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« Couscous by Farid Zadi | Main | Tunisian Fricassee by Farid Zadi »

July 26, 2005

Bahrain...my story of a culinary adventure in the Middle East by Ed McGaugh

You see, by the age of ten I was already a bit of a nomad. I had been born in Paris to a Swiss mother and a midwestern, American father who had chosen a career with the airlines TWA. Shortly after my arrival in 1962 my folks moved to Kansas City, then to Florida and then back to Kansas City, which is where my story begins.

One day, my parents sat me down with some ceremony and began to pitch their next big adventure in a way that I’m sure they thought would sound irresistible to me. “We are moving to Bahrain, they explained to me. "Bahrain? Where is Bahrain?" I asked. To a ten-year-old boy who had lived most of his life in suburban America, this new place could have been just ten miles away. I honestly had very little concept of distances or geography. The cultural shift I was about to experience and tremendous impact it would have on the rest of my life I never could have imagined. That may have been something my parents could predict, but for me, the whole process was an event that I would just have to endure and hopefully enjoy.

I think of the days leading up to my arrival in Bahrain as being similar to those moments when an audience is waiting for the curtain to open on a play. My father departed for Bahrain a month or two before my mother and I, and during that time, my mind had ample opportunity to envision what might be in store for me when we arrived on the other side of the world. I fully expected to see camels and goats and rugged men and women forging out an existence from the desert with their bare hands. It was going to be just like Lawrence of Arabia! How romantic! How dangerous! How ME!

Our New Home and the Georges

My father rented a nice second-story flat for us in an all-Arabic neighborhood of Manama called "al Gofool". In retrospect I am proud that he didn’t choose a house in one of the many ex-pat compounds scattered about the island, having done so would have greatly diminished my exposure to the local culture. We shared our building with an Indian family named George. The Georges were from Kerala and had three children, but the older two girls were in boarding school in the UK. When we arrived the George household consisted of Mr. and Mrs. George, little "Georgie" George their son, and Chocko their magnificent cook. Somewhere along the line the Georges had converted to Christianity and adopted their very English name, but fortunately for us they didn’t forsake their traditional Kerala cuisine and Chocko was a tireless champion of the art form.

Within a day or two of our arrival the Georges issued an invitation to join them for Sunday lunch. The menu was roast leg of lamb, which Chocko had marinated in traditional Indian spices. Lamb had never been an ingredient in my mother’s kitchen, so the flavors were all new to me and what wonderful flavors they were, the addition of the Indian spices gave the lamb a third dimension and seared its memory in my mind for ever. This was the first real Indian meal I had ever had and I could tell in an instant that I was going to love this kind of food from that moment on.

Living above the Georges was pure bliss. Every morning about 11 o’clock Chocko would start preparing lunch. We could hear the rattling of pots and the clinking of glass, and ever so slowly the perfume of sautéed onions would begin to make its way up to our apartment. Then, little by little, the exotic fragrance of the curry powder would gently overcome the onions to make a heavenly aroma. Occasionally, heated discussions would break-out between Mrs. George and Chocko about the menu or the ingredients, but Mrs. George always won these shouting matches. She was a strong-willed woman who ruled their home with an iron fist. She enjoyed having Chocko under her thumb and she exercised merciless control over him, but secretly, she was really a very kind woman and we all loved her very much.

