Vegan MoFo 2015: Day 17 – A traditional local dish

I’m hoping this prompt isn’t aimed at making (or eating) a dish that is local to where I am now… I don’t know much about traditional English food, nor can I say it excites me greatly. Does Kingston, UK, have any of its own specialities?!

Vegan MoFo 2015

I am, however, super excited to tell you all about some traditional Emirati food I have been lucky enough to experience!

One of my clients is a U.A.E. national and I train him in his home, where his elderly mother has spent a fair portion of time visiting . His mother doesn’t speak English but it’s amazing how much I have learnt from her and about her! I love having conversations with people whose language I don’t speak, whether we have a translator or not: with the actual words stripped away, you pick up so much from body language, facial expression, and hand gesticulations that you would normally notice. I just find it fascinating.

The first time I ever visited I was offered coffee spiked the cardamom – the coffee beans and cardamom pods selected, bought, cleaned, ground, and sent out to all the family by my client’s mum – and fresh dates. I had walked past displays of smooth, yellow fresh dates on the stalk almost daily when I worked in Fulham, but I had always been too scared to buy any in case I hated them. As it turns out, I love the fresh version! They are super crunchy, quite dense, and oddly waxy. But the taste is mildly sweet, with almost buttery rich notes. I was so thrilled to have tasted something so new and different, but little did I know that was only the beginning of it.

In the weeks that followed that first encounter, I was given various types of fresh flatbread, a sweet vermicelli breakfast dish, bowls of black-eyed beans boiled with fresh chili and served with a wedge of lime, and more varieties of dates than I can remember.

Balaleet and scrambled tofu

Top right: balaleet reheating ; Bottom left: tofu scramble in the making

When my client’s mum is not staying with him, we tend to have balaleet for breakfast most days, and I often get sent on my way with the leftover sweetened vermicelli to give to Ben.The noodles are always spiked with cardamom and saffron, two defining flavours of the cuisine, but when the dish isn’t made by my client’s mum it is much less sweet and oily.

If we don’t get through all the leftovers on the day, the following day I like to toss the remaining noodles in in a pan to heat them up and break down any clumps with a fresh drizzle of oil – at this point I’ll often scramble some tofu with some kala namak (black salt) and a touch of turmeric to produce an eggy taste and appearance, and mimic the omelette that balaleet is traditionally served with.

Scrambled tofu

I haven’t been able to recreate the decadent flatbread that my client’s mum loves to make us, with its base of ground date paste and its multiple folds that give it a distinctly flakey texture. I have watched my client’s mum knead and knead and knead, roll and fold and fold and roll, sprinkling a mixture of spices and a dribble of oil in between each fold, shaping the dough into flattened squares the size of a handkerchief, and then keep her watchful eye on each bread as they cook over the gas hob in the pan she had brought over from the U.A.E. especially. It is such a labour-intensive process and the result is inimitable: piping hot, crunchy and golden on the outside but chewy and flakey on the inside as you pull it apart with your fingers, slightly sweet and laced with delicate cardamom.

As a compromise though, my client’s mum did teach me how to make a simpler flatbread named chabab. I can only describe this one as a cross between a pancake and a crumpet, thin and fluffy but with a slightly crunchy and distinctive surface pockmarked with bubbles.

She taught me through gestures and translations and by pulling containers and jars out of the cupboards, demonstrating slowly and deliberately the rough quantities: a coffee cup of this, a heaping spoonful plus an extra little sprinkle of this, saffron here or just a pinch of turmeric for colour if you don’t have saffron. More specific instructions were translated by one of her daughters or grand-daughters: leave the batter overnight or, if you don’t have time, just stir in the tip of a spoonful of dry yeast; cook each bread til it’s crispy, or, if you prefer it softer, take it out before it crisps up. This is my kinda recipe (or lack thereof): rough and foolproof!

So of course as soon as I got home that evening I set about making a batch of my own. I stirred together about a mug of white flour (or maybe it was a mug and a half?), an espresso cup’s worth of white sugar, about a half teaspoon of dried yeast. I sprinkled in a pinch of turmeric – not enough to add any of its flavour – and I added water whilst whisking with a fork until it was the consistency of a slightly thick crêpe batter, and full of bubbles.

Then I heated up a medium-sized frying pan over medium heat and ladled in the better to cover in a thin layer; again, slightly thicker than a crêpe. I waited for the bubbles to surface and burst and for the top to dry out before flipping. I took each bread off the heat as soon as the bubbled surface turned golden, without letting it crisp up too much. This “recipe” made heaps of breads, but they are easily kept in the fridge and quickly reheated in a pan.

These breads – chabab – are normally made with egg, but my client’s elderly mum just omitted the egg from her process and enjoyed pointing out to everyone how unnecessary the egg is: “This is how we used to cook,” she would explain – “No problem if you don’t eat eggs! We don’t need egg!

Has anyone tried Emirati cuisine? I can’t wait to read everyone else’s local dishes!

4 thoughts on “Vegan MoFo 2015: Day 17 – A traditional local dish

  1. Jenny says:

    I used to teach a lot of Arabic students and they always told me that Arabic coffee was completely different from coffee in the UK. Whenever we celebrated any special days in their calendar, they brought coffee and dates for everyone and were very popular indeed! It’s really lovely to hear how you communicated with your client’s mum without speaking the same language. It just goes to show how much you can learn/do without a common language!

    • greatveganexpectations says:

      That’s so sweet of them! It’s the ritual of it I love so much: the little cups containing barely a splash of super-hot coffee, the dates, and fact that you’re expected to do it in good company – it makes it feel so special!

  2. ameyfm says:

    this post is RAD. It sounds like such a sweet connection you have with her. I love the part about her saying “this is how we used to cook!” The Emirati food sounds and looks delicious. We have a date vendor at our farmers market who sells about 9-10 different varieties of dates, including the fresh ones when they are in season. The fresh dates are really good!!

    • greatveganexpectations says:

      That’s amazing! You should totally get a little of each of them and have a little date-tasting night with coffee! Apparently there are WELL over a hundred varieties of dates – when my client’s family visit they bring kilos of fresh dates with them, and he often freezes some of them which is another totally different experience!

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