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Foods of The Arabian Gulf Countries

posted on: Nov 4, 2020

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributor

For untold centuries, the Bedouins of the Arabian Peninsula have served in their desert tents, mansaf (roasted lamb with rice) to honored guests.  Along the eastern coast of that ancient land, the inhabitants have, through the ages, somewhat evolved this traditional symbol of Arab hospitality.  They add much more spices to the rice and often serve fish instead of lamb along with side dishes.

As has been the custom for hundreds of years, the lamb or fish and rice are served together on a single brass or copper tray.  This is then placed in the center of the circle of seated guests, within reach of all the diners.  The piping hot lamb or fish atop a mountain of rice defuses an enticing aroma – a prelude to the delights of the feast to come.

The age-old etiquette of the meal begins with the ritual washing of the hands.  The diners then commence by tearing with the fingers bite-sized pieces of meat or fish and rolling them in balls of rice before throwing them into the mouth.  Everyone eats in silence.  It is as if the food has a hypnotizing effect.  When the meal is finished, the hands are washed again and the guests are served coffee with, at times, sweets.  Now, everyone takes part in lively conversation, while some smoke the traditional water-pipes.

Today, in all the Arab lands, traditional dining has moved from the desert to elegant villas and plush city restaurants.  However,  mansaf remains a universal favorite – as popular with foreigners as with the local population.  Western visitors are usually offered their meals on tables with plates, knives, forks, and china while Arab guests are served their food on a cloth spread over a carpet on the floor.  Arab hospitality ensures that visitors, no matter from what part of the world, feast in comfort.

No traveler should leave the Arabian Gulf countries without partaking in a typical mansaf.  The subtle flavor of the rice engulfing the lamb or fish with the aroma of herbs and spices ensures that it will be a long-remembered meal.  Those who are privileged to sit down to such a feast will not quickly forget their Arabian sojourn.

In the past, the simple Bedouin and pearl diver’s foods dominated the Arabian Gulf countries’ cuisine.  The choice of ingredients was limited.  It basically consisted of seafood and rice brought by Arab dhows that traded along with the East African and the Indian sub-continents coasts.  However, as centuries rolled by, these renowned ships of commerce brought back with them the spices of India and of the Indonesian archipelago.  Thereafter, the people began to develop their own type of tasty foods, which became dominated by the aromatic smells of these spices.

The perfume emitted by these spices gave a soft touch to the once harsh life lived by most of the people of the Gulf area. Afnan R. Zayani in her book A Taste of the Arabian Gulf  writes: “In those days, women would daily decorate their simple homes with fragrant flowers and constantly burn oud (incense). This love for aromatic smells found its way to their taste in food to the extent of using the word khaneen – literally meaning perfumed – to pay a compliment to a particularly delicious dish.”

The Arab connection with spices goes back a long way. For centuries, even before the birth of Christ, Arab merchants controlled the spice trade. Acting as middlemen, they transported exotic herbs and spices to the Mediterranean region and beyond. This continued until the Portuguese in the 16th century captured the Arab controlled ports and trade routes.

The Arab hold on not only the spice trade but all commerce was so strong that in the medieval ages Arabic was considered to be the language of traders. When Columbus attempted to reach India by sailing westward, he took an Arabic-speaking interpreter with him since Europeans in that era believed that Arabic was the only trading language in the world.

In addition to the ‘spice trade’, in the past few decades, the newly discovered oil wealth in the Arabian Gulf countries has enticed millions of workers from around the world.  This has been instrumental in adding new foods to the time-honored mansaf.

Today, a wide variety of side dishes are offered along with the lamb or fish.  The Gulf’s link to the Indian sub-continent, going back for thousands of years, has imparted the taste of India and Pakistan to many of these foods. This, added to the Iranian and the influences of the neighboring Arab lands has created in the kitchen of the Arabian Gulf countries a world of gourmet delights.

The following dishes are some samples of these foods, which have taken on many of the spices from the Indian sub-continent.  I have prepared them to my taste, either adding or changing spices.

Eggplant Purée – Dukous Badhinjan

Serves 8 to 10

For all strata of society in the Arab countries, eggplants are a favored vegetable.  This dish is prepared almost the same in the Eastern Arab countries – with more spices in the Gulf countries.

