Add mehyawah – the UAE’s take on an­chovy sauce – to your re­frig­er­a­tor, says Arva Ahmed in an exclusive col­umn for Fri­day.

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Dubai should start the Fer­mented An­chovy Juice Trend of 2017. Orig­i­nally an Ira­nian condi­ment, mehyawah or me­shawa is al­ready a sta­ple in most Emi­rati homes across the coun­try. Maybe this is why it has never been poured to promi­nence – a clas­sic case of tak­ing your home-grown pantry of in­gre­di­ents for granted. Most ex­pa­tri­ate res­i­dents and vis­i­tors have never tasted this mud-coloured, salted and spiced an­chovy sauce. They rarely cross paths with it in a gro­cery aisle and its gritty ap­pear­ance would likely never prompt the unini­ti­ated into an im­promptu pur­chase.

But mehyawah (pro­nounced meh-he-yawa) is not as for­eign as one might think. It is the Gulf-re­gion coun­ter­part to the an­chovy­based Worces­ter­shire and Thai nam pla, which are im­ported to our shores from miles away, but that have a far higher like­li­hood of sea­son­ing our plates than the home-brewed ver­sion. Sim­i­lar to most present-day fer­mented fish sauces, mehyawah finds its roots in the an­cient Me­sopotamian siqqu, Greek garos and Ro­man garum sauces. The lat­ter, ac­cord­ing to food sci­ence au­thor Harold McGee, was made by ‘salt­ing the fish in­nards, let­ting the mix­ture fer­ment in the sun for months un­til the flesh had mostly fallen apart, and then strain­ing the brown liq­uid.’

This method is un­can­nily sim­i­lar to how mehyawah is made to­day, with the im­por­tant ex­cep­tion that present-day fish sauces rely on de-headed and gut­ted fish rather than on in­nards. The an­chovies are first pre­served in salt un­til they re­lease their in­ter­nal mois­ture. Then the fil­lets are ground, salted and boiled with toasted spices like anise, co­rian­der seeds and mus­tard seeds. The re­sult­ing mix­ture is poured into a tub, cov­ered with a muslin cloth and left to bathe in the sun for a few days.

Of­ten splashed over pa­per-thin whole­wheat crêpes (re­gag), this po­tent sauce is salty, slightly bit­ter, and over­whelm­ingly savoury in a very per­sua­sive, al­most pri­mal way. It is the re­gion’s ul­ti­mate trib­ute to umami – that fifth pow­er­ful flavour first as­so­ci­ated with glu­ta­mate in the Ja­panese sea­weed kombu, and then later at­trib­uted to the deep gut­tural tones of mush­rooms, meat and cheeses. When paired with but­ter, cheese, eggs, or ide­ally all of the above, mehyawah am­pli­fies their rich savoury notes. Or in other words, it makes you go weak in the knees with plea­sure.

Most peo­ple turn their noses up at the thought of pu­tre­fy­ing fish. But through a se­ries of chem­i­cal re­ac­tions that I can only de­scribe as be­ing di­vinely or­dained (McGee ex­plains them more sci­en­tif­i­cally us­ing bac­te­ria and Mail­lard re­ac­tions), the ‘fishy taste’ re­cedes into the back­ground and ush­ers umami into the lime­light. I once con­ducted a prac­ti­cal test of this flavour the­ory, wickedly de­scrib­ing mehyawah at a lo­cal restau­rant as a ‘pop­u­lar salty brown sauce’ to my un­sus­pect­ing fa­ther. He en­thu­si­as­ti­cally in­haled the en­tire dip­ping bowl with pun­gent rocket leaves and sliced radish snug­gled into patches of warm tanoor bread. In­ci­den­tally, my fa­ther hates fish.

Lo­cals of­ten pro­cure their mehyawah from moth­ers and grand­moth­ers who make it in their homes, thereby adding to the mys­te­ri­ous un­der­cover na­ture of an in­gre­di­ent that should be in ev­ery­one’s pantry. Upon a friend’s rec­om­men­da­tion, I sourced my first bot­tle from an Ira­nian home in Al Quoz where the nightie-clad mother perched her­self on a low stool near the bread tawa, swear­ing by an­chovies packed and shipped in from Iran. She sent me home with a sty­ro­foam box of tis­sue-thin breads (falazeen) splodged with clar­i­fied but­ter and

Had I not known the TRUTH behind the crumbly, but­tery, salty, savoury, AP­PETITE-IN­DUC­ING cookie, I would have ig­no­rantly bet my life on it be­ing PARME­SAN SHORT­BREAD

mehyawah. The stack van­ished af­ter two days of pair­ing the breads with fluffy egg scram­bles and cups of sweet car­damom chai.

