Breaking the Fast
It all started with a short tweet about a trip I was planning to Dubai, which attracted the attention of a woman named Bodour. She lived in Sharjah, one of the seven United Arab Emirates, only a 30-minute drive north from Dubai. "So few people know about Emirati food," she tweeted back. "I'd be happy to give you a culinary tour." I had been to Dubai in the 1970s, when it was still a modest fishing village and neighboring Abu Dhabi was more developed, but the visit was brief, and apart from going to the fish market, I saw very little of Emirati life and never got to taste any of the local fare. Of course, a lot has changed since then; Dubai is now much glitzier than Abu Dhabi, the UAE's capital city. But the emirate of Abu Dhabi—meaning the territory ruled by its emir—still accounts for more than 80 percent of all the emirates.
I was going back to work as a host on a cooking and travel show for Abu Dhabi TV, so you can imagine my excitement at this unexpected offer of hospitality. I accepted, not knowing that my generous guide was Sheika Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi, the daughter of Sharjah's ruler. (Each emirate has its own royal family that rules as a separate monarchy.) I couldn't have asked for a better introduction: Not only did we bond over a shared love of Middle Eastern cooking (Al Qasimi owns a restaurant in Sharjah city, in fact) but within two days she had arranged for me to sample a range of the emirate's signature dishes.
When I arrived in the city of Sharjah, a modern metropolis of about 800,000, I met my new friend, a lovely woman in her early 30s, at a heritage center where local cooks give classes. Half a dozen women—all of them, like Al Qasimi, wearing black thobs, long robes that covered their clothes, their hair hidden by scarves—were in a large, traditional open-air kitchen preparing a goat stew, some spiced rice, and other dishes. Al Qasimi explained that while the country's large expat population from Iran, Palestine, India, and other countries had certainly influenced the local fare over the decades, true Emirati cuisine has its own distinct character. Fish from the Arabian Sea plays a major part in the diet, and meat and rice dishes are complexly spiced: Saffron and cardamom are the predominant flavors, and a spice mix called bzar, made with spices like cumin and coriander, is added to practically everything. Rice and flat breads are staples, and some of the dishes Al Qasimi served straddled the line between savory and sweet, thanks to a touch of sugar or date syrup. Al Qasimi also told me that camel meat is a specialty, particularly among Bedouin families, but that nowadays it is mostly reserved for special occasions.