Steeped in the ancient traditions of the nomadic Bedouins and indelibly flavoured by the spices of eastern traders, Emirati cuisine is a fascinating but little-known part of the UAE’s culture.
After being asked several times about Dubai’s traditional food by guests, German-born chef Uwe Micheel realised he knew little about the cuisine of his adopted home, where he’d lived and worked since 1993.
“When you live so long in a country, you really want to learn about its traditions and celebrate them. The cuisine is a huge part of that. So I decided to familiarise myself with Emirati cuisine, a journey that wasn’t easy but one that turned out to be deeply satisfying.”
The director of kitchens at Radisson Blu Hotel Dubai Deira Creek and president of the Emirates Culinary Guild, spent many years exploring the markets, quizzing friends and visiting palaces and homes to gather stories and recipes.
“True Emirati food was only really made in private kitchens rather than restaurants. There weren’t any recipe books to consult with either,” says Uwe.
During his research, he also gained fascinating insights into the rituals surrounding the food from the women who prepared it. He shared his new knowledge in a book, Flavours of Dubai, and by opening Aseelah, the first fine dining restaurant in Dubai to serve its traditional dishes.
Published in 2016 after nearly two decades of research, Uwe hopes the book will help preserve the traditions of this little-known cuisine, and help introduce it to a wider audience.
While there are huge influences from Middle Eastern and Arabic cooking, the Emiratis have their own unique traditions.
“The cuisine is a true reflection of the UAE’s trading heritage. It’s largely influenced and infused with several spices and ingredients from Asia and the Middle East but with the methods and preparation stemming back to the Bedouin heritage,” Uwe says.
The staple diet in the early days included camel milk, dates, and fish plucked from the Arabian Gulf. Drying food was key to preserving it, with very few spices used back then. The oldest recipes, he discovered, tended to use mainly sea salt, dry lime and turmeric.
“People that lived closer to the sea ate fish and seafood while an inland home put more camel and goat meat on the plate. With the UAE being mostly desert, not too many vegetables grew here,” says Uwe.
Meat was typically cooked underground in the tradition of the Bedouins or in saloona (stew) cooked on the fire.
Other cooking techniques and ingredients, such as wheat, rice and spices, began to shape and embellish the local cuisine as the first traders came from India, Iran and Pakistan and settled along the Dubai Creek.
Today, simple homegrown produce is central to Emirati food with everything from mango, papaya and pomegranate to lime, lemon and pomelo grown in people’s gardens. Dates, which grow in abundance across the UAE, are used a lot: made into jams and desserts, flavouring salads and savoury dishes. Even their seeds are used. The native fruits also hold a strong cultural and religious significance: most Muslims break their Ramadan fast with dates and laban (a buttermilk drink) during the evening meal known as “iftar”.
Food is at the heart of Emirati celebrations. In fact, it was at an Eid feast that Uwe had one of his most memorable meals. He was invited by Amna Al Dhahery, a local lady who helped teach him and his team about traditional cuisine, to join her family’s celebrations.
“Everyone from the family cooked and brought a dish to share. We all sat on the floor to share the food, eating with our right hands. There was no cutlery and the dishes looked humble, but the flavours were incredible,” he says.
He recalls the chicken margougat, a spiced stew, cooked by Amna’s mother as one of the best dishes he has ever eaten. Other typical dishes he learnt how to prepare include harees (a porridge-style wheat and meat dish), machboos (a biryani-style rice and meat dish), and luquaimat (bite-sized fried dough balls soaked in date molasses, traditionally consumed after iftar), aseeda (a brown pudding made of flour and pumpkin) and a typical breakfast dish of spiced noodles called balalit.
“The hammour is the most famous fish for local cuisine,” says Uwe. “But other varieties used are sheri, sultan ibrahim, and hader. Sardines are often bought by the kilo, cleaned and dried. The dried fish is then ground and often sprinkled over rice.”
Goat and sheep are often at the centre of feasts with an ouzi prepared for weddings and births.
“It’s an ancient Bedouin dish where lamb or goat was covered in marinade, stuffed with rice and wrapped in date and palm leaves before being buried to steam in an underground oven in the desert all day,” says Uwe.
But at the heart of all home cooking is the bezar, a dry spice mix.
“Every household has a different recipe blended to suit their tastes,” says Uwe. “Some roast the spices in a pan. Others do it the age-old way, drying them in the sun before pounding them together. Some families use six spices while others up to 14. It’s used to flavour almost every dish. Typically, it would include cumin, fennel, cinnamon, peppercorns, turmeric, among others. Emirati food is well-seasoned instead of spicy with chillies used in moderation.”
