x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Every grain of rice comes from God

Like Bob Dylan, I 'can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand'

There are dozens of falafel joints in this city, each with its own recipe for those spicy deep-fried chickpea balls. Falafel-makers vary in their use of fresh herbs; there's also the issue of the oil itself, whether it's beef fat or vegetable.

I prefer my falafel sandwich spicy, which means adding hot sauce to the two mashed falafels, tahina and finely chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, rolled tightly in pita. I used to buy them "Arabi" style, which meant wrapping it all in a lighter type of bread, along with room-temperature French fries. In terms of fried food, that was just gilding the lily, however, so I stopped.

At one of the places I go, I always leave a tip for workers. Three extra dirhams on a seven-dirham cost for two sandwiches isn't much; mostly I think they just appreciate the tip and smile.

The owner dispenses good cheer when I see him. I helped try to find his son a job a few summers ago. That probably went a few miles in the Great Race of Kindnesses. I always ask about his family, even though I've never met them. And he always asks after mine: he's met my wife and daughter, who are fans of his hummus and falafel plates.

When we vacationed last year, he was excited to hear about our trip and proud to hear how much we had enjoyed his country.

Recently, I sat down at a table while waiting for my sandwiches. The owner, who was in the back sweating over the hot oil, came out with a plate of rice. He placed it in front of me. "Oh, no, I couldn't. Thank you," I said. "You must," he said. And so I did.

I didn't regret one mouthful. The short-grain rice was cooked with tomato and peppers and topped with a spicy sauce. He sat at my table. I asked what was in the sauce. "Tomato, chilli," he said. Then he smiled. "The rest is my secret."

I laughed. When sharing recipes, chefs can be divided into two camps: they do or they don't. And those that do, never, ever give it to you straight.

I told him I had made harissa paste the other night for a Moroccan tagine. He seemed impressed. It's not everyone who bothers making it from scratch. I said I'd made my own ras el hanout as well. Either my pronunciation was off or this top of the shelf Moroccan spice mix didn't cross the Mediterranean.

I complimented him again on his rice dish, which he said he had made for his family for dinner.

Then my table companion got serious. "Never refuse even a single grain of rice," he said. "Even one grain comes from God."

He wasn't going to get an argument from me. Like Bob Dylan, who "can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand", I can see the hand of Allah the Creator and the Provider in a grain of rice.

I thanked him again and I paid his employee. I left my usual tip. The Bangladeshi man smiled. I should know his name. I knew the names of his predecessors, Egyptians who had worked there a couple of years before absconding in June.

I was surprised they had left, but then I recalled a friend telling me last year he had seen the owner, a big man, standing about 5 feet 10 and weighing a good 90 kilos, beating two of his workers.

It reminded me of the paradoxes and contradictions we live with and, no matter how much we might know a man - or even a chef's recipe - we don't know everything.

rbeauchemin@thenational.ae