A taste of Emirati cuisine during a winter weekend in the Empty Quarter, and a leisurely long summer lunch among the oryx on Route 66
Qasr al Sarab
It is mid afternoon on a mild and clear January day when we exit the main road to Liwa. We have reached the entrance to Qasr al Sarab and follow the resort's access road as it snakes through the red sand dunes, dazzled by the vast emptiness around us.
|Qasr al Sarab or translated Mirage Fort|
When I read through the menu for dinner, I am even more excited to be here. On the menu are several Emirati dishes that I've heard about, but not yet tried:
Harees is described as "a traditional Emirati dish consisting of wheat (harees), lamb, and salt". The wheat is crushed, soaked overnight and simmered for hours with the lamb and clarified butter. It is then beaten until smooth. Garnished with cinnamon, some more clarified butter and a fragrant garnish of fried onions and fresh koriander, it is a rich and filling meal.
Tharid is a dish where pieces of markouk (flat bread) are soaked in a broth. Often served with lamb, the resort's version comes with chicken.
Makbous is introduced as "believed to be indigenous to Yemen, Makbous is in a family of rice dishes considered to be a national dish of the UAE". Makbous spices include black pepper, cloves, cardamom, saffron, cinnamon, black lime, bay leaf, nutmeg. This makbous is prepared with chicken and the entire dish is fragrant with spice and rich with almonds and pine kernels. It is garnished with hashou (a colorful, aromatic garnish of fried onions and dried lime powder, in this case also raisins). and comes with dakkous (a spicy tomato sauce).
Legemat ("gaimat") is among the desserts. The ultimate sweet Arabian dessert, legemat are syrupy fried dough balls made fragrant with saffron and cardamom.
After a colorful array of fresh and appetizing mezze, a hefty portion of Makbous and Tharid Chicken, we have no room left for legemat. We lounge on the day bed on the terrace to watch the sands in the moonlight.
|like a velvet blanket draped over the undulating landscape|
At the breakfast buffet, I notice a dish called "Balalit". An Arabic lady standing next to me looks at me: "go on, it's good!" I scoop some on my plate and smile: "I'm sure it is, but what IS it?" And she explains it is a traditional breakfast of sweetened vermicelli flavored with saffron and cardamom and topped with a (savory) fried egg. She also encourages me to try Chakchouka, originally a North-African dish of eggs cooked in a spicy sauce of tomato, peppers, and onion. Among the juices, yogurts and milk I find a camel milk & date shake, with a note explaining that camel milk is rich in protein and low in fat. It reminds me in taste of the light and refreshing yogurt date drink we'd been served upon arrival.
Qasr al Sarab is a 3-4 hours drive from Dubai. We stayed here in January in a one-bedroom villa, and had dinner on our private terrace.
The Arabian Oryx on Route 66
Al Maha is a well-established desert resort a short distance from Dubai on the road to Al Ain (route 66). Al Maha means Arabian Oryx, and once you're in this desert resort you understand:. Oryx abound on the vast resort grounds and graze quite literally on your tent-villa's doorstep. I didn't stay at Al Maha (yet!) [promise to self]. I was on a group visit to enjoy lunch in a private dining room. The desert mid-June is so different than in the sharp and clear cool winter light: the blistering heat (it was 44C) casts a pale haze over the sand. There is a natural quietness as the sands are baking, you yourself sheltered in the cool of the resort. The heat didn't seem to bother the oryx at all. The tent-villas are well spread out, overlooking the wide desert valley. In the distance are the rugged ridges of the Hajar Mountains. It must be spectacular to be here around sunset.
|"Honey, is that you?"|
The menu offered chorizo wrapped creamy saffron risotto served with deep-fried capers and Manchego foam (a sheep's cheese from La Mancha in Spain), or seared scallops under an oblique glass dome filled with light wood smoke. The scallops were accompanied by a smooth pea puree, aromatic truffle foam, crumbled veal bacon, and a little truffle slice. Main course was pan-grilled dorade (seabream) with a velvety soft veloute (a beautiful fish fumet at its base), crushed purple potatoes, and a roma tomato stuffed with finely chopped seafood, aromatic with basil pesto. The other choice was a beautiful piece of butter-soft Wagyu tenderloin with candied garlic set off against the refreshing natural sweetness of plump white asparagus.
Dessert was a light bourbon vanilla cheese cake, highlighted by the strawberry compote around it and a touch of dark chocolate. The other dessert was fresh tropical fruits with mango sorbet. Fine as they were, it was the extra treat - the dessert that was NOT on our lunch menu - that got the most votes: a crème brûlée as smooth as silk. It was declared the "best in Dubai".
Al Maha is an adults-only (children over 10) retreat of bedouin-tent style villas, each with their own pool and view of the wide valley and Hajar mountains beyond. Oryx and gazelle are permanent residents and roam the grounds freely.