Here in Abu Dhabi, the richest of the seven hered-itary sheikdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates, air-conditioned French bistros serve tarte tatin on white tablecloths and cafés offer high tea with chilled Devonshire cream. More adventurous eaters can seek out international delicacies like Korean barbecue, Hyderabadi haleem, Persian kormas, Sichuan hot pot, and Ethi-opian kitfo. But there is one cuisine that is hard to find in the Emirates, that is conspicuously absent from its hotels and restaurants and increasingly from its home kitchens, and that is Emirati.
“The Emirati kitchen? There is no Emirati kitchen,” says Ali Salem Musbeh Ebdowa—“Chef Ali” for short—pride and scorn flashing across his round face. “I built the formula.”
Ebdowa is a short, muscular, chain-smoking 37-year-old Emirati with close-cropped hair and a fighter’s stance. As head chef at Mezlai, one of the only upscale restaurants that serve Emirati food, he is trying to reunite a country founded just 40 years ago with a desert-cooking tradition that stretches back centuries.
Bedouin food is road food, high-calorie fuel for the nomadic life. In the 10th century, the Iraqi scribe Al-Jahiz described it as “food that can be eaten with one hand, not two,” and it has been known for simplicity ever since. “The food they take is either little prepared or not prepared at all,” wrote the 14th-century Arabic scholar Ibn Khaldun, “save that it may have been touched by fire.” It is roasted goat, grilled gazelle, and simple flatbreads: a cuisine for people whose only kitchen is the desert. The food of five-star hotels, of culinary-school flourishes, it is not.
Ebdowa wants to change that. He is among a generation of chefs across the Arab world who are playing with the strict distinctions between peasant food and haute cuisine, between rural home cooking and urban restaurant fare. Mezlai is the darling of Abu Dhabi’s royal family, a place for sheiks to show-case traditional Emirati culture to distinguished visitors. For Ebdowa, that means translating simple Bedouin dishes, some of which have barely changed since the Prophet Muhammad’s day, into the gold-plated, ultraluxury world of the Emirates Palace, the second-most-expensive hotel ever built. His cuisine reflects his country’s 40-year journey from a region of farmers and fishermen, of pearl divers and nomads, into an oil-rich confederacy that is using petro-dollars to buy cultural cachet.
“If I cook like your mother cooks, I’m not going to be a chef,” Ebdowa says. “If I serve the VIPs—princes, queens—like I serve my mother, I’m not going to be a chef. Here, you have to add something. You don’t change anything, but you combine the flavors in different ways.”
Take aseeda, a thick pudding of flour and water that can be either savory or sweet. Ebdowa flavors his with sugar and cardamom, tops it with rosewater simple syrup, sprinkles it with saffron, and presents this most down-home of dishes in an upscale way. “Before, we put it in a tabgha,” he says, referring to a traditional lidded clay pot. “Now we serve it in a martini glass.”
He also makes harees, the porridge of meat and grain that Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike have been making for at least 14 centuries; thareed, the bread stew the Prophet Muhammad compared to his beloved wife Aisha; and madfoun, slow-cooked lamb or chicken wrapped in banana leaves and flavored with cardmom, dates, and local lemon vinegar.
Traditionally, madfoun—Arabic for “the buried one”—is cooked in an earthen hole in the ground for up to 20 hours. At Mezlai, Ebdowa cooks it for eight to 12 hours in a specially constructed oven, then serves it on a bed of saffron rice with a halo of microgreens along the edge of the plate. “These are not traditional,” he says, grin-ning, pulling a box of the miniature mesclun leaves out of the cooler.
Until now, Emirati food was mostly found in family or ceremonial settings. “It’s not a restaurant tradition,” says Anissa Helou, a Lebanese cookbook author who hosted a TV series on Emirati food and culture. “When Emiratis go out to restaurants, they would go out to an Italian restaurant, a European restaurant, or to a Lebanese restaurant.”
Ebdowa wanted to become a chef ever since the late 1980s, when, as a homesick teenager on vacation in Europe, he tried to reproduce his mother’s cooking. He is from Hatta, a small mountain town that, like most rural parts of the Emirates, is eclipsed by glitzy Dubai and oil powerhouse Abu Dhabi. He bought a small restaurant on the highway between Hatta and Dubai, “just to see how they do it—how they set up mise en place, how they chop the vege-tables, how they plate the food.” He learned, but lost money, and sold the restaurant. He served in the Army, tried an office job for a while, and hated it. He missed the kitchen. He realized he needed to train as a chef.
But in the U.A.E., where immigrant guest workers outnumber natives by more than four to one, cooking is usually consigned to migrants. In the late 1990s, the government launched an “Emiratization” campaign requiring businesses to hire a quota of Emirati employees. The state-owned employment agency placed Ebdowa in the kitchen at the Jumeirah Emirates Towers, a luxury hotel in the heart of Dubai.
He was the only Emirati in the kitchen. Every day, he would show up ready to work only to have the head chef send him home early and give him the next few days off. Finally a Syrian chef named Bassam took him aside. “They say you just came here because they want to hire locals,” Bassam told him. According to Ebdowa, the head chef had warned the kitchen staff that the new guy was dead weight: “?‘These are rich people, lazy people, and he doesn’t know how to cook.’?”
Bassam helped Ebdowa master classic Middle Eastern dishes like maqlubeh, an elaborate upside-down casserole of meat, rice, and vegetables. Ebdowa worked his way up through hotel and catering kitchens, started hosting 15-minute cooking shows on a local television station, and made trips back to Hatta and other rural areas to wheedle traditional recipes out of old-timers. By December 2009, he was the chef de cuisine at Mezlai.
On one steamy evening he is strutting through the kitchen, lifting lids and rolling open cooler drawers to check on the madfoun. It is flavored with bzar, a characteristically Emirati spice mix that he learned to make from old women in the mountains around his hometown. His version begins with a bag of cinnamon bark, coriander seeds, black peppercorns, ginger root, whole yellow turmeric root, cumin, cardamom, red chilies, and a secret ingredient from the old ladies of Hatta: frills of dried lichen, one side dusty powder green, the other black. He rips open the bag and lets me taste a piece: it’s bitter, chalky, but the flavor changes when it’s sauteed and ground. The final product will be a brindled brown powder, with flavors that run from the sweet, sensual warmth of cinnamon to bitter cardamom and lichen.
Outside, the first guests trickle in. The hostess greets them with sweet honey dates and sour Bedouin coffee, poured from the left hand into a cup cradled in the right. A balding man in a black suit unpacks an electric oud, and traditional Arabic music murmurs through the restaurant. An Emirati man in a dishdasha and a red trucker hat videotapes his friends as they walk into the main dining room.
I ask Abdullah al-Baloosh, a 26-year-old Emirati avionics engi-neer, if the food is good. He nods shyly. I ask him if it’s as good as his mother’s. “I cannot say it is better than my mother’s food,” he says, looking miserable. “Please, I cannot say this.”
These days, instead of passing on culinary secrets to their children, the older generation usually transmit them to Syrian or South Asian cooks. “Here, they lost the local traditions because they don’t cook themselves,” Ebdowa says. “And they miss the local food.”
Ebdowa’s dream is to hold classes to teach Emiratis how to cook traditional food with an international flair. “Be-cause we have to put our local food in all the kitchens of the world,” he says. “If we don’t do that—if we don’t remember how to cook this food—it will disappear.”