Ali’s Cold Store

After a few days, I had begun to get my bearings and I started to explore my new neighborhood. My first discovery was Ali’s Cold Store… that was the name over the door, first in Arabic then in English. Ali spent all day in the front of his little shop sitting hunched over his cash drawer by a little window, watching and waiting for customers. He was a slightly built, middle-aged man, always dressed in a thobe, which is the traditional Arabic dressing gown for men. In Summer it was white cotton thobe and in winter he would switch to gray. Sometimes he was jolly and I looked forward to chatting with him and sometimes he had strangely little to say and kept to himself. His shop was tiny by anyone’s standards and there was scarcely room for more than five or six people to be in there at once. In the back there were a couple of glass-front coolers with soft drinks and a chest freezer full of meat and ice cream. Up front, by Ali’s desk there were potato-chips, assorted candies and Japanese chewing gums. Ali’s primary function was to be the neighborhood spice merchant, and half-way back in his little shop were several large wooden bins with spices piled high, almost over-flowing. I often shared the shop with Arabic women covered entirely in black, hovering over the bins, reaching out with their beautiful henna painted hands to scoop out the precious powders. All those spices made for a very heady aroma that hit you like a hammer when you crossed the threshold of Ali’s Cold Store. I found all of this to be a very interesting experience for a ten-year-old kid from Missouri. My attraction to Ali was primarily for his ice cold Pepsi. In those days Ali sold a Pepsi for 15 fils and ice creams and potato-chips were 25 fils each. My weekly allowance of four hundred fils or $1 went pretty far in Ali's Cold Store.

2

Khobz

As I continued my exploration of the neighborhood I discovered a fantastic khobz bakery. khobz is a large flat bread baked in a special oven. The dough is rolled out like a pizza dough then it is positioned on a round board and slapped on to the inside wall of the large round stone oven. The impact of the slapping action causes the dough to stick to the wall where it remains until it is bubbling and brown and cooked through, then a long wire hook is used to remove the finished khobz and throw it over to a tile counter where it is ready to be sold. The whole process is carried out by two or three men, and when working at full tilt they are lightning fast and it is really something to behold. Khobz is much larger than a Lebanese pita bread and to me it tastes lighter and much better, but khobz is a temporary feast. It begins to lose its allure shortly after it is baked and in the course of three or four hours it becomes hard and unpleasant. Right out of the oven though, Khobz is an entirely different story all together; it tears like paper and is so soft and moist you could not be blamed for making an entire meal out of it.

I remember that many times I arrived at the bakery too early and the men were just sitting around talking and smoking and waiting for the dough to rise. Many hot summer afternoons I sat with them and waited anxiously for the oven to be fired up, while the afternoon prayers emanated from the loud speakers of the mosque next door. In those days a khobz cost 10 fils and could easily fill you up. So for 25 fils (or 7 US cents) I could enjoy a Pepsi and a khobz… and I did…so many, many times…life was good and I can't think how I could have been happier.

3

The Suq and Bahraini Street Food

Without a doubt the most interesting place in Bahrain is the suq. The suq is the merchant district where you can buy almost anything your heart desires. Similar shops are grouped together, so you will find the goldsmiths, spice merchants and metal workers etc. each have their own district in the suq. These shops are usually very deep, often with a facade that is no wider than a couple of meters. Anywhere you go, you are never far from a street food vendor. Street food in the Arabic world is an art form in itself. My favorite is shawarma which is similar to the gyro, but in Bahrain the spices are to the local taste and so the flavor is very different from a gyro. Most gyros you get in Europe and the States are mass produced by one company and all taste the same. This is not true in Bahrain, in Bahrain they make each shawarma right on the spot by layering the marinated meat on the skewer slice by slice. Shawarma can be; lamb, chicken, a beef and lamb mixture and even goat. The meat is skewered on to a large vertical rotating spit and as it cooks it is cut off with a long sharp knive. The trimmings are rolled up in fresh khobz with some tomatoes or cucumbers, wrapped in paper and off you go. So simple and outrageously good. Unfortunately this is a food that is almost impossible to re-create at home because of the scale of the machine required to make it.

There is however a famous Arabic street food that can be re-created in your own kitchen. I’m speaking of course of the world famous samboosa or samoosa. This delectable little morsel has sustained me countless times after a day wandering around the suq. A samboosa is a seasoned meat or vegetable filled pastry triangle that is deep fried to a golden brown and sold in a newspaper cone a half dozen at a time. Cheap, hot and spicy…what else could you ask for…oh, one Pepsi please!

