This is not your regular biryani. This isn’t even the regular machboos or Fogat Diyay—a traditional rice and chicken dish that’s popular throughout the Gulf—that you eat in a restaurant. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the fogat diyay cooked by an Emirati mom in her own kitchen. We all know how special a meal becomes if it is cooked by mom.
Today, when the United Arab Emirates celebrates its 40th national day, I am going to share with you a special Emirati lunch experience that I had a few days ago. Then I’ll head out and drive into the crazy traffic to see all these wildly decorated vehicles. But first, let’s talk about food and Emirati hospitality.
Arwa of La Meré Culinare invited us, a group of super awesome food bloggers based in the UAE, to her home to celebrate the national day where her mother was going to teach us to cook Emirati food. Who could say no to that? Right after confirming our invitations, my sister and I went to the Naif Souq and bought ourselves silk jalabiyas, those long traditional dresses.
Shall I begin with how we set forth with a GPS and still got lost? Let’s just say that I am a congenitally geographically disoriented person and my sister just returned from Tokyo and was a little jet-lagged (we get jet-lagged even on two-hour flights and make that as an excuse for anything that goes wrong). So when we arrive the basmati rice has already been soaked for 30 minutes and drained, the chicken happily cooking away in a pot of onions and spices, and the ladies—there were around twelve, I think—were taking down notes. Plus we missed the grand breakfast that everyone’s now raving about in their respective blogs.
I must admit that I didn’t immediately jump in to see how the chicken was being cooked; I spent the first few minutes shaking hands with and introducing myself to these ladies whose blogs I have began reading on a regular basis (I will tell you about these talented women and their amazing blogs in another post). After that, I spent the next few minutes admiring the kitchen! I love all that beautiful, natural light pouring in so generously from the windows that creates magic on food photography! The home is elegantly and tastefully decorated, and our host’s hospitality made us feel VVIPs.
A portable stove was set up on the kitchen island so that we could all see and photograph the cooking process with ease. Besides the spices and cooking utensils, the table was cluttered with pens and paper, digital SLR cameras, and cellphones.
The moment our host and teacher would say something like, “And then you add salt…” everyone would rush to focus their camera lens into the pot and begin taking pictures. This was repeated each time an ingredient is added into the pot. I must tell you, Arwa’s mom is a very patient lady.
Sometime during the cooking lessons, Arwa’s father made a brief appearance just outside the kitchen door. We’re told about his love for plants and flowers which is evident by the lush garden surrounding their house.
That’s ginger and garlic pastes, turmeric powder, cumin powder, lemon juice, green chilies, cardamom pods, and a special Arabic spice mix called bzaar. What is not shown in the picture above is an ingredient that I have tasted for the very first time but instantly fell in love with—whole dried lime. I have decided to add dried lime into every rice dish that I cook henceforth (or until the dried lime fever wears off).
Here are a couple of tips I learned that morning: first, do not over-soak your basmati rice (30 minutes of pre-soaking is enough) because then it will not absorb the yummy chicken stock later, and second, after the rice comes to a boil (and is half cooked), cover the pot with a lid and put in the oven at 150ºC for 10 minutes. Oh, and ghee is used. That makes a huge difference in the taste.
Next, we were taught how to make balateet, a sweet and salty vermicelli and egg dish that is usually cooked on a Friday morning for breakfast.
To make balateet, vermicelli is first boiled, drained and sprinkled with sugar. In another pot, heat up some ghee and fry finely-chopped onion until translucent. Whisk the eggs along with some cardamom powder and add this into the pot with the onions. Add saffron strands, cardamom powder and sweetened vermicelli. Mix well and serve.
While waiting for lunch to be served, we were offered tea and coffee, aka gahwa. I like how there’s a separate plate for a bunch of mint leaves to be added in the cup of tea; it adds a nice and fresh taste to the drink.
Take note: the tea comes with the saucer while the coffee doesn’t. It’s tradition.
And then our gorgeous-looking, amazingly fragrant fogat diyay was set on the table. I am happy to announce that I loved being with this group of food bloggers! Imagine not needing to tell anyone, “Do not touch the food yet, let me take a picture first!” because…
…everyone was already there before me taking pictures!
Arab hospitality is very much like ours in Pakistan or India, the host will initially serve the guests herself, as opposed to the guests helping themselves with the food. I find that it’s a very nice and sweet gesture.
This chicken and rice dish tastes so good. The meat nicely absorbed all the spices and was juicy tender, while the rice was perfectly cooked (and the long basmati grains were unbroken). This was accompanied by some onion pickles and lemon, but personally I didn’t think this dish needed anything else: it was perfect on it’s own!
We were also served fresh juice of fruits harvested from their farm: lemon-pineapple juice, and watermelon-ginger juice. I loved the latter one and will post a recipe soon. You can tell how busy I was enjoying the meal because I forgot to take pictures of my watermelon juice.
It was already 2 pm by the time the ladies started to leave. But as the Emiratis are known for their hospitality and generosity, we weren’t allowed to go empty handed. Each of us were given a huge packet of freshly-ground bzaar spice mix so that we could try to cook the fogat ourselves, a packet of dates with sesame seeds, bottles of fresh laban (a yogurt drink), and if that wasn’t already enough, each of us were handed a goodie bag that contained a flag, keychain, clip, and pendant with the colors of the UAE flag! The flag and keychain are now hanging in my car in celebration of the national day.
We were also given a brief introduction to the types of frankincense used in an Emirati household. We were offered to try drinking some water that has been perfumed by bakhoor, wood chips soaked in fragrant oils. “Oh, this tastes like smoking a sheesha!” commented one of the ladies. I tried a couple of sips myself; it wasn’t bad but since it was my first time, I found it a bit strong. We were told that they usually select or make their own bakhoor. These smelled so good, unlike what is usually sold in the market. Since there are quite a large number of imitations and fake products around, it’s not easy to identify the real thing, specially if you don’t know much about these fragrances.
Before we left, we treated to an amazing blend of fragrant perfumes. Arwa personally placed the fancy burner (on the left in the picture) under my abaya and applied some really good smelling perfume on my hijab and wrists. If you live or have been to the U.A.E. then you must be familiar with that exotic scent that trails behind Emirati men and women as they walk past you in the malls or share the elevator with you. The scent is overpowering at first, then you gradually get used to it and eventually you fall in love with it. I returned home with the fragrance of bukhoor, hospitality, generosity, friendship, and clinging onto my abaya and skin, a scent that will always remind me of the U.A.E.