While Uwe has unearthed many of the Dubai home cook’s treasured recipes and traditions, he says he still has plenty to learn.
“Even within the UAE, there’s a huge variety. Different Emirates have their own versions of a common dish and Emirati dishes vary from household to household, which makes it even more fascinating,” he says.
Recipes from Flavours of Dubai by Uwe Micheel
- 100g cardamon pods
- 200g cinnamon sticks
- 1 kg coriander seeds
- 100g ground turmeric
- 75g nutmeg
- 500g cumin seeds
- 50 dry ginger
- 50g dry red chilli
- 50g fennel seeds
- 50g fenugreek seeds
- 20g whole cloves
- 20g nutmeg
- Wash coriander and cumin seeds in warm water
- Strain and keep 4-6 hours in a dry place (preferably under direct sunlight)
- Roast the cumin and coriander seeds on slow heat for 5 minutes
- Add the cardamom, methi and cinnamon to the pan and keep roasting
- Then add the ginger and chilli and keep roasting for 5 more minutes
- Lastly, add the remaining spices and slow roast for another 15 minutes
- Remove from fire and cool it at room temperature for 8 hours
- Grind it into a fine powder
- Harees (crushed wheat) 1 cup
- Chicken breast and leg 200g
- Light chicken stock 3 litres
- Ghee, as needed
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Corn oil, 50 ml
- Wash the harees and soak in water for 4-5 hours
- Saute the harees and cubed chicken meat in some oil for a few minutes and pour in chicken stock
- Boil the mixture for about 2 hours or until the wheat is cooked well
- Blend the cooked soup with a stick blender or in a food processor. Season with salt and pepper as required
- Serve hot with a little ghee drizzled on top
If you have any harees, arsea, madruba or jareesh left over, even a small amount, keep it for the next day to make this soup. All you need is some chicken stock and cream.
For the marinade
- Shari fish fillet 1kg
- Bezar 20g
- Salt to taste
- Lime juice 50ml
For machboos rice
- Basmati rice 800g
- Ghee 100g
- Dry lemon 100g
- Bay leaves 20g
- Salt to taste
- Turmeric powder 25g
- Bezar 25g
- Chilli powder 10g
- Madras curry powder 10g
- Fennel powder 15g
- Cinnamon powder 5g
- Tomato paste 10g
- Tomato 75g, diced
- Fresh coriander 50g, chopped
- Lime juice 50ml
- Garlic 20g
- Onion 15g, sliced
- Corn oil 100ml
- Tomato 300g
- Garlic 40g
- Green chillies 20g
- Salt to taste
- Fresh coriander 30g
For the fish marinade
- Cut the fish fillet into 8 pieces of 125 gm each
- Marinate with bezar, salt and lime juice
- Pan fry the fish fillets in corn oil
For machboos rice
- Soak rice for a day in salt water
- Heat 50ml corn oil in a pot
- Saute onion until it turns translucent, add ginger, garlic, bezar and other spices. Saute and mix well
- Add cubed tomato and tomato paste, then add lime juice, bay leaves and dry lemon
- Add 1 1⁄2 litre water and season with a little salt
- Bring to boil and add the rice. Mix well using a wooden spoon. Take care not to break the soaked rice
- Cover the pot and cook on low heat for about an hour or until the rice is cooked
- Grate the tomatoes, garlic and green chillies
- Mix in chopped coriander. Season with salt
Plating the dish
- Arrange the items on the plate according to the photo. Spoon some dacous on the fish
This rice is not like biryani rice. It’s a little sticky.
- 500 g Fine egg noodles – vermicelli
- 1 1⁄2 litres water
- 200 g sugar
- 10 g Cardamom powder
- A few threads Saffron
- 50ml Rose water
- 100g ghee
- 4 eggs
- Bring the 1 1⁄2 litres water to boil • Heat a deep frying pan with 50g ghee
- When hot, add 250g of dry noodles and fry till it turns golden brown
- Add 1 1⁄2 litres boiling water and the remaining 250g of vermicelli.
- Simmer for a few seconds, cook only 50% and strain
- Heat the frying pan again and add the sugar, cardamom, and noodles
- Add saffron and rosewater
- Steam till it is completely cooked;
- Be careful not to overcook the vermicelli
- Next prepare four flat egg omelettes – 1 egg each, and season with very little salt
- Fold the omelette to half and top the balalit with the omelette
- Some families prepare scrambled eggs with onion and mix it with the vermicelli
Broaden your horizons in Dubai
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