Happy National Day, UAE!
In celebration of National Day, I had been invited over a fellow blogger’s home to learn about Emirati Cuisine. Arwa Loutah, opened her home to welcome us and share her family’s food traditions and recipes. A simple gesture that so profoundly reflects her pride and love of her local cuisine, her family tradition and her heritage.
Themed to the UAE National Day, she made sure we get a glimpse into the Emirati Heritage through food. We got to see, first hand, how the food is made and how the cook takes the time to craft delicious platters of varied and flavour packed preparations, for the guests to have an unmatched experience. From the moment we walked in, to that when we walked out, we were shown, not told, how generous the Emirati people are. Reflected by the abundant use of spices and aromatics in the preparation of their foods, to the insistent approach of using all ingredients fresh and premium, the cuisine and whole experience is just rich and so giving.
We met Arwa’s Mum, who was actually the one cooking the food. A fabulous lady with so much love for food it radiates out of her. With typical motherly care she explained to us which spices are used in Emirati Cooking, the steps in which the food is prepared, and the finished presentation and accompaniments. She cooked “Fogat Diyay”, which literally translates into ‘above chicken’, basically a dish of spiced and aromatic chicken and rice. I got to chat with her and bombard her with all my favourite questions about Emirati Spice Mixes, differences between Emirati cuisine and neighbouring GCC cuisines, and she was more that happy to answer all these questions for me. The whole event was so informative, and pleasant I really enjoyed it.
|Arabic Coffee Dalleh & Cups|
We were received with a warm tray of Arabic coffee and mint tea. Even the coffee had spices and aromatics, it is fabulous. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that like in Jordan, The Emirati Coffee Traditions are one of the same. Despite the difference in the actual coffee – the Emirati one being light coloured and spiced, while the Jordanian coffee being rich and dark – the serving traditions are exactly the same. The host would hold the Dallah (coffee container) with the left hand, while holding the coffee cup with the right hand. She then would pour the coffee half-full into the cup, and would wait for you to drink it while still holding the Dallah, until you shake the cup to indicate you are done and don’t want more. In Arab tradition, this is utmost hospitality and welcome, as it indicates that the host is there for your service, until you – the guest – are done.
|Batheeth left and Dates right|
We were then taken to the dining room for a traditional Emirati breakfast. On the menu:
Not only did the food look mouthwatering, it actually tasted delicious! I was very curious about an aromatic common flavour used in all the dishes I tried, but could not place it. (I am very good with identifying flavours and so I was intrigued by this that I could not pin point). I did not say anything, I waited… But nonetheless ate, and totally enjoyed it. The event was for food bloggers. So you can imagine the enthusiasm about the food, and all the expressive comments about textures, flavours and food traditions. But the funny thing about food bloggers getting together is that it is kind of like a red carpet event! At any point in time there are at least 5 bodies in the most awkward positions holding cameras, flashing away multiples of pictures just in case the shot did not make it to usable! So amongst the flash lights, the noises of indulgence, and all the talk about food, my mind was still lingering over that flavour. It is very familiar, yet so far away, I could not place it. I had to ask! So I did, I asked about the flavour in the cottage cheese; which by the way is delicious and just the right texture I could eat it everyday! Arwa explained that it is the spice mix ‘Bzar’ that is responsible for that flavour. It had to rest for now, but I was still hung on it, I had to know what is in it! I could tell there was cinnamon, cumin, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom…. but there was something else that is almost perfumey! Very aromatic but in a perfume kind of way… It had to wait for now…
|Chami – the most perfect home-made cottage cheese|
After devouring the breakfast, we then moved to the kitchen, where we met Arwa’s Mum, who was to show us the works of Emirati Cuisine! Just like with any cuisine, good food starts with a good broth. So starting off with chicken broth, we learnt how this cuisine utilises spices in the accumulation of flavour layers. I could almost hear the seeds popping like mini fireworks inside that pot, and the sizzling as the chicken touched the heat of the home-made ghee! I was in heaven… The smell of the toasting spices, and the sweetness from caramelising chicken skin to the citric tones from the dried lime (lumy) were all shaking my palate into an awakening. I had just had Breakfast!! and a huge one! But I had to eat that food which I can already taste by smell! It was Divine! Finally, the broth was done! It was getting closer to tasting…
|Making of Chicken broth for Fogat|
In swift movements, Arwa’s mum separates the chicken from the broth, strains it and uses this stock of flavours to partially cook the rice. Then layers the chicken amidst the rice, covering it with more rice, covers the pot and places in the oven to slowly cook to perfection… I was in agony! I wanted it to be ready already, I wanted to dive into that pot of flavour heaven! I had to be distracted. So I finally asked the question: What is the ingredient that lends that almost perfumy flavour? Kind of like Bkhoor (the incense that Emirati’s burn at their homes)? Arwa explains that every family have their own Bzar mix, the recipe of which is a secret. She went on saying that she actually does not know what exactly is in it! I was frustrated! I had to know! you know how sometimes it’s like the word is at the top of your tongue but you still don’t seem able to articulate it? That is exactly how I felt. I knew that aroma, but I could not place it. I decided to go to her mum. She gave me the ingredients that make Bzar, I was so grateful and happy that she did, but none of them was responsible for that aroma, I decided to let go…
|The Foga rice|
While at it, I have asked her how all the other things were made… the poor woman had to deal with my food curious mind that never rests, I seriously could spend a whole week there talking food. So much like my own mum, with care and gentle understanding she smiles at me and answers my many many questions 🙂
I go back to my seat, and I asked those next to me if they had any idea what it could be! Here is the thing, very rare are the occasions when I can’t place a flavour. One like this one is so pungent it actually makes the whole experience. In these occasions my mind wins over me, driven by curiosity, it just has to know! One suggested Sandal wood. That is it I thought! Sandal wood is aromatic and quite perfumey, that must be it! Relieved at my findings, I could now rest and concentrate on the rest of the food.
Cooking right now was Balaleet (a savoury sweet dish made out of sweetened vermicelli, mixed with onions and scrambled eggs usually served for breakfast). When I tried it, I found that it was quite unusual! Not exactly my preferred flavour combinations, but very different.
It was then time to sample and I am telling you, the Foga is just extraordinary! It is food as I like it! Spiced, packed full with flavour, and indulgent with pure goodness on a plate! The type of food made for sharing, for many to enjoy at once. In every way, Arabic Cuisine! Paired with Mango pickles! or Pickled Onions! or Pickled Limes!!! I can’t tell you enough! It did not disappoint, in fact it over delivered!! I love it and will be making lots of it.
The whole day was perfect, from the company, to the food to the whole experience I could not have expected more! An Emirati home is one full of culture, tradition and heritage. In True Arabic Tradition, the Emirati’s are exemplary of fine hospitality, generosity, and grace. Just like their country, they are welcoming, warm and inviting people, they have made us feel right at home.
|Chami with dates|
PS As I went back home and kept thinking of that flavour that was driving me crazy. I found myself unhappy with the sandlewood option!!! It could not be, it tasted different. That is when I found out what that aroma was!!!! The word slipped from the top of my tongue out as a voice and it said: “frankincense!!!” that’s what it was!!! I knew I knew it. Just could not pin it!! And now I did!!! YAY!! :))
Arwa, Thank you for the fabulous introduction to Emirati Cuisine.
Happy National day UAE 🙂