Feature Authentic Emirati cuisine is a rare thing in the nation's restaurants. We go in search of the real deal.
UAE on the menu
The playful sound of birdsong fills a serene little courtyard in a quiet corner of Bur Dubai. The morning sun drips through the gaps in a gently wavering canopy, the light reflected by four gleaming tureens arranged neatly on a traditional Arabian carpet. I take my seat with a group of people, barefoot and chattering quietly, on a rectangular bank of plump cushions. An air of anticipation builds among the surrounding whitewashed stone pillars and verdant house plants as we wait. We're at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding at the Bastakiya heritage site to sample a traditional homemade Emirati breakfast and to learn more about the history and culture of the cuisine.
When our host Salamah Muhajira lifts the lids from the tureens, the clouds of steam disperse to reveal surprised expressions on some of the guests' faces. It's not that the food is particularly odd. On the contrary, there's nothing more unusual than chickpeas, bread, dumplings, omelette and vermicelli noodles. It's the fact that genuine Emirati food is such a rare sight for restaurants in the UAE that provokes such intrigue.
You may have eaten Arabic food at restaurants in this part of the world, but the chances are that it wasn't genuinely Emirati. Fattoush? No, that's Lebanese. Foul medammas? Egyptian. What about baba ganoush? Nice try, but that's Lebanese again. One of the tureens at the cultural breakfast yields round doughy dumplings of deep-fried batter called luqiamat, which are sweetly drizzled in date syrup. They are traditionally Emirati and absolutely delicious, yet somewhat difficult to find. "It's not good for the foreigners who are here," says Muhajira with a shrug. "They want to taste it also. So, we need more Emirati restaurants, but they don't seem to stay open for long."
Muhajira should know. Although she is American by birth, she lived with an Emirati family in Portland, Oregon, for nine years before moving to live at their home in Al Ain. She converted to Islam 12 years ago and is now married to a man from Dubai. As she is at pains to point out, the local delicacies that grace the tables of her family home are a far cry from the fare served up to many restaurant goers. "Most of the Arabic restaurants here are not Emirati. There are no kebabs in Emirati food. There's no tabbouleh or hummus. It exists in some Arabic cuisines, but not in Emirati food. So the people are going to these restaurants thinking they're eating Emirati food, and they're not."
So what is Emirati food? For breakfast we had been served nakhee, or whole chickpeas cooked in a watery soup with delicate spices. We had khobz khameer bread made with cardamom and caraway seeds, which is puffed, golden brown and brushed with date syrup. There was also billaleet or sweet vermicelli noodles topped with omelette to go with the luqiamat dumplings. Muhajira patiently talks me through the Emirati lunch menu. "There's chicken, lamb and fish - a lot of fish. And for special occasions we'll have shrimp or camel meat. But camel meat isn't often eaten by city people, but by people of Bedouin heritage. Usually camel meat is reserved for when someone has died or been born. Camels are specially raised for that, usually smaller camels.
"You wouldn't slaughter a camel that's sick, and you wouldn't slaughter a camel that's good for breeding. And, of course, you don't slaughter racing camels - they are as valuable as thoroughbred racehorses," she chuckles. "Camel meat is expensive. You can order it through some of the butchers, but it would take time. And you'd be getting the whole camel!" Does the fact that some Emirati dishes are reserved for special occasions help to explain their scarcity in restaurants here? Muhajira tends to think so. "We also have harees, which is a porridge with shredded chicken in it. But it's very hard to make. This is why you'll see harees in Emirati houses mainly during Eid and other holidays, or when someone has given birth. Like women anywhere in the world, you want comfort food when you've given birth. It's the comfort food of the UAE."
Armed with some of Muhajira's suggestions of places that will rustle up a local dish or two, I begin exploring. Bin Eid restaurant in Dubai's Abu Hail has long been established as a place where families can enjoy traditional recipes. It is here that I find harees in all its globular glory. The dish may look like a splodge of stale porridge that even Goldilocks wouldn't try, but it's gorgeously creamy and full of wholesome flavour, like really thick chicken soup.
But what about cooking at home? Jessie Kirkness Parker, a chef, food writer and food stylist, is the author of the locally published recipe book A Taste of Arabia. The charming South African first came to the UAE in the 1970s, and her initial work as a journalist led to many encounters with Emirati cuisine. "I started writing women's news, that's how I met so many local women here. But in Arab tradition there's always food. It didn't matter what story I'd come to get or talk about. And being a chef I picked up a lot of recipes. I learnt a lot about Arabic food and Arabic tradition."