Samboosa

approx. 1 pound (or ½ kg) of fresh ground meat (Lamb, beef, chicken or goat)

2 Tablespoons vegetable oil

1 diced onion

1 clove of crushed garlic

¾ cup grated carrot

½ cup frozen green peas

¼ cup chopped parsley, cilantro, or fresh coriander

2 Tablespoons tomato paste

1 Tablespoon ground cinnamon powder

½ teaspoon each: turmeric, cumin, black pepper

¼ teaspoon cayenne or 1 chopped fresh hot pepper (or to taste)

salt to taste

Samboosa wrappers, egg roll wrappers, or filo pastry sheets

vegetable oil for deep frying

In the 2 Tablespoons of vegetable oil, brown the ground meat (breaking it into small pieces with the onion and garlic. Add the carrots, parsley, tomato paste, spices and salt. Sauté for two minutes.

Spread the mixture evenly in the bottom of the skillet and add enough water just to barely cover the mixture. Cover and simmer over low heat until the carrot is tender and the liquid is nearly all evaporated.

Add the thawed frozen peas in the last few minutes of cooking. When cooking is complete, remove the skillet from the heat and allow the meat mixture to cool to room temperature.

To roll: Lay out a samboosa wrapper (long and rectangular in shape) with a short edge of the rectangle directly in front of you. Place a rounded Tablespoon of meat mixture near this edge. Then folding away from you (towards the other short edge), enclose the meat mixture in the wrapper by folding the wrapper in a triangular shape.

On the side, make a paste of flour and water (¼ cup flour and ½ cup water). Moisten the final edge of the samboosa wrapper with the flour paste to cause it to stick and keep the individual samboosa in its triangular shape. Place wet ("pasted") side down on a lightly greased plate.

Note: if using egg roll wrappers or filo dough, you must cut it into rectangles before stuffing with the meat mixture. For filo dough, use a thickness of two or three sheets. The rectangles can be cut 1½ - 2½ inches wide, depending on the desired size of the finished appetizer, and should be long enough to enable you to completely enclose the meat mixture when folding.

When all of the samboosa have been rolled, fry a few at a time in a heavy skillet in one inch of vegetable oil until the wrapper is golden and crispy. Flip at least once while frying to brown both sides. Drain on paper towels. Serve warm.

Variation: Omit the meat and add two cups of diced vegetables (potatoes, zucchini, tomato, cabbage, green pepper, eggplant and/or cauliflower) with the carrots.

4

Basmati Rice

If lamb is to be considered the king of Middle Eastern cuisine then rice surely must be the queen, but not just any rice will do for Arabic cooking, we must have the glorious basmati rice. Basmati rice was first discovered in the foothills of the Himalayas and the finest and most aromatic basmati is produced in India and Pakistan where it has been cultivated for several thousand years. In Hindu, basmati means fragrant. No rice smells as fine as basmati when it is cooking and few rices cook as quickly. It is so important that basmati remains pure that in some places (even in the UK) DNA testing is conducted to ensure that the rice has not been “cut” with the inferior long-grain rice. Basmati rice doubles in length when it is cooked properly but does not fatten much. Incidentally, the aroma in Basmati arises from a cocktail of 100 compounds, hydrocarbons, alcohols, aldehydes and esters. Basmati from Dehradun, one of the oldest cities of India is considered the very finest grown. It will only be a matter of time before we see DOCG type equivalents for basmati too. One word of advice: Avoid brands like Texmati and Kasmati; these are laboratory produced hybrids often grown in the US and are not as aromatic or flavorful as real basmati.

Cooking basmati is a bit tricky because it will continue soaking up water until it swells to four times its original size and turns to mush, so you want to stop the cooking process while the grain still has some crunch and then let the moisture even out in the grain by letting it sit and steam. After you cook it a few times you will get the hang of it. 

