Tastes that linger longer

Jes­sica Hill talks to Emi­rati re­searcher Ay­isha Khansa­heb, whose find­ings about the long-lost culi­nary tra­di­tions of the Emi­rates are cur­rently be­ing show­cased at an ex­hi­bi­tion at New York Univer­sity Abu Dhabi

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There are cer­tain tastes and smells that im­me­di­ately take us back to our child­hood. For 25-yearold Emi­rati Ay­isha Khansa­heb, it’s Naser, a small grilled fish once found in abun­dance through­out sum­mer in the UAE.

“We used to eat a lot of Naser with le­mon and caramelised rice,” says the Dubai res­i­dent. “One fish was just the right por­tion size. I’d sit with my grand­fa­ther for lunch and we’d eat fish ev­ery day ex­cept Fridays when it was meat.”

A re­search as­sis­tant at New York Univer­sity Abu Dhabi, Khansa­heb has been work­ing on a project called Culi­nary Life His­to­ries: An Ex­plo­ration of Emi­rati Gen­der, Iden­tity, and Na­tion- Build­ing through Cui­sine. Khansa­heb’s aim in sign­ing up for the project in Septem­ber 2015 was not only to merely col­lect recipes, but also to dis­cover the day-to-day life of Emi­rati women by us­ing food as the fo­cal point. Her find­ings are be­ing ex­hib­ited in a show at the New York Univer­sity called Tastes of the Past, which fo­cuses on Emi­rati tra­di­tional cui­sine and cul­ture.

Dur­ing her re­search, Khansa­heb sat down with 19 Emi­rati women from across the UAE. Back in the day, fam­i­lies like her own from ur­ban Dubai had reg­u­lar ac­cess to a mar­ket, whereas Be­douin fam­i­lies had di­ets which re­flected their sea­sonal move­ments.

She found that their sto­ries echoed her own child­hood mem­o­ries of fam­ily meal­times.

“A few of them men­tioned they would spend their en­tire morn­ing pre­par­ing the main meal,” she says.

“After lunch, the women would visit each other in their com­mu­ni­ties and have cof­fee and light snacks – so food was al­ways mov- ing around. They wouldn’t do any­thing un­less food was present – it was a big part of their pri­vate sphere.”

Khansa­heb started off by quizzing her 76-year-old grand­mother Um Ab­dulla. “My grand­mother had a more priv­i­leged life­style than most peo­ple back then with ser­vants in her home. But her fa­ther told her she still had to learn to cook be­cause she never knew what life might throw her way.”

Khansa­heb’s grand­mother still loves to cook for her grand­chil- dren – her favourite dish is asida, a porridge-like dessert made us­ing flour, sugar and some­times pump­kin.

“She still does it be­cause she en­joys it,” says Khansa­heb, who also reached out to her mother’s friends and through them to their moth­ers. As well as home­mak­ers, she met with the wife of a diplo­mat, a school prin­ci­pal and a for­mer tele­phone op­er­a­tor. “Be­ing Emi­rati my­self made it eas­ier for women to open their doors to me,” says Khansa­heb. “There was that el­e­ment of trust.” While some of them un­der­stood the im­por­tance of col­lect­ing this oral his­tory, oth­ers were “con­fused”, as they didn’t see them­selves as food ex­perts.

“I had to ex­plain that you don’t nec­es­sar­ily have to be an ex­pert to pro­vide some­thing that’s real and mean­ing­ful. After the ini­tial hes­i­ta­tion and dis­com­fort, they en­joyed telling me their sto­ries and I en­joyed lis­ten­ing.” Khansa­heb found the food on the ta­ble var­ied ac­cord­ing to the sea­son.

“It’s much eas­ier to catch fish in the sum­mer. So in win­ter, they ate rice with pre­served fish, which was stored in large metal con­tain­ers with salt.”

Although these days co­rian­der, car­damom and turmeric can be found in bezar – the Emi­rati spice mix added to many dishes – Khansa­heb found that meals served decades ago were of­ten not sea­soned with spices. “To add flavour, you would squeeze the lime into the rice, or you would have it with some lo­cally sourced radishes or rocket leaves,” she says. For many of the women, meat dishes were a del­i­cacy served only ev­ery few weeks – to mark a cel­e­bra­tion such as the birth of a baby, the sheikh pay­ing a visit or when some­one man­aged to mem­o­rise the Qu­ran. “One woman re­mem­bered how mak­ing ha­rees [a meat and grain dish] in prepa­ra­tion for a wed­ding was such a col­lec­tive en­deav­our. They used to bring ha­rees grains to the big­gest house in the neigh­bour­hood and kneed them, so that they could re­move the rinds from the grain. As a child she used to sit watch­ing the women knead­ing, as they sang songs to the rhythm of the beat­ing of the seeds.”

Khansa­heb no­ticed that to­day many of the younger gen­er­a­tion of Emi­rati women tend to bake cakes rather than cook.

“I can’t cook tra­di­tional cui­sine, but I’ve been learn­ing. I helped my grand­mother out re­cently in mak­ing mach­boos [a pop­u­lar rice and meat dish] and I un­der­stand the process now.”

While a recipe or cook­ing tech­nique is of­ten found on­line, pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions of Emi­rati women re­lied on their senses.

“When you hone those dif­fer­ent senses, you get some­thing quite spec­tac­u­lar,” says Khansa­heb. “But you de­velop that in­stinct with time, which peo­ple don’t have nowa­days.” Khansa­heb ad­mits she no longer eats much Naser, in­stead her favourite now is foughat – well-cooked rice served with ten­der meat. “I have it with some mango achar [pickle] and yo­gurt. Not many peo­ple still do that.”

is show­ing at New York Univer­sity Abu Dhabi un­til the end of May. For more de­tails, visit www.nyu.edu

Vid­hyaa for The Na­tional

Tastes of the Past, an ex­hi­bi­tion based on Emi­rati food, is be­ing held at the New York Univer­sity Abu Dhabi.

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