There are certain tastes and smells that immediately take us back to our childhood. For 25-year-old 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 focus 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 moving 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 grandchildren – her favourite dish is asida, a porridge-like desert 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.”