UAE: From camel milk and dates to international cuisine

| September 26, 2014 | 0 Comments
Umm Ali, a well-loved dessert from the UAE.

Umm Ali, a well-loved dessert from the UAE.

A recent adventure took me and my husband to the amazing United Arab Emirates (UAE). Located in the Middle East, it borders Saudi Arabia, Oman, the Gulf of Oman and the Persian/Arabian Gulf, and is at the centre of three of the world’s strategic regions, each with its own dynamic food culture — the Middle East, Africa and the Indian subcontinent.
The origins of a true Emirati national cuisine can be traced back 7,000 years. Like many countries, its culinary traditions have been influenced by geography and resources. For millenniums, people living near the coastal area relied on fish and seafood as staple ingredients, while vast desert regions were populated by nomadic Bedouin herdsmen who, along with their highly valued camels (as well as sheep and goats), relocated between oases in search of waterholes and springs. In addition to camel milk, the date palms and wheat grown in the oases were the staples of the Bedouin diet.

Falcons were frequently used for hunting in the UAE.

Falcons were frequently used for hunting in the UAE.

Dates, fresh or dried, provided a reliable and abundant supply of food offering extraordinary nutritional value. Five per day proved sufficient to sustain a Bedouin for extended periods when other food was scarce. The oases also permitted a certain degree of cultivation, enhancing the regular Bedouin diet with onions, sweet potatoes, lemons, various salad leaves, cucumbers, pomegranates, melons, pumpkins and honey.
Undoubtedly, camels (often referred to as “ships of the desert” that travel long distances and for weeks without water or food) met specific critical needs of the Bedouin, ensuring an ever-available means of transportation and source of dairy products (milk, butter, yogurt and cheese), meat, leather, hair for weaving and dung for fuel. However, because camel meat was usually eaten only on special occasions, falcons used for hunting typically helped supplement the Bedouin diet with captured prey.
In a nutshell, for millenniums Emirati cuisine featured meat, dairy products, grains, dates, fish and, to some extent, vegetables in areas where they were easily grown. But over centuries, ancient trade routes, the early influence of the neighbouring Persian culture, the arrival of Islam (in the 7th Century) and the Gulf’s flourishing trade with India and the Far East (by the 16th Century) all, to some degree, affected the evolution of Emirati cuisine, most notably through the introduction of rice and spices.

Luqeymat is another UAE dessert staple.

Luqeymat is another UAE dessert staple.