Recipe one: I suggest this method for basmati beginners. Place a cup of the rice in a bowl and rinse it for five minutes under cold running water. Boil a large amount of salted water, like you would for pasta. Add the rice and test it constantly. When it is almost done, but still a bit resistant to the bite, strain it and put the rice in a lightly oiled casserole dish. Cover with foil and bake in a low oven for 20-30 minutes. This method is pretty much fool-proof, but you lose some of the flavor and some vitamins.

Recipe two: This second method will result in more fragrant rice and is certainly worth learning. This method is a little trickier though. place one cup of rice in a bowl and rinse it for five minutes under cold running water. Next put the rice in a pot and cover with about 1 ¾ cup of salted water. The water should be about a centimeter higher than the rice depending on the pan you are using (the exact amount of water needed will depend on your rice). Bring to a very soft boil and then reduce heat to a simmer and cover until all the water has been absorbed, about five minutes. You may have to make a test run to get the amounts dialed in. Test the rice during the cooking process and if it seems to be getting mushy too quickly, drain the excess water and let it sit and steam on a very low fire.

Many recipes suggest adding saffron or whole, broken-open cardamom seeds to the rice during cooking or mixing in caramelized onions after the rice has cooked. In the excellent dish called machboos (similar to the Indian biryani) the rice is added directly to the dish and baked with the meat and its liquid.

However you cook it, basmati rice is truly the canvas which supports the art of Middle Eastern cuisine.

5

Bahraini Hospitality

I don’t think any account of the Middle East would be worth reading if it didn’t at least in part try to explain the warmth and kindness of the Arab people. Ahlan wa sahlan! means "welcome" in Arabic and it is so much a part of the Bahraini life that they even cast the words in brass and hang them over the front door for all to see. Hospitality is a source of pride with the Bahraini people, there are few places in the world where will you be made to feel so welcome.

I remember once, an employee of my father who invited us to his home to have dinner with his family. He lived in a very humble house in Isa Town, which was a special town built by our emir, Sheik Isa, for Bahraini nationals. Reportedly, if a tenant could not manage to pay the modest rent it would be over-looked by our very kind emir as an Eid present. Our host for that evening had very little in the way of material possessions and it must have made him very nervous to have his American boss and family over for dinner. We watched as he fired up his little hibachi on the floor of his balcony and fanned the flames with a magazine and carefully laid his ground lamb kabobs over the glowing coals and cheerfully cooked them for us as the heavenly scent of the spiced lamb made us all ravenously hungry. His wife made salads and rice and we sat happily together and ate like a family. I wonder if this kind and simple couple could have had any idea that I would look back and remember their humble gesture over a third of a century later with so much fondness.

6

Friday, a Day For Eating

In the days when I lived in Bahrain there was no causeway to the mainland or satellite TV and the TV we did have only came on at 6 PM. We were rather cut-off from the rest of the world and so we relied on each other for our entertainment. My mother was forever giving coffees and luncheons for the other women and she attended countless ones in return. Clubs were everywhere. There was the Bapco Club with a splendid clubhouse and swimming pool. The British Club, The American Club and so on. Clubs were a left-over from the old colonial days and most offered a varied and colorful venue. Every Friday (Friday is the Muslim holyday) for example, the Bapco club would have a big curry lunch. There would be huge, steaming trays brimming with delicious yellow chicken curry and spiced rice, mountains of crispy popadums and chapatti bread. You could eat all you wanted and I usually ate all that I could hold. I spent many Fridays at the club eating curry, playing snooker or bowling and then staying late for an evening swim in the pool.

7

Fishing Dhows and the Famous Hamour

Since ancient times the Bahrainis have been excellent seamen, famous for their trade up and down the Gulf and for fishing. There is a wide variety of fish in the Gulf, but none is as prized as the hamour. The hamour or ‘hamour epinephelus tauvina’ is a member of the grouper family, but unlike many other groupers it can grow to two meters long, making it an outstanding sport fish. Prized for its firm white meat there is no end to the ways Bahrainis prepare this delicious fish. The meat absorbs the traditional spices perfectly and combines to create some remarkable and very memorable dishes. Fishing is carried out on the traditional sailboats called dhows which have been made by hand on Bahrain for dozens of centuries and are still made today exactly as they always have been. Today, most are fitted with a diesel motor but they still have the ability to hoist a sail if needed.

