though food is an essential part of people's lives, not
much attention is paid to food as an important component
of a nation's heritage and folklore.
food has had a defining role in the culture of the UAE.
Special events such as weddings are celebrated with
traditional food and other cultural features, while food
also plays a functional role in religion. In fact a
major change in the food culture of the Arabian region
occurred when Islam reached here in the 7th
What we know of
people's daily lives before that time has mainly been
discovered through archaeological research. The earliest
people lived predominantly along the coast and ate fish
and shellfish. Large shell middens found along the Gulf
coast are witness to this fact. At times these early men
made forays to the inland plains to hunt for gazelles,
hared and reptiles. In recent archaeological digs in
Suffouh 2 (within the boundaries of Internet City)
evidence was found of the large-scale slaughter of an
early species of camel, as well as of oryx and gazelles.
Grains, in the
form of wheat, barley and sorghum, were already a food
as long as 7000 years ago. These were made into porridge
or ground to flour for making breads. The "tanur" ovens
of the type that are still being used nowadays, have
been excavated in several prehistoric sites in the UAE.
The bread that was made in those days must have been
prepared mainly from wild grains.
From the Hijra (7th
Century) up until 1960 (when oil became important) there
are written and oral records of the local food culture.
In the early nomadic days wheat was used to make
unleavened bread ('abud) with a minimum of water (a
precious commodity in desert life) and this bread was
cooked in the embers of the campfire. Famous UAE dishes
such as harees and aseeda also make use of wheat and
wheat flour and date back to this time. During this
period the daily activities of the majority of the
people centered on the provision and processing of food.
Subsistence occupations were herding of camels, sheep
and goats, tending date gardens and small vegetable
plantations, fishing and fish drying. More and more
trades cam into existence: the pearl trade, charcoal
burning, dhow building and copper works. For the export
of locally produced goods overland camel routes
developed as well as overseas trading in dhows.
Accounts of the
life of the bedouin of the desert were few and far
between. The earliest Western visitor was a Bolognese
adventurer, Ludovico di Varthema, who joined a haj
caravan in 1503 and reached Yemen. The first scientific
expedition was a Danish one in 1762, of which only one
person of the six scientists survived. Carsten Niebuhr
published his account of the ill-fated Arabia felix
expedition ten years later. In this book the first
detailed description of coffee cultivation appears.
Coffee from Yemen was traded mainly from Aden and Mocha
to the coffee houses of Europe. However, in Arabia
coffee was already used much longer, as a coffee bean
dated to be 1000 years old was recently found at
archaeological digs in Kush, near Ras la Khaymah.
Charles Doughty, traveling in 1876-1868 provided a more
detailed account of the daily lives of the desert
bedouin. The first crossing of the Rub al Khali (the
Empty Quarter) was by Bertram Thomas in 1931, followed
some twenty years later by the travels of Wilfred
reported lavish meals, where the rules of hospitality
had obviously influenced the host to serve
extra-ordinary meals. Doughty, Bertram and Thesiger who
traveled with small parties of bedouin report much more
basic and monotonous food. The main meal was taken in
the evening after the milking. During traveling days
they ate 'abud, the unleavened bread that was cooked in
the fires. During rest periods in tribal encampments
large quantities of unleavened bread (shirak or rukak)
would be cooked on a saj – a convex metal sheet - over a
fire. If small game had been hunted for meat, this would
be thrown on the fire, skin and all, but if a beast was
slaughtered for a special occasion it would be cooked in
a large stewpot (jidda). In early days this was served
with wheat, but when rice became available through
import, this was preferred. As snacks during the rest of
the day a few dates and some camel milk was all that was
available. Dates (tamr) were very important for survival
in the desert. They were readily available in every
oasis, were easy to consume, unperishable, and
economical to transport. They were also nutritious camel
fodder. The bedouin made a special preserve of flour,
dried dates and clarified butter (samn), heated together
and kneaded into a solid mass. This ba-theeth was easy
to carry and kept well on long journeys.
Samn was prepared
by churning fresh goat or sheep's milk in a skin which
was inflated by blowing into it at regular intervals.
The fresh butter (zibdeh) was heated with flour and
spices. The samn was then stored in goatskins for
commercial use and in the skin of the dhub (Spiny-tailed
agame) for their own use. It was a major commercial
product of the bedouin herdsmen and was sold to provide
them with money to buy the staples they needed. These
staples included, besides dates, flour, wheat and rice.
Another milk product was yoghurt (laban) which was
salted and drained to make mereesy or jamid. Soon after
making it still resembled cheese, but after a while it
would become rock-hard, and could be nibbled as a
traveller's food or reconstituted with water after
having been ground into a powder.
Travelling in a
hot, dry climate the bedouin needed fluids to replace
what they lost during their exertions. Water was
precious and often of poor quality. Only after sporadic
heavy rains would a wadi flow and leave a few puddles
remaining for some days. Wells or permanent water holes
were deep, often up to 60 feet, and it was difficult to
haul the water to the surface. If a large camel herd
had to be watered, the bedouin would work in relays for
many hours. The waiting camels would urinate around the
wells and contaminate the water.
The social drink
of the Bedouin was coffee, qahwa. Green coffee beans
were always freshly roasted in a mahmas (roasting
spoon). The roast beans would be cooled in a wooden
tray. In some bedouin families the coffee was brewed in
a clay medlah. It would be transferred to the classic
beaked Arabian coffee pot of tinned copper or brass,
called dalla and served in small ceramic cups, finjaan.
