More than a meal: what the evolving story of Emirati cuisine says about society

A graduate from Zayed University in Dubai and a research professor of anthropology at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) are building an archive of interviews with elderly Emirati women, most of which begin with talk of meals and ingredients.

Social anthropologist Marzia Balzani and her research assistant, Ayisha Khansaheb, are researching the history of traditional Emirati food and how it is being effected by increasing wealth, education and technology. Antonie Robertson / The National
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Traditional Emirati dishes and recipes reveal a great deal more about life in the region than just the sights and smells of the kitchen.

Just how much can be gleaned from the food on our plates? For the social anthropologist Marzia Balzani and her research assistant, Ayisha Khansaheb, every dish and recipe tells a story and when they are lucky, the culinary tales they collect offer insights that extend far beyond the kitchen and nutrition.

For the past 12 months Ms Khansaheb, a graduate from Zayed University in Dubai and Dr Balzani, a research professor of anthropology at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), have been building an archive of interviews with elderly Emirati women, most of which begin with talk of meals and ingredients.

But as Dr Balzani explains, the conversations also shed light on the researchers’ deeper interests – the effect of increasing wealth, education and technology on Emirati women, the transformation of their roles and status during the past four decades and the changing structure and organisation of Emirati families and homes.

“The idea of food is that the interviews are not about politics, or tribe necessarily, but to chart changes in how women lived, the kinds of houses they lived in, the kitchens and cooking implements they used and to talk about how the women now see themselves as a result of those transformations,” the anthropologist says.

“These women are not used to speaking about their lives and they are certainly not used to speaking about them outside their immediate family context, so being able to archive the histories of women who otherwise might not speak for themselves and to record that in their own words is quite a unique thing.”

The information that Ms Khansaheb has gathered about harees – a traditional porridge made of cracked or ground wheat mixed with meat that can be found throughout the Arab world and all the way to northern India – is a case in point.

A dish that traditionally takes time to prepare and that was once reserved for Ramadan, weddings and other special occasions, harees has become an Emirati staple that is increasingly enjoyed throughout the year.

“In the past, harees would have been eaten at most once a week but not every day,” Ms Khansaheb says.

“But the fact that it’s actually quite common in Emirati households now and is often no longer prepared by Emiratis but by cooks, maybe, just shows me how much things have changed,” the 24-year-old researcher says.

“It’s also partly a question of how women have had to adapt,” Dr Balzani adds. “I recall an interview where a woman had left the emirates to be with her husband who was working abroad.

“Harees was such an important part of her identity as an Emirati woman that in a context where she couldn’t make it the traditional way she had to find shortcuts because it was so important for her to make the dish and to give it to her children no matter where they were living.”

Ms Khansaheb explains: “Beating of the grain is the hardest part. There are machines for it now but she hadn’t used one, so she would soak it in water overnight and that made it easier to beat later on.

“She admitted that it didn’t taste anything like the one that had taken hours to prepare but that it was still something that she could give her children and she does this every night in Ramadan because she sees it as such an integral dish.”

For Dr Balzani, the anthropological insights to be gained from such examples reveal the ways in which food plays an essential role, not just in the construction of Emirati regional and national identities but also in their transmission.

“As a woman you have to find a way of transmitting that to your children so that they continue having an Emirati identity that is somehow associated with the taste and texture of food.”

The inspiration for Dr Balzani and Ms Khansaheb’s research project came from one of the anthropologist’s former students at NYUAD, Grace Michael Hauser, an Arabic speaker and long-term UAE resident who started interviewing the grandmothers of some of her Emirati friends and collecting their traditional recipes as part of her undergraduate studies.

“She discovered in the process that a lot of the granddaughters had no idea about their grandmothers’ early lives. They had no idea where they’d lived, how they’d lived, what their houses were like, how early they’d married or where they’d learnt to cook,” the professor says.

“And a lot of these women were now living in households where they were eating Emirati food but it was food that was being prepared by non-Emirati cooks, people who had come into the home, were taught how to prepare the food and were then left to get on with it while the [Emirati] women got on with their education, their jobs and with looking after families.”

Not long after Ms Hauser completed her degree and left NYUAD, Dr Balzani was presented with the opportunity to work on a larger project with a graduate researcher.

For the project to work however, Dr Balzani needed a researcher who was not only female but who was also a native speaker who could interview older Emirati women about their lives and relate those conversations to food.

In Ms Khansaheb, an Emirati graduate who wanted to gain research experience before embarking on her formal postgraduate studies, Dr Balzani found the ideal candidate.

“Since I’m an Emirati woman I started out by using my own connections, family members, friends and friends of friends,” says the 24-year-old, who conducted her first interview with her grandmother who lives in Baniyas.

“It takes time to explain what the interview is, what it might be used for one day and that it will involve a voice recording, but many [of the women] weren’t comfortable with the idea that the recording would be part of the archive, so we had to agree that the interview would be transcribed and the voice recording destroyed.”

Starting with her personal network, Ms Khansaheb soon began to reach out to women in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Ras Al Khaimah, most of whom were in their 60s or older, and as she began to speak to more and more women the researchers were struck not only by the diversity of the women’s stories but also the underlying similarities they contained.

“Most of the women I’ve interviewed married quite young and so the person who taught them to cook was their mother-in-law, not their mother,” Ms Khansaheb says. “All of them have described how, in one house, there would be a matriarch and a patriarch and all of the sons and their wives would live together, which made cooking a collective effort. That’s definitely something that’s changed today.”

Dr Balzani says: “The anthropological twist is how you analyse that data and put it in a broader context. Each woman’s history is clearly individual, unique and personal, but our aim is to discover whether there might be patterns across the generation of women.

“This is also a collection of stories from women who aren’t going to be here much longer and if somebody doesn’t collect these stories now, they are not going to be collected,” the anthropologist says.

For Dr Balzani and Ms Khansaheb, one of those patterns is the effect of education and increasing literacy and subtle influence this has had, not just on domestic life in the emirates, but on a developing sense of national identity that is subtly bound up with food.

Balzani characterises this shift as a move from an oral culture to a much more literate culture in terms of the education and training Emirati women receive when they are learning about traditional recipes.

“Because of education and careers and because women now tend to marry when they are older, there’s been a commodification of an idea of a national cuisine that’s now coming out in cookery books and on television,” the academic says.

“In a sense, a national cuisine is being produced by the technologies and by the shift in the education system that is similar but much more individualised than it was in the past, when women would have been taught by and learnt from their mothers-in-law and when food was much more regional.”

The other forces behind this steady drive towards uniformity are increasing wealth and the year-round availability of ingredients resulting, the researchers say, not in culinary diversity but in a situation where Emirati families now sit down to dishes that are increasingly similar and defined not by regional variations but by differences in personal taste.

“In a sense it’s a nation-­building exercise that has happened in many countries,” Dr Balzani admits.

“And now it’s happening here, too.”