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The importance of appreciating Emirati cuisine

Emirati cuisine seems to have been swallowed up by a food court, or has it?

With our country in a perpetual state of development, it’s only to be expected that things will fall by the wayside, some for better, some for worse.

But one of the less palatable developments is what has happened to traditional Emirati cuisine. Modernity seems to have swallowed it whole and belched up food court in its place. If an alien were to land in Abu Dhabi today, he may well conclude our national dish is a burger.

People have tried to explain the vanishing act of traditional cuisine by claiming it has been superseded in some way. That not only is its preparation too long-winded for the fast food environment, but that its supposed simplicity cannot compete with the culinary wizardry and creations of Michelin-starred chefs in the country’s finest hotels.

But this suggestion leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Traditional Emirati meals are far more complex than they seem. One classic, machboos, consists only of rice and meat, chicken or fish. Yet it is also rich, and heavy on spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, saffron and many others that make it hard for cooks to master, particularly those who have not grown up with it. Even cooks who follow a recipe perfectly may find the result is lacking in something. Because truly authentic cuisine is about more than a mix of ingredients; it’s also about the spirit in which the food is consumed.

In the old days, a giant plate would be filled with the machboos and all the family members would sit around and eat from it. Yes, that’s right, everyone would eat from the same plate. Doing so was seen as a way of blessing the household, following the advice of the Prophet Mohammed.

This practice helped shape our culture. Eating together bound us together, and was a vital part of the close-knit, tribal communities on which our country was built. I cannot imagine anyone today capturing the taste of traditional cuisine without first capturing this communal spirit, which perhaps accounts for why such meals appear to be dying out. Such an atmosphere is as hard to imagine in the capital’s flashier restaurants as it is in the food court of a mall.

There are still a few traditional restaurants, though in the opinion of most people I speak to, few offer an authentic taste. Yet despite all this food for thought, the outlook is not entirely negative.

Those who visit Dubai’s Global Village – due to re-open after the summer – will have seen Emirati women crouched on the ground in front of giant stoves, making lgaimat – dumplings drenched in a honey-like syrup and topped with sesame seeds. How many will admit that these morsels are pieces of syrup-coated heaven? Such dumplings I can eat day after day.

I also read recently that Rosewater restaurant at Etihad Towers has dedicated Fridays to Emirati cuisine, when the chefs of Sheikh Suroor bin Mohammed cook and train other chefs in making traditional food “from meats to sweets”.

So perhaps traditional cuisine is not dead after all. Perhaps we’re just having a break, waiting for the next course.

Asmaa Al Hameli, Ayesha Al Khoori and Hareth Al Bustani write the blog My Year at The National, where this piece was originally published


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