthy supplement to the diet. It could also be churned into butter, or used to make yoghurt and cheese. Honey, various salad leaves and occasionally fish eggs, truffles or mushrooms were also eaten by the Bedouins.
However, the most important element of the diet was – and still remains, meat.
Nowadays camel meat is often served, but it was a rarer commodity to the Bedouin, who prized his camel above all else. Meat usually came from goats and bull calves, as well as quails, pigeons and houbara bustards, brought down by trained falcons, or rabbit and foxes, hunted by the fast Saluki dogs.
Archaeological excavations have unearthed the remains of darts, spears and other hunting gear, and pictures on the walls of some of the Hili tombs depict many different kinds of game: large animals such as gazelles and oryx abounded, but domestic cattle, sheep and goat were all kept by the earliest inhabitants of the UAE around seven thousand years ago.
In the last few decades, the range of food available locally has increased enormously. Various expatriate communities have introduced new dishes and the Asian communities exert one of the most powerful culinary influences, as there are many variations on popular Indian dishes, such as biryani.
The traditional local values of hospitality, generosity and courtesy to guests are still upheld. Family meals at home are informal, but at large gatherings time-honoured etiquette is observed, and the social intercourse is invariably accompanied by coffee.
In the past, the coffee was frequently prepared by the host and served to those who had gathered to exchange news or tell stories.
The beans were roasted in a pan (mehmas) then cooled in a wooden tray, known as mabradah.
They were then ground in a mihbash – a form of pestle and mortar, made of wood, iron or brass, and brewed in a clay pot (malkama).
The coffee was then poured into the classic beaked Arabian pot (dallah) and served in small ceramic cups (finjan), exactly as it is today.
Tradition dictates that the cup must be filled only a quarter full, and frequently refilled. When no more coffee is required, you need to rock the finjan to and from as the pourer approaches.