There’s something that I realised on my recent visit to the Middle East and that’s the fact that there is more to their food than just Shawarma, Falafel, Hummus, and Salad!
I was in Riyadh recently for work and with enough time on hands, so, I decided to make my first-ever trip to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE extensively, and trust me, besides gaining wisdom on food, I also ended up gaining a lot around my waist (no kidding!!)
Welcome the Middle East where every meal is turned into a celebration! The Arabs love their food as a mother would love her children. It’s mind-boggling to see how families come together and transform something as regular as eating one’s meal into a big, fun-filled get-together.
What also caught my eye is the generous portions of food they offer to guests as part of their customs. And hey, do not commit the cardinal sin of turning the food down for refusing anything is considered as an insult of epic proportions.
Every guest is welcomed with Ghava (strong black tea with green cardamom and some local spices), dry fruits such as Dates, figs, almonds, tea cakes, and chocolates. I found it very intriguing to see that, as part of their customs, they never fill the tea up to the brim but rather take the pain of filling your cup several times once the starts emptying the cup. the logic behind is that the guest never runs out of his piping hot tea!
The culinary journey that I embarked took me to different parts of the region. Though, I was most impressed by some stunning recipes from Yemen, Egypt, and Turkey that are yet to gain the limelight.
My first pearl of discovery was Muqalqal, a stewed lamb dish served in a sizzling stoneware deep dish from Yemen. I just loved its succulence and the aroma accompanied by the sizzle of the stoneware. This was served with a huge Khabus, their bread, which is easily double the size of an Indian Naan
Another of my hot-favorite is Hamam ma’shi, which essentially is pigeon stuffed with wild rice, berries and sultanas, a seedless grape variety. It’s an excellent combination of flavors that renders a sweet and mushy taste to the dish, thus making you fall in love with it. A delicacy in Egypt, these pigeons are only offered to special guests and are bred only for consumption. I just loved the way they served me their specialty over a very pretty grill.
Special mention to the beef, chicken and lamb kebabs. Every time I reached for a helping, I always found them cooked to perfection thus making it sumptuous and succulent and were served dry on Khubus. I could actually taste the meat with some seasoning, mostly cooked on a charcoal grill or taboon (tandoor).
Then there was the (mutton) Laham Mandi which is to die for. Mandi means, ‘Dew’ due to the nature of the moisture in the rice. It is slow-cooked traditionally in a special underground clay oven and is full of rich, earthy flavors.
Another spectacular dish that I explored was Kippi, an Arabic meatloaf, which is not available in the open market is made of minced beef, with crunchy onions, boiled eggs and a blend of aromatic herbs baked to perfection which was served to me at someone’s house and wow, did I get a taste of heaven! In fact, I actually took some home as a doggy bag for my next meal, need I say more.
Hail Arabic Hospitality!
At an Istraha (a farmhouse party) I tasted an unforgettable dessert, the Umm Ali; a slow-cooked milk, puff pastry, laced with honey and full of dry fruits. An equivalent of North America’s bread pudding, it’s an all-time favourite at every buffet and wedding, people tell me.
Legend had it that Umm Ali (Mother of Ali) was the first wife of the Sultan Ezz El Din Aybek, who was was killed by the second wife. In celebration of her death, she ordered to make the most delicious dessert and distribute it among the people of the land. Some unsavoury history there but I lived my dessert nonetheless.
Another sweet surprise waiting for me was the Turkish Kunafah, a flaky pastry with a filling of Nabulsi (soft white cheese) dipped in a sweet syrup that makes it creamy and sweet.
Now, I am a quintessential bong (Bengali) with a sweet tooth (all of 32, actually). So, I tried a variation; the Kunafah stuffed with Galaxy Chocolate….Ah, I died and went straight into heaven.
If you are a serious food lover, then go explore the Middle East. Just don’t slip into a food comma!