It was often flavoured with cardamom.
Another source of
fluids was milk, haleeb. The nomadic Bedouin could
choose between the milk from camels, goats or sheep. The
first was much preferred and considered healthier, while
the other two were used mainly to make butter and
cheese. Camel milk has since been extensively researched
and found to have medicinal properties (a remedy for
diabetes and very high in vitamin C) besides its
important nutritional value. The milk diet was however
not satisfying in some respects; bedouin complained to
the explorer Doughty and begged him for "Damascus kaak
(biscuit), it is six weeks since I have chewed
Tea drinking was
introduced at a relatively late stage. Doughty may be
held responsible in part for its introduction as he
carried supplies for his own consumption and several
times offered it to bedouin who had not tasted it
depended on their herds and flocks. The camel was the
supreme possession providing transport for man, milk for
food and drink, meat, hair and hides and dung for fuel.
Camels were wealth and would rarely be slaughtered for
meat. Any camel meat usually came from the slaughter of
surplus bull calves or injured or sick beasts.
Goats and sheep
could only be kept where water was available. They were
kept primarily for milk and meat and also skins, hair
and wool to make woven goods. The milk was mainly made
meatless monotony of the day-to-day meals, it is no
surprise that an occasional hare or dhub was considered
a delicacy. Hares and more rarely gazelles were hunted
with both falcons and saluki dogs. The sandfish or skink
that occurs in large numbers on sand dunes could be
caught during their early morning sunbath, and was a
popular addition to the diet. As late as the early
1980's I was invited to such a skink feast, when I had
been found with my car stuck in the sand.
The nomadic bedouin rarely had access
to food of plant origin. Although there are many
different species of plants in the desert, the Bedouin
only used a few for food. There are several plants which
have water storage capabilities in the roots. The roots
of others, such as the Red thumb Cynomorion
coccineum, were savoured as a kind of aspargaus.
The desert truffle, faga, was also harvested and eaten
on the relatively rare occasions when they appeared
after early winter rains. Many plants were known to have
medicinal or veterinary value and these were often
collected. Calligonum comosum or "arta"
was a plant that had many uses. The wood was used for
fires, the young shoots as a salad green and the bright
red fruits provided a spice for rice. The ubiquitous
Asphodel lily was used to make dried cakes of
boiled curdled milk (iqt), while the whole plant, boiled
in water was used as a laxative. The two species of
sorrel that occur in the Emirates were always collected
as a vitamin C-rich salad green.
It was only when
local people visited the oasis that they could obtain
good dates and other fruits such as the nabak, the fruit
of the sidr tree (Zizyphus spina-christi).
Of course the people living in
the mountains had easier access to fruit and vegetables,
while those on the coast had a great variety of fish and
sometimes dugong or turtle meat in their diet.
Although in recent times the
residents of the Emirates have had access to an enormous
selection of imported foods, some of the old traditional
foods are still being prepared regularly.
breads in the UAE are interesting. There are sweet and
savoury forms: khamis, logaimat, regagg, and mahalah to
name but a few. Unfortunately these traditional breads
are in danger of disappearing because they are replaced
by processed bread from supermarkets, or by khubz from
immigrant artisans. Only a few of the older people still
know the old bread making techniques, and young people
living in a more hurried world do not have the patience
to make their own bread. The same goes for some of the
wheat and date dishes mentioned above.
However the food
traditions can be kept alive by those who are
interested, since many of the old recipes have been
collected and published in athe "Complete United Arab
Emirates Cookbook" by Celia Ann Brock-Al Ansari. They
can also be obtained from the website:
Some old recipes
adapted to this day and age (from the Complete UAE
Cookbook by C.A. Al ansari
ragga meaning thin and delicate) bread is made daily
during Ramadan. It is also a popular winter-time bread,
eaten fresh and warm from the griddle with oil drizzled
over, then folded into pieces and eaten with fresh
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
water (tepid from tap)
Put flour and
salt in a large bowl, slowly start adding the water and
make a thick dough. Knead well. When the dough has lost
much of its elasticity, work in around 1 cup more water
at the end to make the dough slightly soft, yet pliable.
Cover with a wet cloth and leave for 12 hours.
Use a thick, ungreased iron or aluminum tortilla griddle
for cooking the bread over the heat. Once it is hot,
take a bowl of water, dip your hand in the water, then
take a ball of dough. Place it on the outer edge of the
griddle, then gently push it around the whole surface in
a circular fashion, with a metal spatula or the side of
your hand. Put any dough which drops off in the center
of the griddle back into the bowl for the next bread to
Once the outer edges are slightly golden, the bread is cooked. Remove
from griddle with a spatula or blunt end of a knife.
BA-THEETH ~ Date crumple
An Arab favourite, this dish is from the UAE and is served
regularly with qahwa (Arabian coffee).
2 3/4 cups seh - ripe sticky dates
1 teaspoon cardamom
1 1/4 cups toasted sesame seeds
3/4 cup samn (rendered butter)
Brown the flour
in a skillet, stirring to avoid burning. Stone the dates
and pull them apart with your hand. Place in a large
mixing bowl and sprinkle the cardamom and sesame seeds
over. Gradually add the samn and browned flour, a little
at a time, working the ingredients in with the
When all is well blended, the mixture should resemble large biscuit
crumbs. The mixture will keep for a week.