Where flavour reigns

Arabic cuisine is in a world of its own. With meaty delights, fishy treats, fresh breads and decadent desserts, there’s everything on the plate, writes Aftab H Kola

Pita bread with roasted chicken and vegetables

Having stayed in Oman for 12 years and one year in Saudi Arabia and visited a number of other Arab countries, the one strand of tradition, apart from many, that wowed me is the Arabic cuisine. As everyone who has stayed in the region would vouch, hospitality is one of the Arab region’s legendary pleasures. It is believed that Arabian cuisine evolved from tent cookery and later incorporated other culinary influences. With its trademark dash of cinnamon cooked in olive oil, Arabic cuisine is gaining popularity across the world today. India is also fast catching up with Arabic-food speciality restaurants and cafes coming up in many cities. For expats living in Saudi Arabia, the Arabian cuisine revolved around shawarma, layers of marinated and ground meat of different kinds, interleaved with fat and flavouring, roasted on a vertical spit, and the ubiquitous hummus, but seldom do they know that Arabian food encompasses an amazing array of dishes.

Break some bread

The regular breakfast is sharply tasty, nourishing, and almost the same in most Arab countries. Fragrant stacks of freshly baked Arabic bread assail the nostrils when you get inside any Arab home. The common denominator of the country’s bread-basket is the flat, round, barely leavened khubz arabi (pita bread), hollow with an inner pocket for stuffing, soft and chewy, good for absorbing sauces. Though pita bread is common in all Arab countries, there are some breads indigenous to each country.

Surrounding the loaves of pita are small bowls of salty, white goat cheese, glistening black and green olives, and labneh, a thick cream cheese made by draining yoghurt through cheesecloth, and then drizzled with olive oil.

Pita is eaten with hummus in many places. In Syria and Lebanon, breakfast is likely to consist of arous labneh, rolled sandwiches of flat Arab bread filled with labneh, along with whatever the eater chooses from olives, tomato and mint. Or pieces can be torn off the bread and dipped in za’tar, a mixture of thyme, salt, sumac and sesame seeds. In Oman, rukhal — thin, round bread made of flour — is prepared almost every day and is served for breakfast as well as dinner. Malawah is a famous bread in Yemen while brik (pastry) is a favourite in Tunisia. Tami, bigger, crustier, and punched with holes, is a Saudi-favourite. Most Egyptians and Yemenis begin their day, every day, with fuul, known in English as foul madamis (fava beans). If not the national dish, it’s at least the national breakfast.

Onto the main course

But it is the main course in the Arab world where one is treated with a cornucopia of dishes. Rice forms the main staple diet in most of the regions. Some of my favourites include: the red-hued rice dish called ruzz bukhari, which is cooked with tomatoes, nuts and raisins; the all-time popular mandi, a Yemeni rice dish cooked in a clay oven with lamb or chicken, or the little spicy kabsa.

Makloubeh, a traditional Palestinian dish, consists of meat, rice and fried vegetables cooked in a pot, which is then flipped upside down when served. Maqbous, tinged with saffron and cooked over spicy red or white meat, is quite popular in GCC countries. Qabooli is a zesty combination of meat, potatoes and rice browned with sauces. Saliq, a simple and bland dish, is the best known of all the rice dishes of Saudi Arabia. It is similar to hot rice pudding. The rice is first half-cooked in meat or chicken broth and then with milk, stirred and simmered for about an hour until soft. Mashkhul is a popular Arabian Gulf rice dish made with mutton, chicken, fish or shrimp. Kushari, showcasing the simple flavours of Egypt, is a simple vegetarian dish of rice and lentils with pasta, tomato sauce, chickpeas and fried onions.

Oh, fish!

Fish or meat is eaten as the main course with rice or bread. The Arabian Gulf swarms with food fish. Najil fish, one of the tastiest and expensive fishes in the world, is relished in Saudi Arabia. Among the fish dishes I love are samaka harra, a spicy Syrian dish; samak bil narjeel, an Omani fish preparation marinated in spices and topped with rice coconut sauce; al madrooba, a dish famous in the UAE prepared from salt-cured locally known maleh fish and flour and spices and topped with ghee; samak bi tahini (fish with tahini), among others. Nadhar mashwi is a grilled squid seasoned with spices and is eaten in the UAE. These days, grilled seafood is often relished. Seafood like shrimps, lobsters, clams, mussels, oysters and abalones are also on the menu.

Meaty delights

Besides fish, meat is very commonly eaten here. The rice dishes of mandi and kabsa come with a big chunk of succulent meat. Harissa, wheat-and-meat dish which has become sort of cult food in Arabia, is prepared throughout the Arabian Gulf countries. In Oman, meat dishes like arsia, lamb meat cooked with rice; mishkak, skewered meat grilled on charcoal; shorbat laham (porridge); harees (made from wheat and chicken) and a number of chicken and meat grilled items find a place of pride on the menu.

In Oman, the making of shuwa calls for a celebration. It consists of a whole cow or goat roasted up to two days in a special oven prepared in a pit dug in the ground. The meat is marinated with red pepper, turmeric, coriander, cumin, cardamom, garlic and vinegar, and is wrapped in sacks made of dry banana or palm leaves. These sacks are then thrown into the smouldering oven, which is covered with a lid and sealed so that no smoke escapes. The result is unbelievably succulent and tender meat, deliciously spicy and served in large communal platters.

Kiftah yoghurtliya (meatballs in yogurt sauce) is a famous dish in Beirut, once the gastronomic capital of the Middle East. Musakhan, a Palestinian national dish, is composed of roasted chicken baked with onions, sumac, allspice, saffron and fried pine nuts atop one or more taboon breads.

All things spice

Among the favourite spices used in Arabian cooking are za’tar, saffron, powdered dark-red sumac berries, cardamom, dried lime, etc.

Falafel, deep-fried patty, also known as ta’miyah, is an all-time and sambousak (meat samosa), kibee balls (cracked wheat balls) are all favourite snacks. Among salads, baba ghanoush (consists of char-grilled mashed eggplant mixed with seasonings); parsley-based veg tabbouleh; fatoush (a bread salad made from toasted or fried pieces of pita bread combined with mixed greens and other vegetables. For those with a sweet tooth, desserts like umm ali, basboussa, kunafeh, baklava, aish el-saraya, luqaimat, mahalabia, qatayef, etc taste heavenly.

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