x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

A move back to the kitchen

The UAE seems to be curiously drifting farther from its culinary source, a sad but somewhat predictable outcome of our accelerated urban development and lack of a strong rural faction.

There's more to Emirati food than dates.
There's more to Emirati food than dates.

When too much is never enough, quality and quantity are bound to butt heads. Today, much of the world is feverishly embracing progressive movements such as farmers' markets, food patriotism, school garden initiatives and organisations for the preservation of authentic recipes and oldworld cooking methods. In similar respects, the UAE seems to be curiously drifting farther from its culinary source, a sad but somewhat predictable outcome of our accelerated urban development and lack of a strong rural faction. The good news is that it is not all bad news.

When I consider the pleasant but tedious diet on which my father subsisted for the first half of his life, I cannot blame him for later choosing organic turkey burgers over mutton stew. Even as an active proponent of local foods, I am glad that we have moved beyond a rotating line-up of fresh, salt-cured and sun-dried fish, dates, milk and rice. Locally sourced foods may not always be an ideal option, nor even a viable one.

Few adherents to a traditional Emirati diet soldier forward in defiance or indifference to our culture of plenty. Even fewer are impervious to the siren call of enchiladas, cheesecake, and a big sloppy side dish of Type II diabetes. What we are seeing is a globalised food culture and economy that is increasingly less self-sustaining. If the ways in which people approach the preparation and consumption of food reveal their perceptions of family, community, and nourishment, then what does the modern Emirati kitchen, pantry and dinner table, inform us about the past, present and future of the Emirates?

To begin with, there appears to be an inverse relationship between the evolution of home cooking in the Gulf and elsewhere in the industrialised world. As it becomes a dying art in the Emirates, other countries are undergoing a home cooking revolution, due in part to the staggering popularity of food celebrities and cooking shows, that is bringing a new generation of people into the kitchen. As a cook, I am drawn to a warm stove like hot grease to a white chef's coat. As a local, I know others like me who are passionate about eating, but none seem to exhibit any interest in cooking. Most nationals hire full-time cooks, thus ushering in a motley crew of habits, flavours and proclivities more international than the spice aisle at Spinneys. And though it's akin to comparing apples to rice, Arab countries where cooking isn't stigmatised by socioeconomic or gender-specific factors seem to foster a heartier enthusiasm for the hands-on experience.

The Emirates as we know it came into existence almost 40 years ago, but the local cuisine is an estimated 7,000 years old. In spite of this, many people, including locals, have no idea what local food is exactly. Much of it has been hybridised from India, East Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. These days, it is just as frequently tempered by a judicious handful of Lipitor as with the requisite volume of animal fat for quelling spells of Emirati nostalgia. Meanwhile, cumin-scented clarified butter continues to be poured over rice as the Emirati staff of life. And as with many cultures, there is no real tradition of dining out. Emirati food is amazingly elusive, and can generally only be found in people's homes. That said, like the legendarily hospitable Bedouins who lived here before us, Emirati generosity, when in its element, knows no bounds.

The people of Ras al Khaimah, where my father was raised, are known locally as ahl al-bobar or "the people of the pumpkin", after their famously cultivated local squash. There is an easy, sweet, simple nature to a place where people still weave the escapades of djinns into their daily chronicles. When I think of Emirati food, I do not think of harees and machbous, but of a famed, clandestine tea cafe in Ajman, run by an Indian tea master whose secret was rumoured to be biscuits dissolved into the hot milk. I remember mute, dusty men with hapless faces and blood-red corneas selling dark honey in Vimto bottles and candy floss in plastic bags on the side of the road. I remember my brother and I removing the floppy cone-shaped woven straw apparatus intended to keep flies off the fruit tray, then running around with it over our heads like a giant sombrero. Even our food memories seem so rarely, if ever, to be about food itself. Instead, food is the medium, or the tie that binds, and the stories write themselves.

In the United States, the subject of barbecue is an inflammatory topic with countless battle scars to show for it. Regional variations on a couple of themes manage to be at once incendiary and unmistakably distinct. Though the UAE shares a portion of its culinary lexicon with its Gulf neighbours, when it comes to our relationship to our own foods, we seem to be missing terroir - a sense of that which is unique to the Emirates - and with it, a real pride in and understanding of our cultural identity.

Neither one of my parents cook, and they are none the poorer for it. Both were raised by mothers who doted on them and who cooked for them passionately and tirelessly. Perhaps it skipped a generation, and perhaps I should have paid closer attention when I had the chance, but I still think that people tend to place too heavy a value than is warranted on the importance of inherited traditions. After all, the best hummus I have ever eaten was not at someone's grandmother's table, but from a recipe by the cookbook author Clifford A Wright. Even without the heavy seasoning of sentimentality, the hummus is sublime.

The dilution of culture is attributed to the loss of tradition, particularly poignant in a society that hinges largely on oral folklore. The identity and integrity of Emirati cuisine already hinges almost entirely on oral folklore and foreign cooks. What I am proposing is a return to the kitchen. Talk to your grandparents, if you are fortunate enough to still have them around. It is never too late to start uncovering old traditions, or too early to start creating new ones of our own.