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Bzar and other spices – a day in an Emirati kitchen

December 7, 2011

Emirati food - fogat diyayImagine inviting a group of people whom you’ve never met or hardly know into your home and lavishing the best food and drink and an unreserved warm welcome upon them.  This is a tale of Emirati cooking, but also of gracious hospitality.

The United Arab Emirates celebrated 40 years of its union last weekend meaning that the 12 years that I’ve called Dubai my home equates to over one quarter of the life of this young nation.  I’ve tried the food of the Middle East in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Libya but know next to nothing about the local dishes of the U.A.E.

When I lived in Saudi Arabia I went to a talk by the outgoing British Consular General at the British Women’s Group.  He waxed lyrical for a while, then opened the floor to questions.  I raised my hand, he chose someone else, but it seemed we all wanted to know the same thing.  “What are the Saudis like?”  How very strange to live in a country of 20 million and understand so little about them.  In the five years I lived there, even though I’d worked (unofficially) and even had a few business meetings, I could list the number of locals I’d had a conversation with on the fingers of one hand.

Emirati breakfast

The same situation exists here with the local Emirati community.   Ask most expats how many Emiratis they’ve met and the answer will be few but for very different reasons.  In Saudi it’s the strict rules that segregate men and women, the dress code and very conservative interpretation of religion.  In the UAE it’s down to ratio in the main.  Emiratis make up less than 20% of the population, the rest of us are expatriates.  While you will often hear how Emiratis have reaped the rewards of the labours of expats, can you imagine this situation in your own country?  While most people agree that the UK, my own home country, is a fairly good example of how a multi-cultural society can work successfully, there are murmurings about sectors of the population growing too large and altering what it means to be British.  It’s not a direct comparison, as expats cannot settle permanently or have any formal political rights in the UAE, but for any nation to absorb that amount of people in a few decades is unprecedented.  No wonder the Emiratis are fiercely proud of their culture and celebrate National day with such exuberance.

chami - Emirati breakfast

But what does constitute Emirati culture?  To begin to understand a nation it’s often a good bet to start with its food.  This is also a tricky one; in a city where restaurants are numbered in the hundreds and every cuisine is represented, there are only two serving an Emirati menu, one new, one badly reviewed (plus one serving camel burgers).  A few years ago I heard Jessie Kirkness Parker, South African cookery writer, talk about the rich, spiced stews and complex, layered flavours of local cookery influenced by India as much as the Levant due to the UAE’s position as a trading nation. To taste the real deal you had to enter people’s’ homes.

To say we browbeat Arwa from La Mere Culinaire into inviting us for a cooking session may not be an overstatement.  When the suggestion arose online within our group of food bloggers the response was immediate and enthusiastic.  I think we all knew that this was a special and rare privilege.   Arwa admitted to me afterwards that her family had a few trepidations about inviting a crowd of strangers not only into their home, but into their kitchen – as anyone might.  You would never have known this by the welcome we received. I think (hope) their fears were proved unfounded especially as the genuine interest and enthusiasm of everyone there was manifest.   As well as sharing our groups’ passion for food and cookery, she believes it is important that expatriates do get a chance to really understand Emirati ways, values and culture.

National dress was suggested, Sarah was kind enough to brave souk Naif and provide me with a long silky, embroidered robe with open sleeves (think medieval shape).   Coffee and fresh mint tea in a formal reception room greeted us, followed by a traditional Emirati breakfast beautifully laid out on an enormous gleaming dining table.  Arwa took great trouble to serve us all personally; the phrase ‘treated like royalty’ is often used but rarely so apposite.  The breakfast spread included:

Muhalla or Mhala – crepes (pancakes) made with dates

Chami – a type of curd cheese made by simmering yoghurt, drizzled with homemade butter or ghee

Btheeth or batheeth – arabic sweets that look like ma’amoul but are made from dates and spices

Dangaw – lightly spiced, boiled chickpeas

Emirati food - fogat diyayMoving into the light, airy kitchen, we met Arwa’s Mother who didn’t bat an eyelid as we ‘oohed and aahed’ over her well-stocked, glass-fronted fridges neatly arranged with fresh fruit, vegetables and jars of spices.  She was ready for us with ingredients chopped like a professional and a small gas-stove placed on the table so we could all get a good view.  An instinctive and generous cook she demonstrated how to make Fogat Diyay, a rice dish that literally means ‘chicken on top’.  This could also be made with pieces of firm fish.

