Being travelsick, I decided to start writing about my food experiences from around the world — mostly in shacks, roadside shops, and back alleys. That’s where you find the actual flavours, I say. Also the germs, adds my mother. This week, let’s discover Arabic ghee, or Samneh, and how it made for a delightful companion for a simple Emirati lunch of rice, grilled octopus, and Shark Bhurji.
I’ve been to Dubai a bunch of times, but a year back, I realised, I had never explored the gastronomical offerings of one of the world’s entertainment capitals. You go to really good restaurants, of course. Outlets of celebrated US and UK restaurants, some owned by celebrity chefs, are also accessible (this reminds me of a memorable dinner at Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen, but more on that some other time). But how many of us seek out Emirati food?
The food they serve at that silly desert safari cannot be counted as Emirati. West Bengali and Bangladeshi boys cook it. I know because I hung out with them. I decided to do the safari because I wanted to get out of the city, and get some air. It was a disappointment — no adult enjoys fire acts and circus tricks, and the feminist in me couldn’t stand the mediocre belly dancing — and I was only looking forward to the “Bedouin-style” food. Don’t buy into that. The food was delicious — rustic, thoroughly al dente, and lots of meat — and I must say that I did enjoy myself. Until one of the cooks recognised the shawl I had draped, and came over and said, “Aapni Bangali?” Are you Bengali? He had recognised the typical beige Bengali shawl with chocolate embroidery around the edges. He was from Uttarpara, a Kolkata suburb. The other boys were too, he said. Some were also from Dhaka. I was amused. Bengali chaps from Uttarpara grilling Emirati-style lamb in the middle of the UAE desert for global tourists? Happens only in Dubai.
I kept bothering my friend and colleague in Dubai, a Lebanese gentleman, to take me out for an authentic Emirati lunch. I couldn’t stress on “authentic” enough. He was amused. Most Indians just want to run into Jamie Oliver or Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. Any Indian who knows food, that is, he added. And what about the rest, I asked. He pointed at a three-storey Maharaja Bhog as we drove down a road in Bur Dubai. I spotted a massive Copper Chimney too. I shuddered.
I followed him into a mall, prodding him twice on whether he was leading me into an “authentic” experience. He smiled and nodded. We had a reservation at a restaurant that had a makeshift alley as it’s entrance. The walls were rugged, crude. “Bedouin houses used to have crude walls like these,” my friend offered. The restaurant was designed like a microcosm of the coastal Arab experience — the sheesha smoking area was designed like a souk — and we walked further inside to sit by a huge french window with a view of the sea, next a gigantic fake tree. Like everything in Dubai, even the authentic looked outrageously artificial.
But, this is not about the abysmal décor. That lunch goes down as one of the most satisfying lunches I have had. We kicked it off with a gigantic sampling platter of all the apps on the menu. I particularly must mention the Robyan Mashwi or grilled jumbo prawns (imagine the jumbo prawns you get in India and 5x it), the delectable Hobool or deep fried fish roe, juicy meat Samboosas, and some very satisfying Koftat Samak or deep fried crumbed fish with some simple spices. My friend also ordered some grilled squids “to go with” the platter. I looked at him like I had found my soulmate.
For mains, he asked me to not get mesmerised by the menu, and trust him. Anyone who orders an all-meat appetizer sampling platter of the whole menu can be trusted, I thought. He spoke in fluent Arabic to the waitress, and after a while, she brought out a plate of hot rice, the biggest grilled octopus I had ever seen whole on a plate (“this is a baby one”, my friend laughed), what I can only call a bucket of Hummus, fries, lavash, something that looked like Kheema, and a big pot filled with a light golden liquid. I was piqued. The Kheema was Shark Bhurji, or Jesheed, made with crumbled shark meat, and not too heavy on the spices. It was slightly sweet, much easier-to-chew than goat or lamb, and paired beautifully with rice. The golden liquid was Samneh.
Samneh is Arabic clarified butter, much like ghee. But unlike the sweet umami of ghee, Samneh has a complex smokiness, is much less sweet, and has a faint acidity to it. My friend told me to pour some of the Samneh on the hot rice and mix it up with the Bhurji. Every mouthful was a fantastic combination of smoky-sweet-spicy-and-sumac, and it was difficult to imagine how a simple meal of Bhurji and rice could be such an elevated experience. Much to my friend’s amusement, I had two spoonfuls of raw Samneh just to roll it around in my mouth and absorb it. Two waitresses stopped picking up plates and stared at me.
The rich produce of the sea is a salient feature of authentic Emirati cuisine. The food isn’t heavy on spices, and most of the proteins are spice rubbed and grilled, which allows you to really enjoy the true flavours of the meat. Honestly, does good produce really need anything other than some raging fire?
We tucked into some hot Leqaimat – crisp fried dough balls doused in a sticky-sweet dates syrup – and Turkish coffee after that, soaking in the view, watching smoke waft off our coffee pot, and those dough balls glisten in the sunshine. Hashtag Shukran.