Parker believes the traditions, lifestyle and climate of the UAE have been instrumental in shaping the way people prepare their food. "This is a rustic cuisine," she elucidates in characteristically soft tones. "It's a cuisine that has developed and been honed through a lack of water. That's why there's a lot of dry ingredients used. Water is used very sparingly. There's not a huge amount of steaming and so on - the water is thrown into a pot and coveted.
"Even with barjilla and dango - a traditional dish of broad beans and chickpeas with cumin that I would get when I visited Bedouins in the desert in the 1970s - the water used to cook wouldn't be thrown away. It would be used for a stew. Stews were always made from one pot - all the bones would be added to make a stock, then the vegetables, spices and meat would be put in the same pot. So you can imagine how easy it would be to overcook the ingredients, and to not add the spices carefully enough. You can imagine how it's been interpreted by a lot of people."
Parker is leading up to one of her biggest bugbears when it comes to Emirati food in restaurants and hotels. "In the few restaurants that I've eaten at - particularly when you do see Emirati food cooked in restaurants - it's appallingly bad. I cannot imagine why anyone would leave the beautiful environment of their home kitchens to go and eat something that's been sitting in a bain-marie for four hours. Traditionally, when it's cooked at home, if it's ready you eat it. It isn't overcooked."
"What I try to do through A Taste of Arabia is show that rustic cuisines - if you approach them with the same amount of care as you would a roasted salmon, for example - are going to be just as beautiful and delicious," she says emphatically. "But I am highly critical of how most of the hotels and restaurants handle Emirati food." We talk about some of her favourite Emirati dishes, such as saloona - a stew made with chicken or fish and vegetables, with tomatoes and dried limes or "loomi". And she tells me about the Emirati tradition of making spice mixtures or biz'har from cardamom, cinnamon, cumin and other spices. "Why is it so hard for the hotels not to offer anything that good?" she asks in exasperation. "It would be easy to do, because if they just made up a biz'har spice mixture and rubbed it on fish, that's how simple it is to produce Emirati flavours."
It's a thought I take with me to Al Boom Tourist Village in Dubai, one of Salamah Muhajira's suggested venues for authentic Emirati food. There I meet Abdullah Hareb, the Emirati businessman and owner of the Creekside banqueting centre and restaurant complex. Originally from Shindagha in Dubai, Hareb was a director of immigration in the UAE prior to opening Al Boom in 1983. But when he shows me around the Creekside tourist village, it is depressingly bereft of tourists. It is a sad state of affairs that Hareb feels only too acutely. "Most of the tourists in Dubai never come to us," he tells me regretfully. "But everybody knows Al Boom. Instead [tour operators] take people out into the desert, show them a Russian belly dancer, and say it's typical Emirati culture. Let me tell you a secret - in Dubai we have not one lady dancer, there is no [belly] dancing. It's never been in our tradition."
We walk through cavernous ballrooms and banqueting suites, which is where most of Al Boom's meals are served. "Most of our customers come here for weddings," says Hareb. "And most of them are local people. We do have some foreign people coming to our restaurant for lunch, and they are surprised when they eat. They say they never get this type of food." A tour through spotless and expansive kitchens leads us to a row of combi ovens and Al Boom's executive chef, Munib Rushdi. A Jordanian with years of experience gained at a string of international hotel chains, Rushdi passionately explains how he prepares traditional Emirati roasted lamb with a contemporary twist. "We take fresh local meat, seal it then soak it in water with sliced onion, a little salt and vinegar. We marinate it for half an hour with tomato paste, cardamom, lemon, peppercorns, salt and saffron. Then we put it in the combi - one oven can cook 30 lambs in two hours. It's still a traditional dish, but cooked in a modern way."
Al Boom appears to be embracing modern technology, yet Hareb feels that not enough is being done to secure the future of authentic Emirati cuisine elsewhere in the industry. "People need to be trained. Somebody should take care of the food. For example, you will never find one restaurant in the local malls that gives only local food. Because people behind these companies are only looking for burgers and fast food. They never come and ask us for our food, even though our food is more healthy.
"To develop the food it needs somebody to look after it, very seriously. They need to open local restaurants, to give space and support to them. They make beautiful bread in the heritage area, but if you go into the city you cannot find it. You'll find a burger and a sausage, but there's nobody pushing the local food in the market," says Hareb.