Recipe: Chicken pieces are rubbed with a four-spice mixture (cinnamon, cloves, black pepper and nutmeg).  Chopped onions are sautéed in oil (with the lid on to soften not brown), then very finely chopped ginger and garlic (like a paste) is added, followed shortly by the chicken pieces.  Chopped tomatoes are briefly stirred in, then the spices.  First there is bzar, also called Arabic masala, then a little more of the four-spice mix, turmeric, whole green chillies, dried limes, whole cardamom, some water, cumin, salt and lemon juice.  When the chicken is almost cooked, the pieces are removed and rice that has been soaked in water (for 10 minutes) added.  The pot is covered and cooked in a low oven (150C) for about 15 minutes or until most of the liquid has been absorbed. If more salt is needed it is added in salt water so you do not need to stir the rice (and break up the grains). Chicken is placed back into the rice very carefully, covered and placed back in the oven for about 10 minutes.  It is served drizzled with homemade spiced ghee.

Bzar (or bezar) – every family has their own recipe for this distinctive spice mix used in the Emirates but it includes:

ground coriander, cumin, black pepper, red pepper, dried ginger, turmeric, cardamom and nutmeg.

There are no quantities given as Arwa’s mother is an instinctive and natural cook.  She got a big seal of approval from Anissa Helou, acclaimed cookery writer (in the Emirates to speak at the Sharjah International Book Fair) who was first to dip a spoon in the pot for a taste.  The spices filled the air and breakfast suddenly seemed a long time ago.

Emirati food - fogat diyay

It wasn’t until sugar became readily available in England that the distinction between sweet and savoury dishes was made (main and dessert) and in the time of the Tudors minced meat and other dishes were heavily spiced and sweetened with honey.  I was reminded of this by the next dish, balaleet – a combination of caramalised onions, saffron (lots and lots of saffron), vermicelli, powdered cardamom, ghee, sugar and scrambled eggs.  Usually served for breakfast, it was our pudding, a divine combination.

Our meal was served, again personally by Arwa, with pickled onions, mango and limes.  The depth of spice combined with the dried limes in the chicken was fantastic.

Before we left,  Arwa let us try her Aunt’s homemade perfume blends and wafted our hair with incense.  We also tried smoked water, flavoured with frankincense which was one of the most extraordinary experiences.  Like all really good cooking, the meal was delicious because of the attention to detail with the ingredients.  The ghee is homemade, the dates and chicken from the family farm, the spices chosen with extra care.  We were encouraged by Arwa’s Mother to smell the cardamom which had an incredible fragrance.  I wanted to rush home there and then and throw the entire contents of my spice cupboard away.

Coffee and incense

We left laden with gifts of dates, bzar and homemade, spiced buttermilk, but walking on air.  On my way out Arwa picked a Barbados cherry for me.  I defy anyone to better the gracious welcome we all received.

Dima, Sarah (including her recipe for balaleet), Nadia and Marta also give their accounts of this special day; worth a read if you’ve enjoyed this one.

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Emirati food is quite different from the Levant and North Africa influenced by East Africa, India, East Asia and Eastern Mediterranean cookery style and ingredients.  There are few written sources for recipes although I hope that this will change among the pages of our Fooderati Arabia group (Sandy for instance is doing a local cooking project, try also Emiratican Kitchen and Lgeimat Junkies). To my knowledge the following are the only cook books written in English about Emirati food: all written by expats :

Emirati cook books and recipes

There is a good lexicon of dishes in this article by Nouf Al-Qasimi in the National and really excellent piece about food and cooking during Ramadan in the UAE written by Anissa Helou for Saveur including some recipes.