8

The Harvest in Bahrain

Bahrain produces about 75 percent of the fruits and vegetables that its population requires which is quite remarkable considering the arid climate. The main crops are dates, tomatoes, onions, and melons. The country also produces a large part of its own milk, poultry, and eggs. Dates are the most obvious crop with date palms seemingly everywhere.

9

Qahwa- Arabic coffee

The term Qahwa was originally applied to wine and Qahwa was known as the “wine if Islam“. Originally the unroasted beans were ground and brewed to be used as a stimulant to prevent sleeping during ceremonies. The Persians are responsible for adding the roasting process later on.

Arabic coffee is served in small, handle-less cups that are only half-filled. It is considered good manners for the guest to restrict themself to three servings of coffee. Always remember that you should indicate when you have finished by shaking the cup or your cup will be refilled over and over. Bahrainis have embraced western-style coffee also and to-date there are no less than six Starbucks in Bahrain!

 

Qahwa Arabeya

 

3 cups water

3 tbsp. cardamom (coarsely ground)

2 tbsp. of Arabic coffee

1/4 teaspoon saffron (optional)

1 teaspoon of rosewater (optional)

1 teaspoon of orange water (optional)

Boil the water in a pot. Add the coffee to the water and bring to a boil over low heat. Remove from the heat for five minutes to allow the coffee to settle. Put the cardamom in the pot, strain the coffee into it and add the saffron or rosewater. Bring back to boil once and serve. Serves 8-10 persons.

Conclusion

The qahwa has been served and I have come to the end of my culinary tour of Bahrain. I hope you have enjoyed reading about my former home as much as I have enjoyed writing about it. In these troubled times it is important to remember that the Arabic people are very warm and friendly with beautiful traditions and a rich history. I truly hope you will have the good fortune to travel to Bahrain some day and meet these kind and good island people. I am sure you will be well received.

Thank you Farid Zadi for inspiring me to write down my memories.

Ed McGaugh

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Comments

Hi Farid,
I love your stories, you make me feel as though I was in that moment experiecing the spice environment. I am a varsity student who wants to write about the life of a spice merchant , can you please share with me any information you know about "the life of a spice merchant" for my thesis.
Kindly help.
Tina

Hi there

You've just brought a quiet tear to my eye. I lived in Bahrain for several years and regularly returned there for holidays with my family who were still living there whilst I was at boarding school.

I was one of the "expats", I'm afraid - but after some 15 years of regular visits to Bahrain, I can assure that Bahraini culture is now in my blood. I am still amazed when occasionally walking in Knightsbridge, I pass a group of Arab women and I am briefly transported back "home" to Bahrain... my mind floods with memories of rich perfume, delicately spiced food, the scent of rosewater in shopping malls and the toothless grins of the taxi drivers. I loved Bahrain for all its heat and dust and I long for a day when I can go back and luxuriate in memories for a few days. There are certain places I would have to return for fatayer - those addictive spinach pastries, for creamy Saudi feta cheese and salty olives, for shawarma, even for a spoonful of cloyingly sweet om ali or a bite of baklawa (do you know, the moment I finished my last exam at university I rushed from the examination room to the arabic supermarket so that I could "reward" (gorge on!) baklawa, which inevitably made me feel dizzy with its sweetness...).

It was wonderful to read about someone else's memories, and for a few moments, remember my own favourite moments.

I just noticed all the new photos you inserted into your story. The one of the shopkeeper is my favorite.

I'm hoping Monica Bhide will post about Bahrain as well.

The Indian influence, which I was not aware untill now is intriguing.

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