Jordan is one of those places that my brain was all “hey, you know about this” but then I quickly realized that nope, I really don’t know much of anything.
Today is a great day to start learning, so…let’s get started.
It was thumbs up for the food from Egypt, and it’s another win for the food from the United Arab Emirates. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I like everything I’m cooking, since I am the one picking out the recipes I’m cooking…awesome how that works!
Anyway. I tried to roll out old-school, which wasn’t particularly easy to do. From what I can tell, the UAE is now such a mix of cultures that traditional Emirates food takes a bit of a back seat. Lebanese and Indian food seem to be very popular – both of which I love, but whose time is not now on this blog.
Okay then. Let’s get down to it, shall we? All of the recipes below are adapted from the book “The Complete United Arab Emirates Cookbook” by Celia Ann Brock – Al Ansari. Copyright © 1994 by Celia Ann Brock-Al Ansari and were found via the following websites / blogs:
http://gingerandscotch.com/category/recipes/recipes-uae (this is a really fun blog – you should check it out!) and http://www.fahad.com/Dishes/
The basis of Emirates cooking is a spice blend called bezar. This isn’t readily found on the spice racks of neighborhood stores here in Cincinnati, but we are lucky to have Findlay Market’s resident spice guru Colonel De. They kindly mixed up a batch for me and I was on my way.
(Traditional UAE spice blend)
I didn’t ask them to toast the spices (and I got a much smaller amount), and then I promptly forgot about it, which I’m sure has an impact on the taste. Next time, I’ll buy the components and do the whole process myself.
The other critical ingredient in many UAE recipes is dried limes (loomi). Not the most attractive things in the world, but they are little powerhouses of flavor. Just toss them in whole and let them work their magic. I could have gotten these at Colonel De’s as well, but I had found them just a few minutes earlier at Dean’s Mediterranean Imports. (Try their homemade Greek yogurt – it’s in one of the cases in the back.)
The meal was looking to be a little heavy for a hot summer evening, so I wanted to balance the food out with something refreshing to drink. The recipe below references homemade rose water, but I had some store-bought in the pantry. This was so, so good and very easy to make! My husband bent the rules a little and threw in some vodka, which he said was quite pleasant (of course).
The main entree I chose to make is a stew called Saloona. Made with chicken, fish or other meat, it is something that traditional Emirates and Bedouin households have cooking on the stove pretty much all of the time, especially during Ramadan. I found this to be very easy to make and super tasty – and the house smelled so good while it was cooking. And the leftovers kept getting better and better. I’ll be making this again, especially during the winter.
I served the stew with its traditional accompaniment, steamed rice. The recipe calls for samen, which is clarified butter. I don’t know why I didn’t try to find it, but I just used ghee instead. I assume the flavor is the same? I’ll do better research next time…The cooking method for the rice was a little different than just boiling, and produced the fluffiest rice. We really enjoyed it; yet another dish going into standard rotation! I feel like I am learning so much.
We were pretty full by this point, but a special meal is never complete without dessert. This is another recipe that would be great in the winter – warm milk with cardamom. Served with medjool dates, it’s as easy as it sounds, and even more delicious. I’m not a big milk drinker, so I don’t know how it would normally affect me, but after a mug I fell happily asleep on the couch.
Finding something substantial to read about the UAE was a bit harder than I expected – most titles on offer are either travel books or how-to guides on business etiquette. Very little history or in-depth analysis of the present day. And no fiction. Seemingly a blank slate…That in itself is quite telling; from my very brief literary visit it seems that the UAE is a country in the process of Becoming. This is a place that has essentially come into existence overnight, and the shock waves haven’t stopped spreading yet. So many of the mechanisms needed for real self-reflection have not settled into place, and it seems like it may be awhile before they will…
The book I chose was Diamond in the Desert: Behind the Scenes in the World’s Richest City, written by a British ex-pat, Jo Tatchell, who grew up in Abu Dhabi in the 1970’s. Tatchell is uniquely positioned to comment on the city; her childhood memories are of a dusty outpost that could barely fight back the desert, and the differences between her recollections and the uber-modern metropolis of today create a fascinating framework for storytelling.
I’d be curious to know if you could actually buy this book in the UAE; the author displays great fondness for Abu Dhabi, but does not pull any punches about the dark side. Crimes hidden, brutality whitewashed, snuff films (!), pet jaguars that throw themselves off of balconies in despair; there were times when I was so unsettled that I had to walk away for a few days. Not to say that this is the whole story of course. It’s just that the city seems so new, and its occupants so forward-reaching that it feels like there isn’t much to hold on to. It will be interesting to revisit every few years to see what comes from all of this…