Honey, or ‘assal’ in Arabic has been used in Emirati cooking since it was harvested from wild bee hives in the mountains of Hatta and Fujairah. There is even a honey festival every year for local beekeepers which shows how popular it continues to be today.
Al Nuaimi, a local beekeeper, says, “Honey has always been around in the United Arab Emirates and other parts of Arabia. It was collected by the different tribes, from the mountainous honey, to those from caves to those gathered in the valley, and there is even honey from the desert,”
Yemeni honey from the Sidr tree is one of the most sought after raw honeys in the region due to its purity, healing properties and its deep amber colour and viscosity. This rich, complex high quality raw honey is extremely popular in Emirati households and makes a perfect gift when invited into an Emirati home.
There is a love of sweet things and flour, dates, spices and honey are essential ingredients to most households, many families having their own recipes passed down through generations. You will find raw honey taken on its own or used in a variety of ways at meal times throughout the day. Raw honey eaten with Arabic bread at breakfast time or with Khameer, a bread baked over a fire, made of light dough containing curcuma and saffron. A bread, served as a dessert, is Al-Jabab, similar to a pancake and drenched in the flavours of rosewater, cardamom and honey and typical of ingredients used in Emirati cuisine.
Emirati food stems from the Bedouin were once tribes foraged and hunted in the dry arid desert and fisherman cast their nets to the seas of the Arabian Gulf. The nomadic way of life and harsh living conditions meant finding sustenance from what was available. The Bedouin kept goats, and birds of prey, such as falcons, were used for hunting. Dhows sailed between the UAE and India where pearls were sold and spices and rice traded which is why you will find Indian, Persian and Levant influences in Emirati dishes.
Harees is like a porridge with meat, maleh is a salted fish dish and margooga, a stew mixed with a soft bread dough. Ghouzy, is grilled or steamed lamb, goat or camel (on special occasions) served with rice at lunchtimes, an important mealtime where the family get together. Emiratis love rice and you will find different versions from biryani style to jasmine and Egyptian.
What captures the essence of Emirati cuisine is Bzar, a spice mixture made up of chilies, coriander, cumin seeds, black peppercorns, star of anis, garlic, fenugreek, ginger, turmeric, nutmeg, fennel and sometimes dried mountain mushrooms or truffle (though rare, they are out there). The exact blend and ingredients varies from family to family. The mixture is used for meat, poultry, bread and rice dishes and you can buy bzar in the local souqs or markets.
Respect and etiquette is of utmost importance in Emirati culture as is the sharing of food and showing of hospitality. The consumption of camel meat was, and still is, reserved for special occasions. The camel is a revered animal for, historically, it was the only means of transportation in the desert and its highly nutritious milk is seen as a gift from which butter, laban or buttermilk is made. Another national treasure is the Ghaf tree which is the national tree of the UAE. Its leaves were chopped and sprinkled with lime juice and eaten raw or added to stews, like a bay leaf it draws out flavour during a slow cooking process.
Showing generous hospitality is a priority and to be invited into an Emirati home is a special event. When the host or hostess receives guests it is referred to as the ‘fualah’ ritual and involves offering fruits, desserts with honey, Arabic coffee, perfumes and incense. Traditionally, fualah is offered between main meals in the morning or the afternoon, as well as on special occasions.
These can all be served with raw honey.
Raw honey and dates are a large and significant part of Middle Eastern culture and tradition and, for Muslims, dates are extremely beneficial for breaking fast during the Holy Month of Ramadan. Both dates and honey are beneficial for sustaining energy and are packed with vitamins and nutrients. The date palm is one of the oldest fruit crops going back at least 5000 years grown originally in desert environments like the Arabian Peninsula. Emiratis make their own version of yeast by fermenting dates under the sun and using it as a rising agent for some of their breads. Thareed, a meat stew layered with Rgaag, (a paper thin bread) and sweet dates are a natural symbol of hospitality. Medjool dates plain or filled with nuts and candied fruit are a traditional gift during special occasions as is a platter of dates, dried fruits like apricots and figs with almonds, walnuts and pistachios.
Zhora knows a thing or two about baking and Emirati culture. She runs her bakery out of a purpose built kitchen in Ajman in the UAE delivering home baked cakes to order for many locals and expats in the UAE. Her favourite Emirati desserts are:
Lgaimat or luqaimat– meaning ‘bite sized’ in Arabic, are a crispy doughnut on the inside and out and soaked in honey or date syrup with a soft doughy centre. Made with flour and yeast, they are sprinkled with sesame seeds, flavoured with cardamom and saffron and are often served before the main desserts.
Chbaab - a pancake served traditionally at breakfast with honey or date syrup and cream cheese, laban, buttermilk or tea and honey.
And then there is, Honey Cake
Honey cake which is a favourite among Emiratis and popular during Eid, it is a soft cake in texture made with piles of thin rounds which are stacked one above the other like a tower with fresh cream layered in between with pure honey.
At the end of a meal, it is customary to be served Emirati coffee or red tea infused with mint, this aids the digestion process or Karak which is a tea boiled with spices and condensed milk.
Coffee is served at gatherings by pouring from a dallah, a traditional coffee pot, when the ritual of ‘burning mouth’ takes place as you sip or slurp the hot drink and suck in the air. Date pits from the date palm tree are traditionally used, dried and roasted and mixed with cardamom on a low fire makes for a strong tasting Emirati coffee. When ground ginger is added it makes a gahwa or what we know as Arabic coffee. A spoon of raw honey added to your coffee or tea is a natural sweetener and adds a delicious flavour.
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