Tuesday, December 2, 2014

An Emirati feast for National Day

It's been a few years since I began my culinary tour of the world through home-cooked theme meals. December 2nd of 2014, though, would mark the day I did some "adopted home: cooking, as I finally got around to putting together an Emirati meal, in celebration of the UAE's 43rd National Day. With some downloaded Emirati traditional music playing, and with flags and flag-colored balloons decorating my apartment, I welcomed my 9 guests to the most authentic Emirati feast I could muster.

First came procuring the essentials. Samen (ghee, or clarified butter), in the yellow jar, is one of the main fats used for frying, cooking, and garnishing in Emirati cuisine. For desserts and beverages, ma2 al ward (rosewater), here in the bottle, is frequently used. If you're doing anything savory, you almost certainly will be using the Emirati spice mix they call bezar, here in the silver packet with the green label. And last, but not least, I got those two bags containing sufficient quantities of loomi (dried lime), one bag of whole and one bag of powdered. These make a world of difference in giving that distinctive aroma and taste to many Emirati dishes. They are all available in major hypermarkets around here -- definitely in Union Co-op, which visibly markets towards the Emirati demographic.

As a light starter, I made Emirati street and snack mainstay, dango, by soaking 2.5 cups of dried chickpeas overnight with 1.5 tsp soda bicarbonate, and boiling the drained chickpeas with salt and 10 small dried red chilies on low-medium heat for about an hour, until tender. For such a simple dish, it's surprisingly tasty and hearty.

For my other starter, I made the Emirati comfort food they call harees. I had about 650g of lamb on the bone and 2 cups of whole wheat (sold under the name of harees itself) boiled with 6 cups of water and simmered for two hours, until the free water had evaporated. I then added a tablespoon of salt and another cup of water for a further hour of sealed simmering.

After removing the bones, I used a handheld blender to blend it all down to a thick puree, and served it the traditional way: warm, spread into a platter, and garnished with samen. A subtly flavored dish, with a unique texture.

I made two entrees of seafood, the first of which was the Emirati staple called jesheed -- a dish made with the meat of the local baby shark. Probably because it's primarily an Emirati thing, I could only find this in Union Co-op, and you need to buy a whole shark at a time, which they will skin, gut, and partially cut for you.

I boiled about a kilogram of shark meat chunks for about an hour, until they became firm enough to easily debone and shred. While I was doing the deboning and shredding, I fried 4 sliced onions golden in vegetable oil, then adding 2.5 tbsp loomi powder, 1.5 tbsp turmeric, 1.5 tbsp bezar and 4 crushed garlic cloves to fry and let the flavors mingle. I then stirred in 5 chopped tomatoes, followed by the shredded shark meat and a little water, and simmered it all under a lid for about half an hour.

I believe this was my first time eating shark, and I found the texture a bit strange at first. But once I mentally digested the fact that this wasn't regular fish, I came to quite like the mildly spicy, umami-rich taste of this dish.

My second entree was robeyann nashif, a spicy shrimp dish that's popular at Emirati dining tables, and the curry leaves in which might indicate some influence from my own home country.

I again fried 4 sliced onions golden in vegetable oil, then stirring in 2.5 tbsp bezar, 1 tbsp turmeric, 1 tsp ground fennel seeds, 5 crushed garlic cloves, 3 tbsp loomi powder, 1.5 tsp cummin seeds, 15 curry leaves, 1.5 tbsp tomato paste, and 2.5 tbsp grated ginger for a few minutes of frying. Finally, I added the cleaned, shelled large shrimp, and cooked on low heat for about 15 minutes.

Served with store-bought markouk bread (my attempt at making regag failed, due to my lack of a proper gas griddle), this dish, with its sharp, spicy taste, turned out to be an unqualified hit, and not a lick of it remained.

Then came the main course: fogga diyay (diyay being the Emirati pronunciation of dejaj, Arabic for chicken). A fogga, known also as machboos/makboos/kabsa, is basically a dish of rice cooked in a meat stock, flavored with loomi and other spices. The previous night, I prepared its typical accompaniment, daqus (center), by pureeing 4 chopped tomatoes with half a chopped onion, 4 fresh chili peppers, and a tablespoon of hot sauce.

Late in the morning of the lunch, I rubbed in pieces of chicken (mostly drumsticks and thighs) with some salt and a lot of bezar (top), cooking them in samen until they were slightly cooked (right). I then added 6 cups of chicken stock, 3 chopped fresh tomatoes, 8 chopped cloves of garlic, 5 whole loomi, 2 large sticks of cinnamon, and 12 bruised pods of cardamom, simmering covered for about 20 minutes (bottom). Finally, I added some salt and 5 cups of rice that had been soaked and drained. Without stirring, I let this cook, loosely covered, until the stock was absorbed and rice had risen, and then placed a tight lid on it to cook for 15 minutes.

I served it hot with the daqus and some cold yogurt that had been mixed with chopped mint. The chicken was so tender that it was falling apart, and the stock had imparted a wonderfully savory flavor to the rice, all enhanced with the taste of bezar and the aroma of the whole loomi. Next time, though, I would cut the quantity of rice to half, or two-thirds at most. Rice-heavy is apparently how it's done in the khaleej, but it's too much for my tastes.

And finally, for dessert, I prepared a quintessential Emirati pudding called aseeda bobar. While this pudding can be and is made without pumpkin -- which would be just aseeda -- the bobar version is more popular for texture lent it by the pumpkin flesh.

I first steamed 850g of local pumpkin flesh cubes, while roasting 400g of whole wheat flour (top). I then mashed and mixed these together with 350g date syrup (most recipes call for honey, but I used date syrup instead, for that really local taste), a teaspoon of saffron threads, and a teaspoon of ground cardamom (bottom right), moistening as necessary. After cooking for about 10 minutes, I added 3 tbsp of ma2 al ward and half a cup of samen (bottom left), and cooked it for another 10 minutes.

I served generous lukewarm scoops of the resulting fluffy pudding with plenty of brown raisins and almond flakes, and it went down a treat with everyone.

To punctuate the meal, I prepared some core Emirati beverages. First, I made a welcome drink of aseer tazza (right), a blend of 6 cups of orange juice with 1.5 cups of lemon juice, 3 teaspoons of ma2 al ward, and sugar to sweeten.

To help wash down the entrees and prepare for the main, I brewed some chai jerfau, a "tea" made by boiling 8 sticks of cinnamon with a little sugar and 1 tsp saffron in 5 cups of water (bottom).

Finally, to end our authentic Emirati meal, I brewed some gahwa (coffee) local style by boiling half a cup of freshly ground coffee beans in 5 cups of water, and steeping it with 1 tsp saffron, 1 tsp crushed cloves, 4 teaspoons ma2 al ward, and 2 tsp coarsely ground cardamom (bottom). Served in shot quantities, it helped get all the hearty dishes and eclectic tastes of the local cuisine settled in our tummies.

Recipes based on those in "The Complete United Arab Emirates Cookbook" by Celia Ann Brock- Al Ansari (1994)

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