How to use the dried limes that weave a strong, sour theme through Emi­rati, Omani, Iraqi and Ira­nian cuisines

Friday - - Editor’s Letter -

These dried limes – aka loomi – might look past their prime but their tangy flavour, says our colum­nist Arva Ahmed, will perk up any dish.

On a re­cent food ex­cur­sion with tourists in Dubai, I un­veiled one of my prized in­gre­di­ents from the souk. One of them in­stantly re­torted ‘this is what limes aban­doned in the back of my fridge look like!’ The ‘loomi’ in my pantry have seen pret­tier days as zesty green limes – well-toned and taut, firm and juicy. But once the limes are dried, by leav­ing them on the trees or boil­ing them in salt wa­ter and sun-dry­ing them, they become hol­low ghosts of their for­mer selves. Wrin­kled, parched and drained of their vivid hue, they muddy the souk pal­ette of rose petals, turmeric and laven­der.

But lack­lus­tre looks aside, as a UAE res­i­dent, you should in­vest in a stack of these limes if you en­joy cook­ing. Even if you don’t cook, stash them in your medicine cabi­net and re­trieve them for a salt and dried lime gar­gle on a raspy day.

Loomi are no sub­sti­tute for fresh limes, nor should they be con­fused with Moroc­can salt-pre­served lemons. On the scale of sour­ness, a fresh lime is the lively grad­u­ate of the or­chard, naïve about the heat of life and best spritzed when a dish is off the flame. A Moroc­can lemon is the ma­ture mother of sour­ness. She has weath­ered days of harsh salti­ness and can grace­fully stand her ground through a slow braise. Loomi is the wise old lady, wrin­kled and fer­mented with age; she now meets the heat hand-in-hand with meats and pulses in stews, braises, grills and lay­ered rice dishes. Give her time and she will deepen your dishes with flavour. Treat her care­lessly and she will make them bit­ter.

Made from the original species of Malaysian lime, Citrus au­ran­tifo­lia, the dried fruits are used lib­er­ally by coun­tries hem­ming the Ara­bian Gulf. The colour dif­fer­ence be­tween the sandy brown ones and greasy black ones is sim­ply a fac­tor of dry­ing time – the longer you dry them, the darker they turn. Loomi is of­ten mis­la­belled as ‘Per­sian lime’, a seed­less va­ri­etal that orig­i­nated in the East and trav­elled west­ward through a num­ber of re­gions, in­clud­ing Per­sia, un­til it reached its fi­nal home in Cal­i­for­nia.

The in­gre­di­ent is mostly ab­sent across my Le­van­tine and North African cook­books, but it weaves a strong sour theme through my Emi­rati, Omani, Iraqi and Ira­nian col­lec­tion. The recipes ref­er­ence them by any of three names: loomi, ‘limoo

Loomi reins in the RICH­NESS of Ira­nian gormeh sabzi, a savoury swamp of GREENS with lamb and kid­ney beans; Spe­cial Us­tad Kabab us­ing loomi to mar­i­nate their GOAT and chicken kababs

omani’ (Omani limes) or ‘noomi basra’ by the Iraqis who re­ceive their sour im­ports through the port town of Basra.

It is most of­ten used whole, punc­tured or cracked, and ide­ally with the bit­ter seeds re­moved. Bait Al Qadeem and Al Tawa­sol in Deira toss them into a pot of mach­boos along with bas­mati rice, the fra­grant bezar spice mix and chicken, meat or seafood. Wise din­ers will know to squeeze the post-cooked, soft­ened loomi over their rice so that ev­ery grain is drenched with a pick­led musky tang.

The cooks at Ab­shar in Jumeirah use loomi to rein in the rich­ness of their Ira­nian gormeh sabzi, a rib-stick­ing savoury swamp of greens like spinach and fenu­greek with chunks of lamb and kid­ney beans. Sa­mad Iraqi pre­pares the an­cient dish of the Is­lamic world, tshreeb, with patches of ten­der bread drenched in a meat stew in­fused with loomi. They also boast an Iraqi fish metabak spe­cial on Fri­days that de­scribes a lip-puck­er­ing sauce of pome­gran­ate syrup and dried lime.

Loomi pow­der or ground loomi is an­other way of us­ing the in­gre­di­ent in your kitchen, though it is best to grind de-seeded ones at home rather than buy­ing store-bought ver­sions that may in­clude the bit­ter seeds. I sus­pect that Bur Dubai’s kabab sweet­heart, Spe­cial Us­tad Kabab restau­rant, is us­ing pow­dered loomi to mar­i­nate their pre­served lime goat and chicken kababs.

There is no dearth of in­spi­ra­tion around us. It is worth feasting on a few loomi-in­fused dishes at our lo­cal restau­rants be­fore brainstorming – ide­ally with a di­ges­tive cup of loomi tea by your side – about how you can use them in your ex­ist­ing recipes. Use whole or punc­tured and de-seeded loomi as the tart ad­di­tion to a dish that re­quires slow-cook­ing in liq­uid – braised goat, chicken pi­laf, fish stew or creamy lentil soup. Use the pow­dered ver­sion for sautéed or grilled dishes; loomi lamb chops might de­but at my next din­ner party. And don’t stop at steep­ing loomi for tea; recipes for loomi cock­tails have trick­led into search re­sults as far back as 2010. Arva Ahmed of­fers guided tours re­veal­ing Dubai’s culi­nary hide­outs (fry­ing­panad­ven­

The loomi’s dried-up, hol­low looks be­lie a tangy, musky flavour that adds life to slow--sim­mered stews or mari­nades for smoky grills

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