Written by William Dobson
Sarah Al-Hamad is the author of the wonderful Cardamom and Lime: Recipes from the Arabian Gulf, one of the few books detailing recipes from the region, gleaned through researching her family archives and local traditions. Having grown up in Kuwait and now dividing her time between London and her homeland, she was previously the managing editor at Saqi Books and her latest book, Sun Bread and Sticky Toffee: Date Desserts from Everywhere, will be published in 2013. In the meantime, this autumn, she’ll be showcasing her passion for the food of her heritage at a series of supper clubs in London in conjunction with The Mosaic Rooms. Here, she tells us more about this little known food culture and why it’s so important to her!
Sugar Street Review: So, start by telling us a bit more about the cuisine of the Gulf?
Sarah Al-Hamad: Today, Gulf cuisine is a result of various culinary influences: Indian (spices), Ottoman (dolmas, yogurt culture) and Persian (Kebabs and biryanis). Through trade, especially with India, we adopted aromatic spices like cumin, turmeric, cinnamon and cardamom; the Persians taught us to make succulent kebabs and rich stews – and fluffy rice; and the Ottomans imparted the benefits of including yoghurt products in the diet. The date is the region’s biggest success story, healthful, sweet and highly digestive and our go-to food. An arid, desert climate and nomadic and seafaring ways of life dictated a cuisine rich in fish and meats, wholesome grains, dairy and dates.
SSR: To what extent has the food culture of the region changed since the discovery of oil?
SAH: In Pre-oil days, the bedouin subsisted on a simple diet of grains and dairy products, rarely meat, while people along the coasts, sailors and pearl divers favored fish. With the advent of trade then oil the Gulf opened up to new (imported) ingredients as well as culinary influences brought in by an influx of South Asian cooks. Recently, fastfood chains have started encroaching on the traditional homemade meal, though the latter still occupies an important place.
SSR: What food memories do you have which stand out about life in the Gulf?
SAH: Food is intimately linked with family in the Gulf and always present at gatherings. My aunt’s home was the hub – the mother kitchen. We visited her once a week and there was always a kettle of tea going, red tea cooked in spices for hours – and a tray of homemade chickpea cookies (ghraiba) or potato chops. My aunt took great pride in her recipes and my dad sometimes ordered food from her for important events.
SSR: Of all the dishes that you cook, which one is most redolent of your Kuwaiti background and why?
SAH: The machbous typifies Gulf cuisine. The name comes from the work kabs, to compress, and it is a staple, with minor variations, across the region. In Saudi Arabia it is known as kabsa. It is exactly that, a one-pot dish of meat (lamb or chicken, rarely fish) and rice, cooked together in spiced water then steamed, thus marrying the ingredients. A piquant tomato salsa, daqous, adds fruitiness and fire. On lazy afternoons, a drink of buttermilk will accompany the meal.
SSR: What makes you so keen to spread the word about a cuisine which is given little credence outside of the region?
SAH: I like to think of my work – these books – as small windows into worlds that are often hard to penetrate. Gulf cultures remain insular and little understood and because food is a universal lens it can bring people closer to one another. On my travels I never truly understand a culture until I sample its cuisine, I then ask questions which hopefully starts a conversation …
SSR: Is there much variation between the food of the different countries in the region or, even within each individual country?
SAH: Yes, there are variations across the countries. Just as the cultures are somewhat different from each other – while retaining a common character – so is the cuisine, but again, due to climate and geography the staples are there across the board.
SSR: Why are there so few restaurants serving Gulf food in the world?
SAH: It is an idiosyncratic cuisine, every household will have its own way of turning out a dish and especially of spicing it, from the fiery, to the more fatty, etc., therefore difficult to replicate in a restaurant. It is also at times a heavy cuisine which one prefers to have at home, within easy reach of a chaise for a post-prandial siesta.
SSR: What can we expect from your series of supper clubs coming up in London over the next few months?
SAH: Hopefully, happy eaters – with some understanding of the main ingredients used in the Gulf, how and why.
Sarah’s new book, “Sun Bread and Sticky Toffee: Date Desserts from Everywhere,” will be published by Interlink in the Spring of 2013!