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Bzar and Other Spices – a Day in an Emirati Kitchen

Imagine 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.

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.

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

Moving 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 here)

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.

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.

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.

Continue reading on My Custard Pie for Emirati cooking recommendations and great recipes!

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