Having tasted a grand total of one Yemeni meat and rice dish – the mandi – I thought I was a scholar of Yemeni cuisine. My naïve medal of Yemeni culinary honour was tugged off my neck after a friendly conversation with a Yemeni honey importer. “Have you tried zurbian?’” he asked, after I professed my infinite knowledge of mandi from Hadramaut, splashed with spicy tomato zhug and cool yogurt. I stared back at him sheepishly, realising the folly of attributing the diet of an entire nation to the one dish I had tried.
I was determined to rectify my ignorance within the next 24 hours, furiously slamming the search button on Google to learn about zurbian. Not only did I learn why Hyderabadi biryani from India is the grandmother of Yemeni zurbian, but I also found a Yemeni restaurant in Ghusais (Noor Al Mandi, 04 239 0700) that served this lesser-known speciality.
It was not long before I dug my fingers into my first platter of zurbian. The fragrant relationship between biryani and zurbian wafted up from every grain of perfectly spiced rice on the platter. There were caramelised onions, cardamom pods, planks of cinnamon and other whole masalas flecked across the entire rice landscape. The zurbian lamb seemed to have been tenderised in yogurt, with pink juicy insides and a dark brown skin that had me nibbling greedily on every bone. A chubby potato sat on the edge, adding the token tender vegetable to this predominantly meat and rice dish.
The entire dish was exactly the sort of rice dune that makes you want to burrow into the fragrant mound like a mole and eat from the inside out. This, mind you, comes from a girl who doesn’t even fancy rice to begin with. When I left the restaurant, I still hadn’t won back my medal of culinary honour. All I held now was the lifetime designation of a student – and a humble realisation that I have so much more to learn about Yemeni food.
Arva Ahmed blogs about hidden food gems in Old Dubai at www.ILiveinaFryingPan.com