Lose the cut­lery, just get your claws into this juicy tanoor lahm, says Arva Ahmed

Friday - - CONTENTS -

Arva Ahmed finds her sav­age side when she comes across the melt-in-the-mouth tanoor lahm in Hatta.

As we veered off the road to a non­de­script Ara­bic res­tau­rant in Hatta, I knew one thing for cer­tain – that I wasn’t hun­gry at all.

Hunger had noth­ing to do with what hap­pened at the ta­ble. I still don’t fully un­der­stand what hap­pened, ex­cept that some prim­i­tive ver­sion of me roared to life when the server un­veiled the shiny casse­role of “tanoor lahm”. As he lifted the domed lid, a stout rack of lamb came into view, med­i­tat­ing over a tuft of beige fluffy rice, sauced chick­peas by its side. Its ten­der peace­ful­ness jolted the slum­ber­ing sav­age in me awake.

Twenty min­utes later, the deed was done. I rose from the chair, scrubbed my hands clean and rode away into the night – dazed, sated, grossly overindulged.

My mind resur­faced from its lusty fog the next morn­ing, thirsty to learn about what I had rav­aged the night be­fore. Over the next two days, I hounded the owner – who fi­nally suc­cumbed to my bro­ken Ara­bic and elo­quent English text mes­sages and res­cued me from be­ing gnawed alive by my own cu­rios­ity.

Mo­hammed Saeed Al Mu­tai­wei is a 43-yearold fire­fighter at the Civil De­fense De­part­ment in Hatta. Two years ago, he opened Tanor Lahm just down the road from the JA Hatta Fort Ho­tel that my par­ents would fre­quently visit in the 80s. Mo­hammed rents out his farm­house to ea­ger guests, roast­ing full, farm-raised lambs for them on site if their hearts de­sire. He will also de­liver the full cooked lamb straight to a diner’s doorstep for Dh1,500 – no mat­ter where the per­son lives in the coun­try. Be­tween fire­fight­ing, rais­ing his an­i­mals, run­ning a UAE-wide tanoor lahm net­work, rent­ing his farm­house and man­ag­ing his res­tau­rant, he is also work­ing to­wards his PhD in fire­fight­ing in Malaysia. His love of life streams through my phone as he tells me ev­ery­thing I beg to know about Tanoor Lahm.

This is what he re­veals: Tanoor lahm or roasted meat is the tra­di­tional food of the moun­tain-dwelling Emi­ratis, the same way that those liv­ing near the coast spe­cialise in seafood. It is sim­i­lar to “shuwa” made by the Oma­nis on the other side of the Ha­j­jar moun­tains, but the com­mu­ni­ties of Hatta have their own spe­cial tech­nique. The dish is tra­di­tion­ally pre­pared once a year when fresh lamb is sac­ri­ficed for Eid Al Adha and is painstak­ingly cooked for hours. But gen­er­ous Mo­hammed would make his re­puted tanoor lahm through­out the year, at least once ev­ery week as a gift for friends and fam­ily. I self­ishly want to be­come his friend.

The fresh meat is first rubbed with whole spices like black pep­per, cin­na­mon and car­damom that are toasted and ground. The sea­soned meat is then tossed into a sack wo­ven from dried palm fronds, along with leaves from the tree called “Shas” whose English name I have placed a bounty on since our con­ver­sa­tion. The com­bi­na­tion of Shas leaves and the palm sack not only help to seal in the juices of the meat, but also give tanoor lahm its quin­tes­sen­tial taste and aroma. The meat is then buried in a tanoor oven built ver­ti­cally into the ground and left to roast over flick­er­ing em­bers for at least 12 hours. Ev­ery fam­ily’s ver­sion of tanoor lahm will taste dif­fer­ent even though the tech­nique is al­most iden­ti­cal. Mo­hammed proudly claims that his fam­ily has earned a rep­u­ta­tion for un­par­al­leled flavour. Those who had the priv­i­lege of tast­ing his tanoor lahm urged him to open a res­tau­rant for the pub­lic, which is how Tanoor Lahm Res­tau­rant came to be.

Mo­hammed is pos­si­bly the first per­son who has adapted Hatta’s tanoor tech­nique to com­ply with lo­cal res­tau­rant reg­u­la­tions. He must ar­rive at the same re­sult with­out the lux­ury of his wood-burn­ing farm ovens and over a clipped five-hour du­ra­tion for smaller cuts of meat rather than the whole sheep. His res­tau­rant im­pro­vi­sa­tions have worked, pro­duc­ing a dish that arouses car­nal de­sire over com­mon eti­quette. All I re­mem­ber was an ur­gent flurry of move­ment as I fell upon the lamb at the res­tau­rant, slash­ing its black­ened spice-rubbed skin, plun­der­ing its moist bur­gundy in­sides, rip­ping the fleshy ten­drils as they slipped off the slen­der ribs, overly lu­bri­cated with molten fat that felt like whipped but­ter bast­ing the meat. The ends of the bones were juicy lol­lipops, some so soft that I crunched right through them. Half way through the meal, my hus­band ro­tated the plat­ter so that we could ex­change our sides – fatty juice-drip­ping ribs that slipped across my tongue for a rugged shank whose bulging pock­ets of meat I could sink my in­cisors into, firm and deep. It was only af­ter the meal that I looked down to see my squeaky clean cut­lery. In my deliri­ous dazed frenzy, I had gone right into the dish with my naked fin­gers.

We ended the call on a note of time-tested Arab hospi­tal­ity – Mo­hammed in­sisted that we meet in Hatta at his farm, with a prom­ise of farm-cooked tanoor lahm. There is no ques­tion that I will take him up on the of­fer. But be­fore I plan my road trip back into the moun­tains, there is some­thing even more press­ing I must do. Mo­hammed just opened the doors to his sec­ond res­tau­rant 25 min­utes away from Burj Khal­ifa – Tanoor Al­dar in Abu Hail.

The sav­age in me might never sleep again.

I fell upon the lamb, slash­ing its black­ened spice-rubbed skin, plun­der­ing its moist bur­gundy in­sides, all with my naked fin­gers

A beau­ti­ful dark bark and juicy melt-in-the mouth meat makes this res­tau­rant in Hatta a must-visit

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