Food in the Emirates has evolved from dates, salted fish and camel milk with some rice to a much more sophisticated Middle East cuisine.
The United Arab Emirates, also known as UAE or Emirates, is a country located in the Arab Peninsula. As such, the Emirates are in the zone designated as Western Asia, or Southwest Asia, and they are considered part of the Middle East region. The constituent emirates are Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain. Abu Dhabi serves as the capital.
The Emirates have hot summers and warm winters. A large part of the territory is desert and there is no much rainfall, with the exception of the mountains, but there are sandstorms. There are oases and a few of them are able to support some form of agriculture, even permanent settlements as in the case of the Liwa Oasis in Abu Dhabi.
Rice, fish and meat are at the core of the Emirati cuisine. Much of the Emirates landscape is desert, with a short rainfall in most areas, agriculture in the old days was limited to date palms grown in oases and not much more. There is fish from the Persian Gulf, mostly salted, and meat, mainly chicken, goat and lamb, as well as desert antelopes and gazelles before they were hunted to nearly extinction. Camel meat is eaten not eaten that often, reserved only for very special occasions, as camels are very much appreciated. Camels have always been essential to survival in the desert, because of their ability to support the heat and endure long periods without drinking, their ability to find water, and their milk, which often was the only drink available. On top of that, camel meat is very tough, difficult to cook; if anyone had such a large herd to be able to sacrifice one for meat, only young animals would be used.
Although featuring strongly in local dishes, rice is not indigenous to the region. It was brought to the Emirates by traders.
With modernization came irrigation, desalinization and refrigeration, so there is drinking water and a wide array of fruits and vegetables. Emirati cuisine has expanded to incorporate not only Middle East and North Africa dishes, such as hummus, tabbouleh, shawarma and mixed grills, but many other international dishes, as well. The diet of the modern citizens may include breakfast cereals and fast food.
Traditional drinks include camel milk, coffee and tea. Coffee is often flavored with cardamom and saffron and tea with mint is very much appreciated. Today, fruit juices are on offer in most restaurants, hotels, coffee and tea houses, with pomegranate juice being one of the most popular.
There are still people who remember drinking water only every three days and drinking only camel milk the rest of the time.
As Islam is the state religion and Muslims are not allowed to eat pork, this type of meat is usually out of the menu. Pork might be sold in special areas of designated supermarkets. For the same reason, alcohol is usually permitted only in hotels and night clubs, although there are regions where not even that is permitted.
The main cooking technique is one pot stew, where all ingredients are done together, simmering slowly. Flatbreads are done in clay ovens or on top of a large circular pan. Grilled meat, falafell, and tagines are relatively recent additions.
A meal in Dubai
If not in a hotel or restaurant, the food may be arranged on the floor, usually on top of a carpet - which may have been protected by a cloth or a plastic cover. Guests are seated on cushions around the dishes.
Arabic coffee, light in color and flavored with cardamom and saffron, is served in small cups. Dates are also served together with the coffee as preparation for the meal. The size of the cup does not matter because cups will be filled again and again until guests shake them, indicating they do not want any more coffee. The youngest males in the household, not women, are in charge of serving this coffee.
There will be more food that anyone can eat, as showering guests with food is part of their traditional hospitality, but it is polite to try a little of everything served. Only the right hand is used to eat or to pass food, even to point at a plate, as the left hand is considered unclean.
There might be a lot of conversation and socializing before the meal is served. However, when people start eating, there is no conversation to allow the guests to enjoy the food.
The selection of dishes may include kabsa, rice and meat dishes cooked with vegetables and pulses, in a fashion similar to Spanish paella. Other dishes could include stewed chicken, stewed vegetables, plain rice, and salads.
The dessert is sweet. It is eaten in a separate dish. Luqeymat, a deep fried ball of batter rolled in sesame seeds and accompanied by date honey, is one popular option.
We were presented with a rice and lamb kabsa, and a chicken kabsa. Both had hard boiled eggs as garnish. The meat was well hidden underneath the rice, so the first people to serve themselves some rice from these dishes did not realize there was any. Only the last people to fill their plates got meat. Water was served with the food.