So what have I missed out? All information gratefully received.  And if you’re wondering what happened to all the wonderful dates I took home, come back soon….

  1. December 7, 2011 8:17 am

    I found this post very, very interesting for a variety of reasons. I lived in the Gulf (Abu Dhabi and Bahrain) in the 70s and 80s, and it was true then that local food really had to be consumed in homes of local friends as no or very few restaurants served it. I would have hoped that that had changed and am sad to see that it hasn’t. Very interesting post. Thanks!

    • December 7, 2011 8:38 am

      What an experience to have lived here during those decades. I’d love to hear more. On one hand old skills cookery are being lost, Emiratis are eating out more and the national diet is becoming more Westernised, but on the other hand they are realising the importance of their cultural background and I feel there is a strong move to celebrate, preserve and share this.

  2. December 7, 2011 8:18 am

    Just brought back memory of the foga! Gosh that was intensely good!!
    enjoyed reading this post 🙂

    • December 7, 2011 8:40 am

      I really enjoyed your account too – you were so observant about the little details and brought an informed view to the table. Yes – intensely good is an excellent description.

  3. December 7, 2011 8:38 am

    Great post Sally!

  4. December 7, 2011 8:42 am

    Thanks Sarah – your usual incisive look was entertaining and humorous as ever. Really appreciated the jalabiya (I always want to write jambalaya – which would not be an elegant thing to wear!).

  5. December 7, 2011 8:58 am

    Oh my, what a sumptuous post!

  6. December 7, 2011 9:06 am

    Great post! I loved the fact that you shared some emirati cookbook titles!
    And i didn´t know you lived in Saudi!!

    • December 8, 2011 7:56 am

      Well the cook books are a bit thin on the ground. Loads of potential for someone to write one! Yes in Jeddah for 5 years (and didn’t eat any local food there either!)

  7. December 7, 2011 9:29 am

    Love the round-up! And you’re so right Sally; I’ve lived in Dubai since 1989 and I don’t think I’ve ever eaten authentic Emirati food. I’m hoping to correct that soon. Plus I now have a few Emirati friends but that’s only because I met them through outlets like Twitter etc.
    Ooooh any pics of you in a jalabiya? 🙂

    • December 8, 2011 7:55 am

      Someone took a pic but I don’t know where it went. It was a lovely red colour. I don’t usually post a lot of pics of people at events for the sake of privacy and we made sure we didn’t take photos of Arwa and her family as requested (in the comfort of their own home, among women and close family they were not wearing their shailas).

  8. December 7, 2011 9:41 am

    I’m speechless!
    On that day you were the least talkative and you paid so much attention to everything and I was thinking to myself that I want to read what you write about that day!

    As soon as everyone left my mother said: sometimes there are things you don’t want to do but when you do them, you feel good. This is one of these things.
    She really was happy.

    Fogah can also be made using beef or vegetables.

    Thank you for this great post!

    • December 7, 2011 9:54 am

      I am so glad to hear that your Mother said that Arwa. She looked like she was enjoying herself and that added to our pleasure of the day. Thank you, sincerely, once again – it was amazing.

    • December 7, 2011 4:01 pm

      Arwa, I’m also glad to hear your mother say that! I’ll remember those words because I find myself in similar situations, where I hesitate a lot to do something at first.

  9. December 7, 2011 10:29 am

    Mmmhhh, lovely food! I am such a spice addict.



  10. Regula permalink
    December 7, 2011 11:40 am

    It sounds like you had a wonderful day! Can’t believe there are so few Emirat restaurants! What a strange situation. Can’t wait to read more about this special way of cooking, a well kept secret.