Generally speaking, Emirati cuisine had been confined to the home, where dishes are based on recipes passed down from mother to daughter and, as a rule, remain to this day true to their origins. Indeed, at large family gatherings, authentic Emirati food is served in a social ritual rooted in old Bedouin customs.
According to tradition, Emirati food is healthy, and strong ingredients, such as onions (rather than oil and butter), enhance the taste of dishes that are normally boiled, steamed or grilled/roasted. Emirati cuisine meticulously incorporates spices (particularly saffron, cardamom, cumin, turmeric, thyme) in a manner that focuses on blending flavours.
Salonna (a general term for a nutritious Bedouin stew of lamb or chicken and vegetables) remains the most popular and common authentic Emirati dish and is cooked daily in many Emirati homes. It is served with rice, bread and other side dishes. Meanwhile, hareis, revered as the UAE’s national dish, consists principally of meat (often ground lamb), ground wheat and spices boiled over low heat for hours, until the meat thoroughly diffuses into the wheat. This savoury type of porridge has prevailed as a culinary treat for special occasions such as weddings, Ramadan and Eid. Ghuzi, a stuffed whole lamb on a bed of spiced rice, also ranks as another popular dish that historically would have been served at a traditional Bedouin celebration where an array of food would be set out on the ground with guests seated (on the ground as well) in a circle around the festive spread. While makbus, a casserole of meat (usually lamb) or fish with rice, has the reputation of being another national favourite, UAE Ambassador Mohammed Saif Helal Al Shehhi notes that for lunch, Emiratis very often will have biriyani (a rice dish made with chicken, meat or fish and rice).
In terms of sweets, luqeymat resembles a small round doughnut made of a batter infused with saffron, cardamom and cinnamon. It is deep-fried in ghee (a nutty flavoured clarified butter) and drizzled with date syrup. As in several Arab countries, Umm Ali, a version of bread pudding, is made irresistible thanks to an impeccable combination of simple ingredients and tasty additions of raisins, nuts and spices. Ambassador Al Shehhi is quick to emphasise the importance of dates, which he says are “consumed even before breakfast with coffee, then again at breakfast and lunch, but not in the evening.”
Indeed, the simple date has always been widely used in Emirati sweet and savoury cooking. Today, dates continue to hold a prestigious position, not only as a fruit eaten out of the hand, but also covered with chocolate, stuffed decadently with fruit and nuts, manipulated into a dazzling array of exotic date balls, jams, patisseries, breads, ice creams and myriad ingenious creations. It is definitely an ongoing symbol of traditional Bedouin hospitality. Be it in private homes, at hotels, exhibitions or wherever, guests are most often welcomed with dates and gahwah (Arabic coffee made with roasted green coffee beans, cardamom and, at times, a pinch of saffron, but never sweetened with sugar). In true ceremonial fashion, a server fills tiny cups with gahwah and stands by to replenish them when empty. Only when a guest “wiggles” his/her empty cup from side to side does the server understand the guest has had enough.
Emirati cuisine experienced little significant change until the 1970s when UAE founder Sheik Zayed began ambitious and strategic projects, thanks to the economic impact brought on by the infusion of oil revenue. Within a few decades, traditional Emirati villages transformed into futuristic cities featuring stunning architecture, five-star hotels and restaurants, iconic attractions, lush vegetation and a foreign population outnumbering locals many times over. As a result, Emirati cuisine today reflects a mix of those of the Middle East, Asia and the Western world. Indeed, dining in the UAE can be best described as a phenomenal multicultural adventure, tempting palates with ethnic specialties from virtually every corner of the globe. Arabic, Persian and Indian cuisines reign as the most popular, with preferred menu choices being Arabic mixed grills, tahini, hummus, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, shawarma and biriyani.
Until recently, there were no serious Emirati restaurants in the UAE other than some obscure simple local ones. Therefore, cognisant of the fact that Emirati food in its original form remains a novel concept to many diners, a new generation of local and international chefs has now focused on embracing traditional recipes and disseminating information about the UAE’s culinary heritage. Even Emirati homemakers have eagerly joined the campaign by selling traditional dishes prepared in their own private kitchens by promoting them through social media. And, according to the popular notion, waxing on the theory that what was old is now “new,” nutritionists enthusiastically promote camel milk as a super-food. It is lower in fat and cholesterol than cow’s milk, three times richer in vitamin C, higher in vitamin B, 10 times higher in iron and closer in composition to human milk.
So, with my own display of hospitality, I invite you to try my version of one of Emiratis’ very favourite desserts, Umm Ali. Bon Appétit! Shahia Thaibah!

Individual Umm Ali
Makes 4 individual servings

2 oz (60 g)* croissants
2 cups (500 mL) full fat milk (3.5 % fat)**
1/3 cup (80 mL) granulated sugar
1/4 cup (60 mL) raisins
1/4 cup (60 mL) each of pistachio nuts, desiccated coconut and toasted*** slivered almonds
1 1/3 tsp (7 mL) ground nutmeg
1/4 to 1/3 cup (60 to 80 mL) heavy cream (35% fat)

1. Cut croissants vertically into 1/3 inch (0.8 cm) wide slices. Arrange slices on a baking sheet in a single layer and place in a preheated 350 °F (180 °C) oven for 2 to 3 minutes (turning once) to toast very lightly.
2. Breaking slices as required, arrange pieces equally in 4 small individual (i.e., capacity 1 cup or 250 mL) ovenproof baking dishes (or pans).
3. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, heat milk, sugar and raisins over medium heat. Stirring occasionally, bring milk mixture to a boil. Leaving the raisins behind in the saucepan, pour the milk mixture into a large measuring cup.
4. Sprinkle raisins, pistachios, coconut, almonds and nutmeg evenly over croissant pieces in the 4 baking dishes.
5. Pour ½ cup (125 mL) of the milk mixture over the contents of each of the 4 baking dishes, then drizzle the surface of each with 1 tbsp (15 mL) or so of heavy cream. Allow the Umm Ali to rest for 10 minutes.
6. Place baking dishes of Umm Ali about 2 inches (5 cm) below a preheated broiling element of the oven until surfaces are golden brown (about 2 to 3 minutes).
7. Serve Umm Ali warm or at room temperature.
* This is about 1 large croissant.
** If using a “reduced fat” milk, replace some of the milk (e.g., 1/4 cup or 60 mL) with heavy cream (i.e., 35% fat.)
*** Toasting is optional.

Margaret Dickenson wrote the award-
winning cookbook, Margaret’s Table — Easy Cooking & Inspiring Entertaining(

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Category: Delights

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Margaret Dickenson wrote the awardwinning cookbook, Margaret’s Table — Easy Cooking & Inspiring Entertaining (

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