When I started my Emirati cooking project in June 2008, almost three and a half years ago, it was so that I could learn more about the culture of the host country in which I was living.
With a dearth of restaurants to choose from at the time (and I wasn’t even sure how authentic they were), I decided to teach myself Emirati cooking.
In the four years that I’ve lived in Dubai, I’ve made very few Emirati friends (but have been invited to one Emirati wedding) and only recently experienced Emirati home cooking.
Last month, during the week of Thanksgiving, Arwa of La Mere Culinaire invited us to her Emirati home and into her mom’s kitchen for a lesson in Emirati cooking.
Wee Scotch and I embarked on a little adventure as we drove 40 minutes to a part of Dubai that we had never been to. Arwa’s neighborhood is an older but well-to-do part of the city, with many beautiful dwellings that could be labeled as mansions for their sheer size but are colloquially referred to as villas in Dubai.
As my son and I walked into the cul de sac leading to Arwa’s family villa, the first thing that struck me was the sound of chirping from a large aviary. Wee Scotch would normally be over-excited to see so many of his favorite feathered friends in one place but as he was in the midst of a toddler tantrum, the birds seemed to upset him more than excite.
So we quickly entered the villa and followed Arwa into a sitting room where many of my fellow Dubai Fooderati were already gathered.
Some were beautifully dressed in jalabiyas, which for females are long, flowy, embroidered and colorful garments, robe-like, and are worn at home when entertaining or to parties.
Arwa’s family have a lovely home, well appointed and with several sitting areas for entertaining. This wasn’t Come Dine With Me, so there was to be no rummaging through cupboards nor peeking into boudoirs.
We enjoyed Arabic coffee and tea in the sitting room before moving to the adjacent dining room for a traditional Emirati breakfast of:
Batheeth – beautifully textured cookies made from a flour base, naturally sweetened with dates and flavored with Arabic spices:
Chami – a dish made by simmering yogurt until most of the water has evaporated, leaving behind a crumbly cottage cheese-like texture. It is then drizzled with samen/ghee/or clarified butter:
Dangaw – lightly spiced and boiled chickpeas:
Mahalla – golden-colored crepes that I think were made with dates and flavored with cardamom. I don’t have any close-ups of these but you can see a glimpse of them in the very center of the photo below. They were light and scrumptious:
After breakfast, we went next door to the kitchen where Arwa’s mom warmly greeted us by the door and shook each of our hands.
In the kitchen, we quickly made ourselves comfortable and began snapping photos of everything in sight – the fridge contents, the cooking ingredients, the cooking pot, the tossing in of each and every spice…I think Arwa’s mom probably thought we were crazy-mad but you know how trigger happy us food bloggers are in order to document everything.
I was really excited to find out about the first dish that Arwa’s mom was preparing because it was something that I had actually made before as part of my cooking project and could now have something to compare it to!
She was making Machboos/Fogga Dejaj – or “Fogat Diyay“ as it is known in Gulf Arabic – which is a biryani-like dish that translates as “chicken on top.” The dish is flavored with the quintessential Emirati spice mixture known as bezar.
The exact ingredients and proportions of spices used to make bezar vary from family to family. This is the homemade bezar from Arwa’s family and they were generous to give us some to take home for our own culinary use:
In addition to the bezar, Arwa’s mom also used a unique spice blend that was predominantly cinnamon with notes of nutmeg and other spices as well:
As Arwa’s mom was demo-ing this dish, one of the things that struck me was that she cut the loomi (dried limes) in half to release more of the flavors (which I hadn’t done in any of my dishes that called for loomi as I thought you just tossed the things in whole):
Throughout the morning, we bombarded Arwa and her mom with so many cooking questions, and they graciously answered all of our questions to the best of their abilities with Arwa translating for those of us who didn’t speak Arabic.
With all the spices going into the cooking pot, the kitchen was just awesomely aromatic.
Here is a slideshow of Arwa’s mom preparing the Fogat Diyay (may not be viewable if you are reading this from an email client or mobile device):
And during the morning’s cooking session, Arwa’s dad and husband stopped by to briefly say hello to us and probably to make sure that all these strangers that she had invited into their home weren’t crazies off the street. Well, we are crazy, but in a different sense – you know, crazy about food.
The second dish that Arwa’s mom demonstrated for us was called Balaleet which is a breakfast dish made with vermicelli, scrambled eggs, red onion, saffron, and lots and lots of sugar and cardamom.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the dish at first as it was quite sweet for me but the flavor of cardamon kept drawing me back for taste after taste. In the end, I think I decided that I liked balaleet.
While we waited for the lunch dishes to be plated, we adjourned to the sitting room for more Arabic coffee and tea.
Since I don’t drink coffee, I opted for the mint tea.
I loved the beautifully adorned coffee and tea pots and the delicate cups! As Arwa served the tea, she informed us that the tea cups are used with saucers and the coffee cups stand alone.
And now, the finished and plated Fogat Diyay:
I loved the flavors of this dish when I amateurly attempted my own version and I loved it even more when it was prepared by a seasoned Emirati cook – aka Arwa’s mom. I didn’t just have seconds, I went back for thirds! The loomi, now softened, was a big hit with many of us – it tasted very much like Chinese preserved kumquats – and gave a nice citrusy element to the dish.
To accompany the Fogat Diyay, there were pickled shallots, mangoes, and limes. We were served fresh juices with the meal and I had a lovely blood orange and cardamom combination that I must try to make at home.
Now if you are thinking that the photo above is a picture of a glass of water…you are right.
But no, I have not gone so trigger happy with my camera as to take a picture of plain water. This isn’t ordinary water, you see. It’s water that has been perfumed with frankincense. The incense gave the water quite a strong aroma and flavor and I would imagine that is is something that should be sipped, not gulped as I found it quite overpowering for a first-timer.
Arwa explained to us how the water is infused with the scent of the frankincense. I think she mentioned something about taking a water jug and putting it upside down over the burning incense. Except, now that I think of it, how does the water not come spilling out if it’s upside down?
After lunch, we adjourned back to the sitting room where, if we chose to, perfumed ourselves with incense…
…and fragrances that were mixed and blended by Arwa’s aunt:
Some of the ladies lifted up their abayas so that the incense could waft up through the fabric. Wee Scotch saw this and kept lifting up his t-shirt indicating that he do wanted to do the same. Arwa obliged and even placed some perfume on his wrists when he stuck his arms out, mimicking us.
In true Emirati hospitality, Arwa and family made sure that we left laden with generous parting gifts. In addition to the bezar, we were also gifted dates from their farm (vacuum-packed and flavored with what looked like fennel and sesame seeds), laban (Arabic buttermilk) flavored for drinking, and a gift bag with UAE trinkets and UAE flags.
It was certainly very generous of Arwa and family for not only inviting us over to learn about Emirati food and culture but to also send us off with such wonderful gifts – much of which originated from their family farms.
Many thanks to Arwa and her mom for their graciousness and for teaching us about Emirati cuisine, spices, culture, and showing us true Emirati hospitality.
* * * * *
Fellow Fooderati in Arabia members who were also present and their account of the event: