I struggled with this book. Which is not a bad thing.
It felt incredibly remote and yet uncomfortably intimate, all at the same time. I felt like there was a bit of a desperate truth that was always just out my reach, hidden behind a layer of ice. The whole thing felt…distant. I sat for days with that, trying to make sense of it but kept drawing a blank.
I talked it out with someone who I very much respect and it all started to make sense. The story was about a man in exile, and what he goes through when he can finally make it home. People don’t call themselves exiles for happy reasons; if that word pops up, you have to know there is trauma somewhere close by.
The exile IS the thing, right? Can a narrator who has dealt with that, and has decided to brave returning to the scene of his pain, speak freely? Why would he even want to? Do you deserve to know what he’s gone through? Could you even begin to understand?
The author, Amjad Nassar, is an accomplished novelist, travel writer, and poet. Finding that out after I read the book helped fit another piece of the puzzle; this is a translation from Arabic (by Jonathan Wright), and I’m now painfully aware that I don’t know the traditions of Arabic poetry. I could feel it flow through the prose, but it was an unfamiliar rhythm. More distance…
One of the points of this blog is to find exactly that space. We are molded by our language, the tales we hear as children, the things we read as we grow older. Those things literally form the way we think; I know I’ll never really be able to transcend my ingrained patterns, but my goal is to learn as much as I can about other ways of seeing this world. I’m thankful that books like this have been translated into English, so I have a path to walk.
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.
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)
1 cup cumin seeds (whole)
1 cup fennel seeds (whole)
1 cup cinnamon sticks
1 cup coriander seeds (whole)
1/2 cup pepper corns (whole)
1/4 cup dried red chillies (whole)
1/2 cup turmeric powder
Roast cumin, fennel, cinnamon, coriander, pepper corns and dried chilies over a low heat, stirring continuously, until the spices turn golden.
Remove from heat, cool for a bit and then grind in a blender or mortal and pestle. Stored in an airtight container, the mix will keep for up to 10 months.
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).
Aseer tazza / Loomi ma bourta-gal
(Lemon/Orange Drink with Rose Water)
6 oranges (juiced)
3 lemons (juiced)
Sugar to taste
1 teaspoon rose water
Place all ingredients in blender and mix. Add a little water if needed to get to desired texture.
Garnish with orange slices and a mint sprig.
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.
De-jaj Murrag / Saloona
1 chicken cut into 8 pieces
2 onions finely chopped
1/2 cup corn oil
2 cloves garlic crushed
1 1/2 teaspoons bezar
salt to taste
2 fresh tomatoes chopped
2 potatoes cut into chunks
1 carrot finely chopped
1 bunch chopped cilantro
6-8 cups water
I teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
2 whole loomi (dried lemon)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
In a large stock pot, saute onion until soft. Add bezar and saute for a minute or two.
Add chicken and salt. Brown.
Add spices, garlic and both loomi. Saute for 5 minutes on low heat.
Add all remaining ingredients (except cilantro)
Boil slowly until chicken and veggies are tender.
Transfer to serving dish and sprinkle with cilantro.
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.
(Boiled White Rice or Steamed Rice)
8 cups boiling water
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups rice, soaked
5 tablespoons samen
In saucepan, boil water and salt
Add drained rice, stir and then cook, covered, over a low heat for 10 minutes
Test rice – you want it just slightly undercooked
Drain and run cold water over to keep grains separated.
In the same pot, melt half of the samen (or ghee)
Add rice, then top with remaining samen (or ghee)
Cover with a tightly cover lid and let steam for 20 minutes. No peeking!
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.
Haleeb ma hal
(Milk with Cardamom)
6 cups fresh milk
sugar to taste
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
In a saucepan, bring all ingredients to a rapid boil. Stirring constantly, boil for one or two minutes.
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…