1 large eggplant, (about 2 pounds), pierced in a few places by a fork

1/3 cup tahini (sesame seed paste)

1/3 cup lemon juice

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

1 tablespoon pomegranate seeds

parsley leaves

Roast eggplant in a 350°F preheated oven until skin blackens and becomes crisp. Remove from the oven then allow it to cool.

Remove skin then place eggplant in a food processor.  Add remaining ingredients, except tomato and parsley, then process into a paste.  Spread on a flat serving platter, then decorate with pomegranate seeds and parsley. Serve hot or cold.

Baked Tomatoes  Al-Dukous

Serves 6 to 8

4 large tomatoes, about 2-pounds, sliced about 1/4-inch thick

4 tablespoons olive oil

6 cloves garlic, crushed

4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

Place tomato slices in a casserole then set aside.

Combine remaining ingredients then spread over top.  Bake in a 350° F preheated oven for 25 minutes, then serve hot from casserole accompanying all types of meats.

Cucumber Salad – Salatat Khiyar

Serves 6 to 8 

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 medium bell pepper, seeded and finely chopped

1 teaspoon ginger

3/4 teaspoon salt

2 cups yogurt

2 medium cucumbers, peeled and chopped

Heat oil in a frying pan, then sauté onion and sweet pepper until onion turns limp, but not brown.  Transfer frying pan contents into a serving bowl then allow cooling. Stir in remaining ingredients, then refrigerate for at least one hour.  Serve well chilled.

Chickpea and Tomato Soup – Shawrbat Alnikhi

Serves 8 to 10

1 cup chickpeas, soaked overnight and drained

8 cups of water

4 tablespoons olive oil

4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

2 medium onions, chopped

4 cloves garlic crushed

2 cups stewed tomatoes

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

Place chickpeas and water in a saucepan then bring to boil. Cook over medium heat for about 2 hours or until chickpeas are well cooked, adding more water if necessary.

In the meantime, heat oil in a frying pan, then sauté coriander, and onions over medium heat for 10 minutes.  Stir in remaining ingredients and cook for a further 5 minutes. Add frying pan contents to the chickpeas and cook over medium heat for 20 minutes, then remove from heat and allow to cool.  Purée, then return to saucepan, adding more water if desired.  Heat and serve.

Chickpea Kabab- Kabab Alnikhi

Makes some 36 patties

Like numerous other dishes now common in the Arabian Gulf countries, this dish likely came from the Indian sub-continent. Wholesome and tasty, it can be served as an entrée, side dish, or for snacks.

1 can chickpeas, drained

1 medium onion, chopped

1 medium tomato, chopped

1/2 cup fresh or frozen green peas

1/2 small green bell pepper, seeded and chopped

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 cup flour

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander seeds

1 teaspoon pepper

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves  (cilantro)

2 eggs

oil for frying

Place all ingredients, except oil, in a food processor and process into a soft dough (soft enough for spooning), adding a little water or more flour if necessary.  Make sure that chickpeas are well ground.

Place oil in a saucepan, about 1 1/2 inches deep, then heat.  Spoon 1 heaping tablespoon of dough at a time into the oil.  Fry until golden brown, turning kababs over once.  If kababs tend to break up in the oil, add more eggs or flour to the dough. Continue until all the dough is finished. Drain on paper towels; then serve warm.

Shrimp and Rice – Rubyian

Serves from 6 to 8

Easy to prepare as the main course for special dinners, the following two dishes are very tasty, especially for those who are looking for different fish menus.

8 tablespoons butter

1 1/2-pounds shelled fresh or frozen shrimp, thawed

4 cloves garlic, crushed

2 medium onions, chopped

2 cups rice, rinsed

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground coriander seeds

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

4 cups of water

Melt butter in a saucepan then sautés shrimps with garlic over medium heat for 5 minutes or until shrimp turn light pink.  Remove shrimp but reserve butter.  Chop half of the shrimps into small pieces.  Set aside separately chopped and un-chopped shrimp, but keep warm.

