Food and Travel in the Middle East

United Arab Emirates

On my birthday, I ride a camel into the Arabian Desert and dine with Bedouins.

We start with watermelon drinks, camel milk (rich and nutty), and tiny cups of thin coffee served the old way while chewing a date for sweetness. Then creamy lentil soup and griddle-fried flat bread made by hennaed hands. The main is camel stew (tastes like beef), lamb baked below ground, rice pilaf, lemon and fattoush salad. Last is fresh fruit with luqaimat: small saffron doughnuts sticky with date syrup.

Dubai is home to over 3 million people and the world’s largest population of foreign workers – over 90%. 70% are men primarily from India and Pakistan. Despite the gender imbalance, streets at all hours feel safe, calm and civil. I speak with Eastern Europeans, Filipinos and others keen to tell their stories.

My Hyatt Dubai Al Rigga room is large and stylish. The cafe downstairs makes juices to order, vegan, gluten-free fare and could be on Ponsonby Road. Not the breakfast buffet though. I enjoy tiny pickled eggplant stuffed with walnuts and chilli; bacon made from veal rather than prohibited pork; sago and millet dishes. Or top flat bread with labneh (yoghurt cheese) rolled in mint, pickled turnip, tahini, and bean stew.

On a Dubai walking tour, Wander with Nada, we barter at gold, fabric and spice souks, including entire stores dedicated to saffron, the world’s most expensive seasoning. Our last stop is popular Iranian restaurant, Al Ustad. We share Special Kebab: pile saffron rice on our plates; top with salad, heaps of ground sumac, cranberry-like red fruit, lime juice, yoghurt with cucumber, and kebabs. Less than NZ$15 each. Washroom to be avoided!

The Metro is truly easy (says one who is navigationally challenged) and super clean. Its ease is in contrast to city streets, which rarely have numbers or standard addresses. Location is expressed by landmark. Highly recommended is to book a visit to the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Local academics act as hosts, describe national customs and with great courtesy provide a large and traditional Emirati meal.

The 7 emirates formed a union in 1971. You must have one or more parents born here to be a citizen. Then you get free education, health care, $70,000 dirham (almost NZ$30,000) when you marry; easy loans and gifts to start a new business. Otherwise you are forever lower class. It is a highly controlled, hereditary monarchy. Women cannot initiate divorce and need a male relative’s permission to travel.

Dubai has the third highest cost of living in the world. Workers here flat with others; leave their families overseas and return to them from May to August when the 50 degree heat keeps tourists away. Tourism is advocated as a way for the country to move away from oil dependency. Petrol is about NZ$1 (sound of Aucklanders sobbing).

Israel
After the calm, moral and political control of Dubai, Israel is rowdy with colourful expression, rubbish, and graffiti – including by Banksy.

Tonight, Friday, is Shabbat, the holy day from that evening to the next. The devout will not cook, boil a kettle or change the form of anything. Traditionalists must live near the synagogue as there is no driving. Hassidic men scurry in their tall hats and long curls. It is a sect out of Eastern Europe, starting only in the late 19th century. The emphasis is on modesty and adherence to scriptural customs – although many are frequently on their cell phones.

This is now Jewish New Year’s Eve. A time when God is about to “close the book” on how you and your year have been. It is the custom to apologise to everyone you meet in case there has been a misunderstanding. Good protocol. Rosh Hashanah (New Year) also starts at night and lasts two days as the book opens again for a fresh start.

The country is small and feels like a journey through a living bible story. I visit the Wailing Wall, Via Dolorosa where Jesus carried the cross, and Yad Vashem – the affecting Holocaust Museum. Visit Bethlehem in the Palestinian Authority with its shepherds’ caves and UNESCO-protected Church of the Nativity. Swim in the Mediterranean, the River Jordan and the Dead Sea. Go to the Golan Heights and see a Syrian border town with guns pointing my way. The powerful confluence of history, politics and religion are never theoretical or distant.

In Tel Aviv, the excellent Delicious Israel food tour begins with a typical meal. Two plates are surrounded by hummus. At the centre of one are two sauces (one green herb; one tomato with poached egg). The other dish holds two chickpea stews. On the side is impressively fluffy pita fresh from the oven; raw onion; green hot sauce with coriander, garlic and chilli. Israelis don’t do tepid.

We conclude at an innovative ice cream parlour. Half of the big display, such as lemon with cardamom, is vegan – a popular focus. Most produce in Israel is local. You can taste the aliveness and how immigrant stories from Morocco to Moscow have mingled on the plate. There is beetroot and pomegranate juice, pistachio halva, pickled herring, eggs with sesame, bread thick with poppy seeds and chocolate, and rolled fluffy pancakes filled with soft pillows of white cheese, topped with honeycomb.

Turkey
Like Israel, 8 nations border Turkey, some of them hostile. Istanbul is the 7th largest city in the world. It has 15 million people and about 4 million refugees, mostly from Syria. Despite struggling financially, this is the only Arab country to offer them a home. Istanbul has had 116 names including Byzantium and Constantinople. It was often the centre of the Ottoman Empire, which reigned from 1453 until 1920. Then revered universalist Kemal Ataturk made the country a progressive republic and parliamentary democracy.

A Bosporus cruise shows off the beautiful ancient and modern buildings lining this vast and stunning harbour. It also passes a derelict nightclub, charred from a recent terrorist bombing. As with other tourists here, I receive safety concerns from friends back home. Yet New York, Paris and London experienced terrorism and no one expresses worries about visiting them. It is foreign otherness that can claim more attention.

A taxi back to the hotel is perilous. The local joke is that in England red lights are compulsory; in Italy optional; while in Turkey, merely decorative. People here die first from road accidents and second due to smoking. Packs are only about NZ$3.

Next day, on the superb Istanbul on Food, Taste of Two Continents tour, we sample goat curd with honey; creamy menemen eggs with tomato; tahini with hazelnut puree and grape molasses; sheep intestine kebabs; every type of candied fruit and vegetable including eggplant; pickle juice; mussels in the shell with herbed rice; local chardonnay and aniseed brandy; ice cream and fantastical marzipan. I still keep in touch with some of the participants from New York, Hong Kong and France.

Turkey is a major exporter of olive oil (often labelled Spanish) with trees almost 2,000 years old and still fruiting. And everywhere there is cay (black tea) served in tiny curved glasses with cubes of sugar. Strong stuff, yet an average intake is 8 to 16 cups per day.

I shop in the Grand Bazaar, which started in 1461 and is the world’s oldest and largest with over 4,000 tiny shops. Climb the terraced limestone cliffs at Pamukkale with its geysers and hot water pools. Admire the vast library and amphitheatre of Ephesus, large enough to hold 25,000 ancient Romans, as well as concerts with Sting and Pavarotti. Feel the poignant stillness of Gallipoli with its cramped trenches and headstones for 18 year olds. Experience a hamam or Turkish bath house where you are scrubbed, pummeled, folded like filo pastry and then tenderly soaped as a mother would a child. Join in contemplation with the whirling dervishes as they dance with sweet, quiet devotion.

These countries are memorable visually, culturally, gastronomically and politically.

Salaam/Shalom

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