Emirati women put traditional food centre stage at Sheikh Zayed Festival

A competition at the cultural event hopes to preserve the UAE's authentic cuisine and recount its history for future generations

Emirati women prepare traditional food to showcase UAE's heritage

Emirati women prepare traditional food to showcase UAE's heritage
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At a kitchen in Abu Dhabi’s Al Wathba, Habiba Al Mansouri races against time to put together a meal that showcases Emirati heritage.

She must finish preparing two kilograms of bzar (Emirati spice mixture), chicken thereed (stew) and reqaq (traditional thin bread) to submit to a competition at Sheikh Zayed Festival by 5pm. The festival is one of the country’s largest cultural events.

The UAE is a melting pot of cuisines from all around the world. With the abundance of international flavours, the cooking competition aims to preserve the country’s authentic cuisine and recount its history.

Al Mansouri spreads a mattress on the floor and places bowls with spices, such as ground coriander, cumin, black pepper, red pepper, dried ginger, turmeric, cardamom and nutmeg.

A few decades ago, Al Mansouri had a Bedouin life in the desert. She powdered seeds with a hand grinder in the light of an oil or kerosene lantern, then she heated the spice blend over a wood fire. It was a laborious process that would take up to 30 minutes. Now she uses a mixer grinder that crushes the seeds in less than a minute and she then roasts them on a gas stove. In the past, her children, siblings and other family members would help her in the kitchen. Now she has cooking assistants to lend a hand.

“When I was about 9 years old, my mother taught us how to clean the house and cook food,” she says.

“We used to watch her methods of preparing salona [stew] and bread. We milked camels and sheep and turned fresh milk into yoghurt. As we grew up, we knew everything and were able to manage our household.”

Al Mansouri sprinkles the spice blend on a simmering pot of chicken thereed, a traditional stew that includes vegetables, such as potatoes, pumpkin and tomatoes.

“In those times, people didn't have many kinds of seeds.”

“We had simple ingredients which we turned into bzar. Machines did not exist, we used a hand grinder. Nowadays, thanks to Sheikh Khalifa [President of the UAE] and Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed [Crown Prince], everything is available.”

As time passes, the clanking of utensils becomes more frequent. Al Mansouri heats a flat pan and on it, she spreads dough made with flour and water. Within minutes she readies a stack of about 20 thin breads.

She arranges a tray with the bzar, reqaq and thereed. She then places photographs of women cooking in the era of Sheikh Zayed, the UAE's Founding Father. “Our food presentation should reflect the country’s traditions,” she says.

“It's my pleasure to participate in festival, because, thanks to God, our leaders have provided us with everything. We are encouraged to participate and showcase our skills and traditions to the world. We must protect the nation’s recipes for future generations.”

The competition was launched when this year's festival started in November 2021 and it will run until the cultural event ends on April 1. Emirati men and women are invited to cook at least one of eight traditional dishes, said Shaima Faisal, the co-ordinator of the competition. For each dish, the top 10 winners are given cash prizes. The first winner takes home Dh10,000.

At another Emirati household in Abu Dhabi’s Al Nahda area, Fatima Mahmoud prepares the same dishes. She was informed about the menu only a day before. Every participant is asked to cook the same meal in a day’s time so it’s easier for the jury to rate their culinary skills.

“My grandmother taught me how to prepare the bzar in a traditional way,” she says.

I like the fragrance of mashmoom because it reminds me of our history
Fatima Mahmoud

“I use anise, coriander and cumin seeds, turmeric, ginger, red pepper, black pepper and the yeshen [burnt leaves]. Nowadays, women add bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, cardamom seeds. However, I have always stayed with my grandmother’s recipe.”

After her bzar, thereed and reqaq are ready, Mahmoud decorates her serving tray with mashmoom or basil flowering plant.

“In the past, we only had palm trees, mashmoom and Al Sidr plants. I like the fragrance of mashmoom because it reminds me of our history,” the mother of four says.

“We used to prepare harees, aseeda, khabsa, balaleet and luqaimat, but nowadays young Emiratis make everything from fruit cakes to cinnamon rolls.

“I encourage our children and grandchildren to learn how to make the traditional meals. Those meals have lots of benefits that fast foods such as burgers and pizzas do not provide.”

Updated: February 14, 2022, 10:05 AM