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Recipes from the Arabian Gulf

Cardamom. It’s pungent, truculent and sweet. It’s been used for centuries in Indian spice blends, Scandinavian sweets and in Middle Eastern recipes and sometimes used to flavor coffee. The pre-oil days of al-Khaleej, the collective cluster of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates along the Arabian Gulf, where different tribes roamed the desert and coasts searching for food (and trading recipes) are long gone. They’ve been replaced by an era of man-made islands and litter from fast food restaurants.

Two things remain, steadfast and resolute: the value of cardamom and the sharing of food throughout the region.

The food of al-Khaleej flourished as the trade winds from Africa and India brought dhows, the traditional Arabian sailing vessels, into ports along the Gulf, bringing riches in pearls, silver and spices. Ah yes, immigrant spices were a true treasure, bringing life to main dishes and accompaniments. Saffron threads, cumin seeds, chili, curry powder, turmeric and cardamom pods worked together to create incredible tastes and branded the Gulf with a distinctive flavor.

“It [the food of the Gulf] is a means of communication and social maker, a peace offering, a way of demonstrating largesse and hospitality to friends and family, a form of one-upmanship, a conversation starter, a boredom buster and an arena for female competitiveness. Recipes are coveted and secretly exchanged,” says Sarah al-Hamad, author of “Cardamom and Lime: Recipes from the Arabian Gulf,” from which these recipes are taken.

The enticing book contains a wealth of tantalizing dishes, each chronicled by al-Hamad with photographs as they were being prepared in their native lands and compiled to neatly introduce the culinary history of traditions in the coastal region, renowned more for black gold than culinary gold.

The Gulf, however, doesn’t have the market cornered on these delicious dishes. Cardamom spices up bills of fare throughout the United States as well: cooks play with the multipurpose pod to flavor everything from burgers to venison to Arabic coffee. Before eating out (see sidebar), try al-Hamad’s take on these delicious rice and chicken dishes enhanced by staple spices of the Middle East.


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