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Sunday, July 14, 2024

The Tastes of the world in Dubai

by Julia Wheeler

© Al Habtoor Group

The position of Dubai and the United Arab Emirates at the cross roads of East and West means that it has benefit ted from many influences, which over the centuries it has incorporated into its own culture. The case of food is no exception. The UAE has chosen the tastiest morsels of other cuisines and adapted them to fit its own style, needs and circumstances.

Traditionally, in the interior of the country, the essential ingredients for a meal were that it be relatively easily transportable and that it would keep long enough to traverse the desert - or at least reach the next oasis.

The Bedouin had to be ingenious if they were to survive. They developed and passed down methods of ensuring their food would still be edible when they needed it most. Ash rolled around a fig for example, would ensure that the fruit stayed moist and protected against insects and fungi. Vegetables, were of course unobtainable in the heart of the barren desert. They were purchased at oases or on the coast and carefully dried to preserve their essential qualities and food value.

It almost goes without saying that dates were a staple. This miracle fruit was easy to transport, highly nutritious, and of course, tasty. Phoenix Dactylifera is the palm tree which provides the date and the plant has been cultivated for thousands of millennia. In other countries, the date has been confined to sweet dishes alone; in the UAE, it is often just as essential to savoury concoctions as to their sweeter counterparts.

When the Egyptian geographer Ptolemy documented this part of the world in the year 150 AD, he referred to it by the Greek name Icthyophagi, the Coast of Fish Eaters. It is no great surprise that that should be the case. Traditionally, people the world over eat what is easily available to them. It is only in more recent times that reliable and refrigerated transport has been able to provide such a wide variety of produce and cuisines for fortunate people to choose from.

The waters of the Arabian Gulf are a rich pelagic store of nourishment for those living near the coast. Fish has remained a popular and convenient choice in the region over the centuries, whether fried, stewed, cooked in an oven, or baked barbecue-style out of doors.

At the festivals of Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adha, as well as at celebrations, special food is prepared to mark the significance of the occasion and to celebrate the event in style. Al Khouzi is a favourite. A whole lamb or young camel is stuffed with rice, hard boiled eggs and a chicken and roasted - either over a fire on a spit or in an oven. The rice absorbs the juice of the meat and forms a tasty bed on which the animal is served. When it is ready for eating the khouzi is placed in the centre of the group and shared. The choicest morsels, the brain and the liver for example, are given to any guests lucky enough to have been invited.

Most of the spices used in the cooking of the Emirates come from the East, the result of centuries of trade with the Indian subcontinent and beyond. Like the rice which has become such an integral part of the country's cuisine, the spices were probably introduced by traders. Thousands of years ago, Herodotus, an ancient Greek traveller, talked of spices from India being found in the port cities of the Near East. Nowadays, both rice and spices like cardamom, juniper and taklia have become as essential to the flavour and texture of the UAE's food as dates and locally caught fish.

The use of spices is not confined to food. Arabic coffee or gahwa, takes its highly specific aroma and piquancy from the ground cardamom seeds and saffron used for its preparation. A small cup of coffee is an indispensable final flourish to any traditional meal in the Emirates. Coffee's popularity is not restricted to mealtimes and has been one of the most popular drinks in most of Arabia since the 15th Century.

To prepare the brew in traditional fashion, coffee beans are roasted, ground into a fine powder and added to boiling water along with the spices. It may then be brought to the boil twice or three times more before being drunk. The coffee is served with a flourish by the host; there is a very particular etiquette involved. With the coffee pot, or della in the left hand and a small pile of cups, or fanajeen, balanced in the right, each cup is filled to only a third of its capacity and presented to the drinker with the right hand. The coffee will keep coming until the guest indicates enough by gently shaking the cup.

The etiquette of eating in the Emirates originates from the Islamic religion. The right hand is used to eat with, food is taken only from directly in front of each person and eating is done while sitting down rather that walking or carrying out other tasks.

The influences on the UAE's food over the millennia have served to enhance local traditions. The blending of indigenous foods with the bounty of trade from many lands has created a rich culinary heritage to enjoy here in the United Arab Emirates.

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