In the countries of the Arabian Gulf region, lunch- the main meal of the day- is widely considered incomplete if rice isn’t served. How and when did the grain, which does not naturally grow in any of the six countries, become such a staple food? I meet with food researcher and writer, Sarah Al-Hamad, to get some answers.
Author of the award-winning cookbook Cardamom and Lime: Flavours of the Arabian Gulf as well as Sun bread and sticky toffee: Date desserts from everywhere, Sarah has spent more than a decade of her life documenting the Khaleeji cuisine and researching its history.
‘Back in London, most people know nothing about the foods of our region’, begins the Kuwaiti-Londoner when we meet over coffee one morning in Abu Dhabi, a city where she likes to vacation at this time of year. ‘When they find out I write books and specifically on the Gulf, they say, “There’s a cuisine in the Gulf? You have a kitchen?” And I say, “Yes, we do, actually!”’
Numerous others inaccurately assume that it is the same as Levantine cuisine.
‘It’s different from the Levant’, Sarah informs them. ‘Middle Eastern food doesn’t encompass our cuisine. I mean, we are Middle Eastern, but our food’s different’.
‘Our food, our real regional food, is very basic,’ she explains. ‘Most of it you find during Ramadan: the harees, the jireesh… All of these dishes are very simple – a handful of wheat or oats, a bit of meat, some water, and everything is brought together’.
This goes back to the fact that the Arabian Peninsula was historically a place of scarcity. Besides dates, very little grew in the arid environment.
Maritime trade (especially the trade of dates) and migration in the 18th century increasingly brought Khaleejis into contact with others. These interactions significantly influenced the region’s food.
‘If you look at our history, people populated the coastlines. [But] they had to leave the shore and look beyond to see what they could find’, she states. ‘ Our food started evolving with trade, exposure and migration. This includes migration from all parts of Asia. Of course, the Ottoman history has a lot to do with it but also Persia. Throughout Arabia, the different tribes also moved around, and everyone brought their own influence’.
‘Through trade with India, we got a lot of our spices and ingredients like rice and tea’.
In addition to tea, rice proved a hit amongst our Khaleeji forefathers and many became dependant on it. This is reflected in the fact that rice was and is still referred to as aish (Arabic for ‘living’) by a large portion of the Khaleeji population, especially those living on the east coast, where trade with India was historically more dominant.
‘[Rice] is actually a really good staple ingredient’ remarks Sarah. ‘ It’s very long lasting. You could live off it for a year. It’s nourishing. It gives you a lot of energy and it’s relatively inexpensive…It works for us climatically as well: it’s cooling. So it made sense for us.’
The recipe for biryani, a rice dish that is popular across the Arabian Gulf region and of which another rice dish (machboos/kabsa) is an offshoot, came from Persia, adds Sarah, where rice is also an essential component of the cuisine. So did kebabs, for example.
Khabees, a flour-based dessert beloved in the Gulf, has its roots in the Ottoman Empire, she documents in Cardamom and Lime: Flavours of the Arabian Gulf.
‘[The Khaleeji cuisine] is a coming together of so many different elements’ concludes Sarah. ‘ It is largely a combination of Indian, Persian, and Ottoman, cuisine… We’re very cosmopolitan!’
To learn more about the Khaleeji cuisine and its history, read Sarah Al-Hamad’s books and follow her on Twitter and Instagram, @cardamomandlime.
Sharifah Alhinai is the Managing Storyteller at Sekka.