  11. December 7, 2011 2:35 pm

    What a wonderful post and your pics are beautiful!!

    • December 8, 2011 7:52 am

      Thank you Regula, Rossa dn PinkPolkaDot – appreciated your kind comments. Regula, the same situation exists in Libya actually, the real cuisine is only found in people’s homes.

  12. December 7, 2011 2:41 pm

    Sally how great to be invited into their home. Such a great honor and so wonderful to see these delectables dishes prepared as they should be. it all looks delicious and I can smell the spices and flavors as you describe them. And thanks for the book tips as I am a real fan of Middle Eastern and Arabian cooking. Great post!!

    • December 8, 2011 7:50 am

      Thank you Karin. Yes it was an honour and I also learned so much. Living in the Middle East for nearly 18 years has taught me so much about the incredible variety of Middle Eastern food and also how healthy and delicious it is.

  13. December 7, 2011 2:41 pm

    I wasn’t even there, but to hear you describe the experience yesterday, and to read about it today…it’s overwhelming. For those of us who missed this phenomenal taste of Emirati hospitality, your words and emotions have brought the experience alive.

    • December 8, 2011 7:48 am

      I’m touched by your kind words A.

  14. December 7, 2011 3:29 pm

    Such an interesting cuisine! I’ve never thought I could dry juiced limes and use them in dishes, and all these flavour combinations – amazing!
    Since I still have some Tunisian dates in the fridge and no left ideas what to use them for I’m curious about the date crepes. Could you give some rough instructions about them?

    • December 7, 2011 4:00 pm

      Silvia you dry whole limes not juiced ones 🙂

      • December 7, 2011 9:24 pm

        Arwa, thank you for the revelation 🙂
        Here, in the Arabian spice shop they sell dry lemons and I’ve always wondered what to use them for, now I know 😉

    • December 7, 2011 4:27 pm

      Hi Silvia – on the search of the recipe (with kind Arwa’s help). The dried limes are a revelation – they look so uninteresting but transform into soft, sweet, sharp fragments which set off the other spices and the deep savoury flavours. If you are a fan of preserved lemons you will love these even more…and I know how you like to dry things! Thank you Arwa for letting us know the secret.

      • December 7, 2011 9:31 pm

        Sally, I’ve never preserved lemons, since I prefer them to be organic. Here they cost a fortune and every time I buy any I always end up candying them. You know I have a tooth for sweet rather than savoury things. But I’m intrigued, it’s drying involved, he he 😉

  15. December 7, 2011 4:05 pm

    this is such an interesting post ! great writeup 🙂

    • December 8, 2011 7:47 am

      Thank you – glad you liked it.

  16. December 7, 2011 4:05 pm

    Yours is the most informative post about that special day at Arwa’s! And you’ve even linked back to our blogs – that’s really sweet of you.

    It was so lovely meeting you. Oh, and I was also deeply fascinated by the smoked water!

    • December 8, 2011 7:46 am

      Not at all Nadia – a complete pleasure. It was very nice to share this special day with you.

  17. faiza abbasi permalink
    December 7, 2011 5:07 pm

    What a fabulous post and how exciting to be invited to learn how to cook local dishes and then eat them! I’m with the rest of your readers when they say they haven’t tasted Emirati cooking, been here 5 1/2 years and lived in Dubai fresh out of college (don’t ask how long ago) but never met any locals and never tasted their food. It seems that the dishes prepared on that day were heavily influenced by the trade spice of many years ago plus the large population from the Indian subcontinent. Did you find that to be true? Could you elaborate on the smoked water, is it a drink and how is it prepared? Thanks for all the links, can’t wait to learn more.

