cover for cardamom and lime
Susannah Tarbush

Cardamom and Lime: Recipes from the Arabian Gulf

by Sarah al-Hamad

2008: New Holland, UK, ISBN 978-1-85437-988-9

2008: and Interlink Books, USA, ISBN 978-1-56656-725-1

The Diverse Cuisine of the Gulf

Sarah al-Hamad’s book on the cuisine of the Arabian Gulf is a fascinating addition to the English-language literature on Middle Eastern and Arab food. The Middle Eastern cookery book scene has so far been dominated by the famed cuisines of a small number of countries including Lebanon, Turkey and Morocco. Al-Hamad opens a window on the intriguing, but far less widely known, cuisine of a region that encompasses Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and the UAE.

Sarah Al-Hamad’s book has an appealing, colourful design and includes many photographs of Gulf food markets, shops and people taken by the author, a food writer who divides her time between London and Kuwait.

The combinations of flavourings used in Gulf cooking help distinguish it from other Arab cuisines. Food and drinks – including coffee -– are fragrant with spices, particularly cardamom. Dried lime, whole or powdered, is another key ingredient.

In her informative introduction Al-Hamad gives an overview of the cuisine, tells of her food experiences while growing up in Kuwait, and explains how she went about researching her book. She depicts the way in which cooking and eating are a big part of Gulf social life.

Arabian Gulf cookery is inspired by diverse culinary traditions and is largely a blend of Indian, Persian and Turkish cuisines. Another influence is the traditional Bedouin diet of dates, dairy products, and occasionally meat.

The Gulf’s position on the ancient spice trade routes between Africa and India brought it cardamom pods, cloves, saffron threads, cumin seeds, chilli and curry powder. It also brought long-grain basmati rice, the Gulf’s vital staple known as ‘aish (translated as ‘living’). In her recipe for fragrant white rice, mashkhoul, al-Hamad explains how to produce the prized golden crust known as the hakouka.

Al-Hamad considers Gulf cooking to be epitomised by the splendid dish machbous (known in Saudi Arabia and Qatar as kabsa), a fragrant lamb pilaf with spicy red daqous sauce. The recipe, like several others in the book, calls for the addition of hashou – an aromatic mix of fried onions, dried lime and raisins. Such a combination of sweet and savoury ingredients is typical of Gulf food.

Another distinctive feature of Gulf cuisine is the range of savoury porridges such as shilla, a mixture of mung beans, lentils, rice and spinach. Madrouba is made with jareesh (cracked wheat) and chicken, and is beaten smooth at the end of cooking.

Fish is an important part of the Gulf cuisine. The local fish include zubaidi (silver pomfret) and hamour, which used to be a poor person’s fish but now “goes for a small fortune at the fishmarket”. Among the recipes presented by al-Hamad are aromatic fish stew, baked fish with nut stuffing, shrimp and rice, and mtabag simach (translated as “ultimate fish on rice”).

The influence of the Indian sub-continent on Gulf cooking is reflected in recipes such as batata chab, potato croquettes stuffed with minced meat which are particularly associated with Bengalis. Morocco was the inspiration for a magnificent-looking roast chicken filled with a date, prune and nut stuffing.

There is no stinting on calories in the book’s dessert section. Gaimat, crunchy balls of spicy dough, are drenched in a cardamom, saffron and lemon-scented syrup. Khabees (Arabian crumble), which has Ottoman origins, is made from toasted flour, butter, rosewater, sugar, cardamom and saffron. ‘Aseeda melds together date syrup, flour and melted butter, and is sprinkled with chopped hazelnuts. The Arabian version of sponge cake, ‘igali, is rich with eggs, saffron, dates, cardamom, walnuts and sesame seeds. It is traditionally accompanied by a cup of sweet black tea.

Al-Hamad says she had two main aims in writing her book. One was to introduce Arabian Gulf
cuisine to the wider world. The other was to preserve in words and images the traditional markets and foods of the Gulf, which are under threat from the fast food culture. Her book succeeds admirably in putting Gulf cookery on the map, and should arouse interest both abroad and within the Gulf itself.

From Banipal 34 - The World of Arab Fiction

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