Be­fore you write off the in­gre­di­ent as one that is too chal­leng­ing to pro­cure, visit Malleh Gourmet on Jumeirah Beach Road. Started by two pas­sion­ate Emi­rati sis­ters, the shop sells a range of dried and fer­mented fish prod­ucts, in­clud­ing an­chovy pow­der (sah­nah), malleh (salt-cured fish) and mehyawah. Ac­cord­ing to Nazek Al Sab­bagh, their goal is to ‘in­tro­duce our tra­di­tional and na­tional salted fish to the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket’ by cou­pling her sis­ter’s food sci­ence back­ground with hy­gienic fer­men­ta­tion pro­cesses, high-qual­ity fish sourced mostly from the UAE and sleek pack­ag­ing that is light years ahead of reused Vimto bot­tles. Their mehyawah boasts a hefty price tag (Dh50 for 250ml), but one that could be jus­ti­fied given the cost of pack­ag­ing the sauce for com­mer­cial sale as well as of op­er­at­ing a store­front in Jumeirah.

Au­to­ma­tion has not stamped its masspro­duced seal on this gour­mand’s grade of mehyawah – a fact that I ob­served one sunny af­ter­noon in 2015 while vis­it­ing the Sab­bagh sis­ters to deepen my un­der­stand­ing of this murky brown sauce. While hy­giene and qual­ity was para­mount, Nazek ex­plained that their man­u­fac­tur­ing process was still a tra­di­tional one with ladies gath­er­ing to­gether to pre­pare and spice the fish for fer­men­ta­tion. A small batch of mehyawah bot­tles were laid out in neat rows on the sun-washed ter­race, each of them hav­ing been tipped over ev­ery few days. It re­minded me of a pra­hok fac­tory in Cam­bo­dia, a far more griz­zly ex­pe­ri­ence in com­par­i­son but one where a ‘fac­tory’ meant noth­ing more than a shed of stained bar­rels with de­com­pos­ing fish and straw-hat ladies crouched over pyra­mids of mud­fish. As in Cam­bo­dia, spic­ing, salt­ing, bot­tling and fer­men­ta­tion in the UAE are the purview of hands wrin­kled with the wis­dom of na­ture’s fas­ci­nat­ing chem­istry.

I drove home from my re­search mission, con­tem­plat­ing how the sis­ters would spread aware­ness for this prod­uct lo­cally – let alone in­ter­na­tion­ally. Even long-time ex­pa­tri­ates in Dubai have never heard of mehyawah, I thought, in be­tween bites of a mehyawah cookie that I snuck out of the gen­er­ous farewell box that Nazek had left in my hands. Had I not known the truth behind the crumbly, but­tery, salty, savoury, ap­petite-in­duc­ing cookie, I would have ig­no­rantly bet my life on it be­ing Parme­san short­bread.

The ‘fish cookie’ made me re­alise that an­cient tech­nique aside, the con­sump­tion of mehyawah need not be reined in by tra­di­tion. And this might be the key to spread­ing aware­ness – sneak a prod­uct that feels alien into dishes that feel fa­mil­iar. This savoury strat­egy was reaf­firmed when I vis­ited the Sab­bagh sis­ters a few weeks later with an Amer­i­can food and travel show. As soon as the cam­eras stopped rolling on the ter­race of Nazek’s beach­front home, I found my­self glued to the demo ta­ble, plung­ing crunchy shards of re­gag into an ex­quis­ite mehyawah fon­due warmed with noth­ing more than drops of melted di­hin (lo­cal ghee). At that mo­ment, I wanted to run down­stairs and ser­e­nade the peo­ple lin­ing up for burg­ers on the beach with this pro­found dis­cov­ery – but my glut­tony got the bet­ter of me and I dipped back in for the twelfth time.

Use a dash of it to en­liven starchy dishes like rice or oat­meal por­ridge for break­fast, or over fries. You could spoon it over white rice with pome­gran­ate seeds, a rec­om­men­da­tion from the Ira­nian fam­ily from whom I pro­cured my stash. I have seen ad­ven­tur­ous bak­ers in the re­gion also use mehyawah to add salty com­plex­ity to a dessert – cheese crêpe cake with a driz­zle of mehy­wah, any­one?

Or let the sauce play off of the savoury, meaty flavours in a dish like stir-fried mush­rooms with gar­lic or ten­der white beans with vine­gar, mus­tard, olive oil and chopped mint, pars­ley and rue. I can­not claim the lat­ter idea as my own – it was lifted right out of Nawal Nas­ral­lah’s trans­la­tion of the first Ara­bic cook­book, from the 10th Cen­tury. Thou­sands of years ago, fer­mented liq­uid sauces (murri) were hugely pop­u­lar as a condi­ment and as a di­ges­tive aid in the en­light­ened palaces of Bagh­dad.

Like ev­ery­thing cycli­cal in life, fer­mented fish sauces might rise from house­hold to hip again some­day. The tragedy would be wait­ing for the rest of the world to do it first.

The savoury mehyawah pairs well with eggs and bread, and is of­ten splashed over pa­per-thin whole­wheat crêpes called re­gag

Two Emi­rati sis­ters run Malleh Gourmet, mak­ing mehyawah with mod­ern pack­ag­ing but with an­cient tech­niques

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