Feast on culinary history this National Day as we unwrap the rich, often overlooked details of traditional Emirati cuisine.
An important reflection of any country's history and culture is undoubtedly the food. Living in a multicultural country like the UAE, where food is such an important part of people's lives, understanding authentic Emirati cuisine can be tricky – given the sheer volume of international restaurants that cater to the expat community. In fact, many would automatically assume that Iranian food or Lebanese food are almost identical to the national cuisine here – a common misconception. As the UAE celebrates National Day, we take a look back to discover traditional Emirati food, its humble origins, and discover some of its most popular dishes.
One of the most captivating aspects of Emirati food is the aroma – as soon as you enter any local restaurant, you’re immediately consumed with the scent of the spices – namely cardamom, dried lime, and of course, saffron. “Probably the most commonly used spices in our dishes would be turmeric and cardamom, and they can be used in savory as well as sweet dishes,” explains Amna Al Hashemi, Emirati chef and founder of the restaurant chain Mitts & Trays.
The traditional food has its history rooted in what the Bedouins who roamed the country used to eat. Using what was available locally, the diet consisted of goat meat, lamb, grains, and dairy. Given the country's harsh climate, especially in the summer months, dishes only used vegetables that were easy to grow and included tomatoes, lemon, and cucumbers. “When it comes to Emirati cuisine, its elements (protein, vegetables, and carbs) depend on the geography of the area. People living near the Gulf would use fish and crustaceans as their main source of protein. On the other hand, those who live away from the Gulf, whether in farmlands or the desert, would prefer poultry, lamb, or even camel meat,” says Al Hashemi.
Seafood caught from the Gulf was (and continues to be) heavily featured in many local dishes. “The Emirati seafood dishes are diverse, as they are characterized by types of fish such as grouper, shari, kingfish, safi, and zubaidi, and sardine that are used in grilling and frying,” explains Emirati national Fatma Alajmi, a specialty chef at Jumeirah Beach Hotel. One of our favorite dishes is the fish machboos – a spicy fried fish served on a bed of saffron-infused rice. The blend of spices used in it (it’s also made with chicken or meat) is normally a closely guarded secret among families. “Traditional dishes are distinguished by their rich taste in spices, the most important of which is bzar – a spice mix that is crucial in Emirati cuisine. It contains spices such as cumin, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, fenugreek, fennel, peppercorn, and cloves,” adds Alajmi.
Additionally, traditional cuisine is almost incomplete without rice – which is ironic, as rice isn’t native to the region. Aside from dates, not much was grown locally due to its arid environment. Maritime trade in the 18th century meant the region became an important trade route, and it also meant that the food scene started evolving. From India came rice and spices, which in turn influenced the flavor of khaleeji food, and made rice an essential part of their daily diet. Historically, the food was often cooked in a single pot, so that there were fewer dishes to clean after cooking, and which made for easier transportation.
A common and flavorful delicacy from the region is Harees, which is often served during special occasions like weddings and Ramadan. This meat porridge dish is slow-cooked in a large pot with wheat, lamb, or chicken, and is seasoned with simple spices like salt, pepper, and cinnamon.
When it comes to sweet treats, dates have often played a significant role. Aside from their religious importance, the date is one of the few fruits that grows abundantly in the desert. Many Emirati desserts feature a paste or syrup made from the fruit to serve as a sweetener and taste exquisite. Assidat, a popular dessert, is often served on special occasions. "Made from flour, date syrup, sugar, ghee, cardamom, and saffron, this dish brings back a beautiful memory. We lived with my grandmother, and she used to prepare and distribute it to relatives and neighbors on Eid early in the morning," says Alajmi.
One of the most famous traditional desserts is undoubtedly luqaimat – translating to "little bites", these deep-fried dumplings are dipped in date syrup and taste like little bites of heaven, if we're being honest. Other ingredients like cardamom and saffron are also commonly used in desserts. "Balaleet is a dish served for breakfast, and in the past consisted of noodles and eggs. Now it has become a sweet dish that can be served at any time, as it is characterized by the flavor of cardamom and saffron," adds Alajmi. For Al Hashemi, Balaleet brings back cherished childhood memories. "It reminds me of the first day of Eid where my mother would make it for us first thing in the morning, topped with a golden disk of cardamom flavored eggs. The smell of sugary saffron and rosewater always brings me back to this day," she reminisces.
For those of you who want to spend the National Day weekend trying out some new dishes in the kitchen, we recommend trying your hand at mastering some traditional delicacies. Chef Fatma shares with Savoir Flair her recipe for chabab, an Emirati-style pancake, while Chef Amna shares with us her recipe for fish machboos.
When it comes to Emirati cuisine, its elements (protein, vegetables, and carbs) depend on the geography of the area.
Chef Amna's Fish Machboos Recipe
TOTAL TIME120 MINUTES
- 550 gm sliced red onion
- 50 gm chopped ginger
- 40 gm chopped garlic
- 180 ml olive oil
- 2 black lemons
- 360 gm tomato
- salt to taste
- 2 chopped green chillies
- 210 gm yellow bell pepper
- 200 gm green bell pepper
- 1.2 kg cubed Hammour fillet
- 900 gm large flake oats
- 140 gm tomato paste
- 55 gm chopped coriander
- 6m gm chopped dill leaf leaves
- 45 gm chopped parsley
- 2 tbsp turmeric powder
- 2.5 tbsp crushed black pepper
- 3 tbsp Madras curry powder
- 2 tbsp Arabic spice mix
- Clean cut Hammour fillet into cubes. Reserve some fillet for thin slicing for the garnish
- Marinate the fish with salt, pepper and turmeric – sear it and reserve
- Soak the oats in water and reserve
- In a heavy sauce pan add the olive oil and allow to get hot
- Add the sliced red onion and wilt until it is glossy in color
- Add the ginger and garlic – stir well with onion until all the rawness has been evolved
- Add Arabic spice, madras curry powder, turmeric, and pepper and stir well
- Cut the dry black lemon, remove seeds, add to the onion mix – Sauté well
- Add the sliced tomato and mix – then add the green chilies
- Add roughly chopped bell peppers followed by seared fish cubes
- Once the fish mix is ready, add the tomato paste and mix well to remove the pungent taste
- Add water to the mixture and allow to boil
- Add dill, parsley, and coriander followed by the soaked reserved oats – mix well until the water absorbed
- Add more hot water if required
- Allow to boil for 45 to 60 minutes until the mixture is soft and smooth
- Once cooked, transfer to the plate
- In a heavy sauce pan add the olive oil the sliced fish until cooked
- Garnish the sliced fish like a flower on top of the maghrouba topped with fried onion and serve hot
Traditional dishes are distinguished by their rich taste in spices, the most important of which is bzar – a spice mix that is crucial in Emirati cuisine.
Chef Fatma's Recipe for Chabab
TOTAL TIME45 MINUTES
- 350 gm flour
- 2.5 gm yeast
- 25 gm sugar
- Few threads of saffron
- 2.5 gm baking powder
- 200ml water
- 15ml rosewater
- 25gm milk powder
- 10 gm cardamom
- 10 gm fennel powder
- 1 egg
- Add all dry ingredients together and mix well
- Add water , rose water, and egg
- Mix well enough to get a smooth batter
- Let the batter rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes
- Pour the batter on a non-stick fry pan and cook like pancakes
- Serve warm with choice of date syrup, cream cheese, or honey