    • December 8, 2011 7:45 am

      Yes Faiza, I believe there is a strong Indian influence but the Emiratis have made it their own through use of distinctive spice mixes. The flavour of the fogat diyay was warm, spicy, had a depth of complex flavours set off by the delicious soft dried limes. I could have written a whole piece on the water – basically a large bottle (I think Arwa’s family use the water cooler bottles) is held over burning incense and the smoke rises into the bottle. Once the bottle is full of smoke it is turned the right way up and water poured in immediately. The water is flavoured with smoke. It really is extraordinary to drink the cold refreshing water with the flavour of something that is usually warm and, well, the opposite of refreshing. As an unusual taste experience this took some beating.

  18. December 7, 2011 8:10 pm

    Wow! This is a terrific post, Sally! Love the behind the scenes story you’ve written. Thanks for sharing.

    • December 8, 2011 7:34 am

      It was a great experience.

  19. December 7, 2011 10:12 pm

    A great suymmary of a wonderful day! Glad I got my butt off the sofa to attend this one. I’ll be using this post as reference for all the complicated names when I eventually write mine!

    • December 8, 2011 7:34 am

      Look forward to reading it – glad you got off the sofa too 🙂

  20. December 8, 2011 12:42 pm

    what a wonderful experience – and a blessing to be invited to something so amazing 🙂

  21. December 8, 2011 4:26 pm

    I love the photographs (gave my stomach the incentive to growl)! I was invited to an emirati dinner once and they are so hospitable and the food is delicious, especially love the rice with the chicken, not sure what they call it, but we call it kapsa! Thank you for visiting my blog and commenting on my article:)

  22. Nouf permalink
    December 11, 2011 7:35 pm

    Hi Sally- fan of the blog and a regular reader. Terrific post! Really well done. And thanks for the shout out. -Nouf

  23. December 12, 2011 2:09 pm

    What a lovely read & what a lovely post this is!
    Thanks for sharing your experiences! 🙂

  24. December 13, 2011 9:59 am

    I read about this from another blogger I follow that was there, too! It is such an interesting post! My husband and I just moved to Dubai in January and the first thing we were searching for was real Emirati food. Most people we knew that were here for years were giving us silly explanations such as they do not have their own cuisine. Really enjoyed reading more about it! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  25. December 14, 2011 9:20 pm

    Oh my! How lucky you were to enjoy this meal! The dish reminds me of somewhat of a biryani with different spice flavours – I remember a bloke in the spice souk trying to persuade me to buy some of those rather scary looking dried limes! He was also astonished when I knew what cinnamon and cardamom were 😉 Lovely post!

  26. December 15, 2011 1:13 am

    Sally, what a rare privelege! And thank you for taking the time and energy to tell the story…that was a lot of work! I was also reminded of biryani (our next door neighbors are from southern India and make this), but yet- with their very own Emirati twist. Love hearing about all the spices. I’ve been in a “spicy” mood lately, and cardamom is on my list…

  27. December 17, 2011 12:25 am

    Thank you for sharing this post Sally.

  28. December 20, 2011 8:46 am

    Thanks for letting us share this with our expat readers Sally!

  29. Victoria permalink
    January 4, 2012 4:57 pm

    greetings to all and happy new year!!

    for all who want to try traditional emirati cuisine i would definitely recommend Al Fanar restaurant. It is located in dubai festival city and serves only the traditional emirati cuisine. though it is a relatively new restaurant but the food they serve speaks of emirates heritage and it is absolutely mouth watering. the staff there is also very hospitable and a Japanese chap was kind enough to show us around.

    At first i thought it a festival for new years, we all know sometimes dubai can go over board with stuff like that but it was in fact a proper restaurant. what shocked me the most was the jeep parked right in the middle of the restaurant, i have never seen that in any restaurant ever.

    forget the fact that al fanar is the only emirati restaraunt i have ever seen or dined at in UAE, but as a restaurant in general, taste 10/10, ambiance 10/10, service 9/10, price 9/10.

  30. December 3, 2012 1:22 pm

    This is so awesome. I wish Arwa would organise something like this again. So true that we know so less about the locals though we have been considering UAE our home for long!


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