In the same butter, sauté onions over medium heat for 10 minutes.  Add rice, then stir-fry for 1 minute.  Stir in chopped shrimp and remaining ingredients, except the whole shrimp then bring to boil.  Cover then cook over medium/low heat for 20 minutes.  Turn heat off, then stir and re-cover.  Allow cooking in your own steam for another 30 minutes.  Place on a platter and spread the remaining whole shrimp evenly over top. Serve hot.

Lentils, Rice and Fish – Makbous Samak

Serves from 8 to 10

6 tablespoons butter

2 cups rice, rinsed

1/2 cup lentils, soaked overnight in 5 1/2 cups water

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon ginger

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

2 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 cup olive oil

4 medium onions, finely chopped

4 pounds fish fillet, cut into 2-inch cubes

1 teaspoon garlic powder

Melt butter in a saucepan, then adds rice and stir-fry for 1 minute.  Add lentils with their water, pepper, cumin, ginger, cayenne, and 1 teaspoon of the salt.  Bring to boil, then cover.  Cook over medium/low heat for 20 minutes.  Turn heat off, then stir and re-cover.  Allow cooking in your own steam for another 30 minutes.

In the meantime, heat 4 tablespoons of oil in a frying pan, then sauté onions over medium heat until they turn golden brown.  Set aside, but keep warm.

Place fillets on a platter, then sprinkle with remaining salt and garlic powder and set aside.

Heat remaining oil in a frying pan, then fry fillets over medium heat for about 10 minutes, turning over a few times, but do not overcook.  Set aside but keep warm.

Place rice and lentils on a platter, then spread onions evenly over top.  Arrange fillet pieces over onions then serve.

Coconut Rolled Dates – Stuffed 

1-pound soft-whole dried dates pitted

1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

3/4 cup half and half cream

2/3 cup sugar

1 tablespoon orange blossom water

4 tablespoons cocoa

1 cup shredded coconut, spread on a dish

Slit dates on one side, then stuff with walnuts.  Press closed; then set aside.

Place cream in a small pot then bring to boil.  Add sugar then stir over medium heat until it melts.  Add orange blossom water and cocoa then, stirring constantly, cook over medium/low heat for 5 minutes, stirring often.  Remove from heat and allow to cool.

Dip dates in the cocoa syrup, then roll them in coconut and place on a serving tray.

Nut Rolls – Nashab

These sweets have a history that goes back to the 9th century Baghdad when the city was the centre of the world.

1 1/4 cups raw cashew nuts

1 cup walnuts

1/2 cup blanched almonds

1 teaspoon ground cardamom seeds

2 cups of sugar

1/2 cup water

2  tablespoons lemon juice

1 pound package filo dough

oil for frying

Place cashew, walnuts, almonds, cardamom, and 1 cup of the sugar in a food processor then process for a minute to make the filling.  Set aside.

Place the remaining sugar and water in a pot and bring to boil.  Simmer over low heat for 5 minutes then stir in lemon juice to make syrup.  Leave on very low heat.

Cut filo dough into quarters then cover with a lightly damp cloth.  Take one piece at a time and place 1 level tablespoon of filling along the middle of the bottom edge.  Fold both sides overfilling. Wet with fingers top edge then roll from bottom up.  Repeat until all filo dough pieces are finished.

Place oil 1 to 2 inches deep in a saucepan, then heat.  Fry rolls over medium heat, turning them over until they are lightly evenly brown.  Remove then place in warm syrup for a few moments. Remove from syrup and allow to cool.

Arabian Cardamon Coffee – Qahwah

3  tablespoons un-roasted coffee

4 1/2 cups water

1 1/2 teaspoon pulverized cardamom seeds

Place coffee in a heavy frying pan, then roast over high heat, stirring constantly until it just begins to brown.  Remove and allow to cool, then coarsely grind.

Place water in a coffee pot then brings to boil.  Add coffee then brew over medium heat for 10 minutes.  Pour through a strainer into an ibrik (serving coffee pot) or another ordinary coffee pot.  Add cardamom then bring to boil.  Brew for 5 minutes then pour into tiny Arab coffee cups and serve.

Habeeb Salloum, M.S.M.