Do you know your laham nashif from your moutaban laham, or your margougat al dijaj from your margougat al khudar? If the answer is no then a cookbook of 30 Emirati recipes celebrating 30 years of the Dubai World Trade Centre will provide the solution.
Take any Dh100 note and on the back you'll see an image of a lone building on a desolate motorway that stretches off into a distant cluster of trees. The building is the Dubai World Trade Centre's Sheikh Rashid Tower, and the scene is where today's corridor of skyscrapers assemble along Sheikh Zayed Road. It's difficult to believe that just 30 years ago there was only one concrete giant of this kind in the area. But it's perhaps just as beguiling to imagine that before most of the five-star hotels, fast-food joints, mall restaurants and catering facilities that now populate the bustling 12-lane motorway were even conceived of, the DWTC was already busily perfecting its menu of Emirati dishes for its steadily growing clientele.
Over the past decade in particular, the hospitality department has established itself as one of the leading food and beverage operations in the country, catering for royal events, ceremonies of state and celebrity receptions. The facility has gained a reputation for its international cuisine as well as its Emirati specialities, but it is the national cuisine that is the subject of 30: A Culinary Journey, a book of traditional recipes compiled under the guidance of the corporate executive chef Harald Oberender and the executive banqueting chef Khalel Mustafa Oqdeh. I went along to the World Trade Club on the 33rd floor of the tower for a sneak preview of the book. There I was met by the two chefs and the director of hospitality, Mohammed Ali Matar al Jumairi, who explained the concept of the large hardback tome. "This book comes through our CEO, Helal Saeed al Marri; it was his idea," he said. "The hospitality department at the Dubai World Trade Centre has many different tasks, one of which is the national cuisine. When people come over here for exhibitions, we want to show them our national food."
Oberender, a stout German with intense eyes peering through round spectacles, expanded on the story: "It was really to benchmark Emirati cuisine, because it had an excellent reputation. But this reputation remained largely within the country. This gave us an opportunity to show what makes it different." There is little doubt that Emirati food is different to much Arabic fare - a quick leaf through the glossy, photographically arresting pages of this book confirms that. But you may be asking what's different about this book, and why it warrants such attention. The answer lies in a culture and culinary tradition that is largely centred around the family unit and the home. Very few Emirati cookbooks exist, because the recipes have been passed down orally from generation to generation. Because there has been relatively little demand for such recipes from people who live outside Emirati households and communities, many of the recipes - honed, guarded and nurtured throughout the years - stayed in the home. Until now.
"It wasn't good enough to just call it an Arabic cookbook," continued the ever-enthusiastic Oberender. "One of our first challenges was how to distinguish the book, its detail, its contents and its 'tang'. The tang has to bring out the difference of the book, meaning that we have picked out the essence of Emirati cuisine - recipes like quzi rigag or humeidh with green mango. There's a very intricate way of preparing that food, and you will see in the book how the flavours and spices are used, but when you taste it you will see how it's different. That's what we wanted to put out, and we think we've achieved some of that."
In evocative monochrome, the first few pages of the book chronicle Dubai's history, from sleepy fishing village and dhow trading port to the young, hectic metropolis that we know today. The book also charts the rise of the DWTC, giving insights into its catering facilities, methods and capabilities. Two of the recipes mentioned by Oberender, quzi rigag and humeidh with green mango, represent opposite ends of the Emirati food spectrum. The former is a staple at Emirati celebrations and is one of the more recognisable dishes in the book. It's also a favourite of Oberender's. "What makes it different is that the whole lamb, the rice and everything is put in the pot. It's cooked together," he explained as I flicked through the book to find it. "Initially it sounds complicated, but it's very simple, nice and clean. It's the best local lamb, it's tender. And when you eat it you have a flavour experience.
The second recipe that Oberender recommended came as something of a surprise by virtue of the fact that it's a salad that can be made entirely with local ingredients. The seasonal humeidh leaf can be found growing wild in the mountains and desert areas of the UAE, and it is often sold at local markets. It is mixed with sliced green mangoes, green chilli and lemon juice to create a slightly bittersweet salad that's popular in Emirati homes in April and May before the summer heat kicks in. "Humeidh is very much a UAE thing," said Oberender, his eyebrows arching above his spectacles. "And once you taste that leaf, it's 'bang', you know. With the mangoes, it's a salad and a simple preparation, but when people travel here they should try it, and it should remind them of the place."
Opposite Oberender, with a copy of the book lying open between them, sat Oqdeh, a Jordanian chef with more than 22 years' international culinary experience. With two non-Emirati chefs heading up the project, I wondered where the recipes had come from. "This is the cuisine from the local houses," explained Oqdeh with a smile. "But we bring it up to five-star level. We have our specialist chef who has been working for 25 to 30 years here in the UAE. And we have people who have been working in home kitchens, who we have taken on and trained up to five-star level. They have been working with us almost for six years. We have two Emirati chefs with us at this moment. They are working their way up now, and in the future you will see them having a big position in the kitchen."
Oberender added an insight into why these recipes are the real deal. "The key thing is that the chefs who came to us from working with families know the bezar, or mix of spices. There are thousands of hotels out there and so many kitchens, but why do people come to us? It's because we successfully re-create that taste from the family homes." A chapter of the book is dedicated to the unique blend of spices that enhances the flavours of Emirati recipes. And according to Oqdeh, it's what sets Emirati food apart from other Arabic cuisines. "The main difference is in the secret of the bezar spice mix," he said. "In other Arabic countries you'll have cinnamon bark, cardamom, cloves and nutmeg altogether, it's all the same. These four spices will be added to all recipes. In Emirati food we are using the same ingredients, but we are adding turmeric, coriander and cumin seeds. It has to be thoroughly ground so that the flavour will not be too strong, the smell is nice and the flavour is a little bit mild. If the flavour is too strong, when you add it to meat it can affect the natural flavour. But these spices will not have that effect."
If one of the secrets of authentic Emirati food lies in the spice mix that complements the flavours inherent in the other ingredients, how much of a difference can traditional cooking methods make? "That is another secret," said Oberender. "And the secret is that it's so close to your home cooking that you can achieve the flavours. It's still cooked with gas or charcoal only - it's not a modern electric induction oven. The local process would involve a jidder cooking vessel. It's like a pressure cooker. The vessel is closed and there's charcoal placed at the bottom and on the top. Inside, the circulation of the steam cooks the food and keeps all the flavours there, so it's evenly cooked."
The signs are good for the home gourmet looking to re-create these traditional recipes - get the basics right and the rest is simple. "In these recipes we have something you can follow through yourself to a certain extent. That is why we made the effort to set up a cooking guide in the book, to make it clear and to explain how to execute a dish. The khameer is the best example," said Oberender, while leafing through the book and pointing to a sweet bread pancake that's traditionally cooked in a special oven available in Dubai's souqs. "You might think you will not be able to handle cooking that, but with this explanation I am sure people at home will be able to manage. That I think is the secret of the book, that it brings the idea of how to handle Emirati cuisine closer to the general public."
30: A Culinary Journey, Celebrating 30 Years of Our History, is available at Magrudy's, Virgin, Borders, Kinokuniya and Dubai Duty Free, and costs Dh150. firstname.lastname@example.org