One of the best things about residing in a country other than your own is the fact that you can become a part of the local flavor - whether its the language, traditions, way of life or quite simply the FOOD. The UAE has always been described as the ultimate melting pot of cultures and to begin with this is evident in the way various Middle Eastern nationalities come together here ... be it Syrian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Emirati and just like in India, each culture adds something unique to the overall cuisine.
One thing that I always look forward to is the drive back from work every evening. I take a coast road past the ocean line and the route is dotted with an old port complete with quaint boats docked to unload goods, Iranian roasteries where the best nuts and spices are to be had and of course any number of "Shawarma" and "Falafel" fast food places where I stop for a bit and have a wrap, a salad or simply a glass of juice (kiwi fruit and blended avacado with ice cream to name a few!).
Although a lot of Arabic cuisine is meat based and fried, the overall eating culture is really bursting with good health with a lot of emphasis on accompaniments that are fresh, yogurt or salad based and washed down with great fresh juices or "Laban" which is a truly delicious version of buttermilk and is used in a variety of ways including for dips. A typical Arabic meal usually starts with Mezze or starters and includes dips (baba ghanouj, hummus bi tahina, garlic paste), sambusek (puff pastry with cheese filling), stuffed vine leaves
salads such as Tabouleh
which uses cracked wheat and parsley or Fattoush which is a really tangy green salad and toasted pita bread combo.
All local restaurants will first serve you huge trays of salad vegetables such as whole cucumbers, red radishes, scallions and carrots served with neatly wrapped Khubz or flat bread and at least 2 dips - usually Hummus and garlic paste. This comes with any meal and is not charged for. There is a certain charm in the way the way each tray has its own paring knife and one literally prepares a salad straight from the garden as it were and enjoys the dips while waiting for the main meal.
The street I live in has at least 5 wonderful Arabic restaurants and two specializing in just Arabic sweets like the semolina based "Konafa", and all I have to do is walk a few steps if I want a light, flavourful, local meal. Sometimes however, I do make local food at home and last night was one such stay-at-home occasion when I thought that my small family would like some Arabic.
I laid out some store bought Khubz (substitute with naan or tandoori roti if unavailable),
soaked chickpeas for a hummus dip, put together some Fattoush and started up a meat based stew for the husband and son who are both carnivores and like a little meat at dinner. That and a pitcher of Moroccon tea to wash it all down. I would have put on harem pants if I had them - ok, maybe not! But you get the idea ...
2. Hummus bi Tahina
4. Pita Bread
5. Moroccon tea
- 2 or 3 tomatoes, cubed
- 2 cucumbers with skin on, cubed
- 1 medium green pepper, seeded and diced
- A few scallions or spring onions chopped
- 1/2 small lettuce, shredded
- 2 Tbs. finely chopped parsley
- 1 Tbs. finely chopped fresh mint
- 1 pita bread (or 2-3 slices of bread), toasted and cut into cubes. I actually tore the pita and put it directly into the toaster :).
- A dressing made from olive oil and lemon juice in a 3:1 ratio and seasoned with salt and black pepper.
Combine the vegetables, herbs, and bread. Make the dressing, pour it over the salad, toss well, and chill for half an hour minutes before serving.
For Hummus bi Tahina(Chickpea and Sesame Dip)
- 125 gms chickpeas (chole), soaked for a few hours and pressure cooked or you can use ready canned as well.
- juice of 2 lemons
- 3 Tbs. tahina (if you can't get ready made paste, make your own by putting about 2 tbsp of sesame seeds in the blender and grinding until smooth. Then add about 1/2 tsp sesame (til) oil and about 1/2 cup warm water in a slow stream to get a thick sauce. This can be stored in the fridge for repeat use).
- 2 garlic cloves
- salt to taste
- 1 tbsp olive oil and some red chilli or paprika powder for garnish.
Process the chickpeas in a blender (or food processor) with the lemon juice, tahina, garlic, salt and enough of the cooking liquid or water to obtain a soft creamy consistency.
Serve on a flat plate, garnished with a dribble of olive oil, a dusting of paprika and a little parsley.
3. Bamia : Consists of lamb (mutton), whole Okra pods (lady fingers), chopped tomatoes, garlic and tamarind juice.
This is a fragrant, simple stew that uses very little oil and I made it from here.
And there was this Moroccan tea to go with the meal:
- Pour 4 cups of boiling water into a pitcher containing about 4 tsp green tea, 2 cups of fresh mint leaves and about 1/2 a cup of sugar (I drastically reduced the quantity to suit my taste)
- Allow the tea to steep for at least 3 minutes before serving. It was quite warm last night so we added a lot of ice tall glasses and poured the infusion topped with more mint for our with dinner drinks.
- Make sure to stir the pitcher with a long spoon before serving.
And synchronicity happened when husband walked in from work with a tray of Konafa from the Tripoli Lebanon sweet shop across the street to thus end a great meal.