I have a special bond with the Middle East as my first restaurant ‘Khazana’ was set up in Dubai more than a decade ago. It is still a meeting point for many food lovers who visit Dubai, and for the locals there who want to enjoy Indian food that is simple and deliciously different.
As I travel a lot too to the other regions for business, I have been enamored by the food habits that are unique, yet familiar as many of the ingredients are similar to Indian food. Over the years, I have observed that the mode of traditional cooking has slowly been whittled down to convenience cooking, but that is the case in all developing countries where time is at a premium.
Let me take you through a brief and interesting account that encompasses the food that makes Middle Eastern cooking so vividly different from any other food in the world. Any cuisine evolves from some point of inheritance. It could have emerged centuries ago, and the Middle Eastern food was likely to be spread by paths of marching armies over the years, no doubt gaining or losing a herb or two along the way.
The Ottoman Turks brought with them the thin filo pastry and the coffee now served throughout the Middle East, while other cultures and people also left their mark. The huge diversity includes spices from India, yogurt from Russia, okra from Africa, tomatoes from the Moors of Spain and dumplings from the Mongol invaders. By now claims as to the origins of a certain dish are varied and hard to prove. For instance, whereas one authority claims the Syrians obtained a certain dish from the Egyptians, another source is convinced it was brought to Egypt at a later date, stolen from the Turks.
Equally important are the produce, traditions and religion of each country. There is a certain level of similarity between all Arab countries, increasing in strength between neighbors, such as the Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, or the states of the Gulf region, but each area has its unique culinary characteristics.
So all the recipes that one can read as attributed to one particular country, does not necessarily mean that it originated there, only that the given method of preparation is the customary one for that area. Some of the world’s most sumptuous sweet treats are to be found in the Middle Eastern pastry shops. Such delights are not intended to be eaten every day. These are saved for special occasions, and are eaten in small portions, with strong coffee or mint tea.
All said and done, a good feast comes to light during the festive season. With Eid, the joy of presenting your loved ones with ethnic traditional food is a feeling that just cannot be matched. A lot of thought and love goes into preparing delicacies and sharing it with family, relatives and friends. Eid will bring in the dishes of mutton, dishes using semolina and fresh fruits and nuts and what not. This is the basis of fine cooking that marks the heritage of Middle East.
Eid is a special occasion and it brings me great pleasure to share with you some of my creations that are absolutely apt for festivities.
5 tbsp raw rice
250gms bottle gourd, grated
2 tbsp pure ghee (Indian clarified butter)
6 cups milk
100gms khoya/mawa, grated (dried milk solids)
½ cup sugar
A few drops of rose essence
10 almonds, sliced
A few rose petals
Soak the rice in a cup of water for about one hour; drain and spread out to dry and grind coarsely.
Bring one cup of water to a boil in a pan and add the bottle gourd. Cook till soft, drain and set aside.
Heat the ghee in a deep pan, add the rice and sauté for a few seconds. Add the milk and bring to a boil. Lower heat and cook till the rice is soft.
Add the bottle gourd and simmer for five minutes. Add the Khoya and sugar and cook till the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Stir in the rose essence.
Pour into individual serving bowls and set aside to cool. Sprinkle sliced almonds and rose petals on top and served chilled.