I have a really dumb habit of always wearing flip-flops, or similar sandal-style shoes, then discovering that I have to do something really precarious a little while later. I remember scaling down rocky cliffs at beaches and almost killing myself, as well as assorted other idiocies attempted with rubber-clad feet. Really, it’s amazing I’m still alive.
Like the flowing robes, sandals are part of the uniform in many Middle Eastern counties, so I took advantage of the warm weather (and freedom from packing all those socks), and donned sandals when we headed towards the market in the Emirate of Sharjah.
Of course, I’d forgotten that the market included a live animal market, which I got a quick reminder of when I stepped out of the car and was surrounded by stalls of bleating goats, all competing with each other apparently to see who could shout at the highest volume. The loudest was a poor little fellow getting a shot of medicine, that reminded me of me at that age when I saw a hypodermic needle.
I was in the United Arab Emirates to do a cooking demonstration at the Sharjah Book Fair and was thrilled when my time there overlapped with Middle Eastern food expert Anissa Helou. And it wasn’t just that she was an expert in cooking, but she was also smart about visiting markets as she had slipped out of the swanky sandals she was wearing earlier that day and had on sensible, closed shoes while I dodged dubious brown puddles in my unencumbered glory.
“Really, they’re the oldest shoes I have.” Anissa said, as she sidestepped the puddles and earth as we headed toward stalls with live goats, sheep, and assorted other animals for sale. Obviously she’s been navigating a lot more live animal markets than I have.
After we saw all the animals eating and doing what animals seem to do best, we headed over to the butcher stalls, which were amazingly clean. Each stall owner has his own little ‘store’ about the size of six phone booths pushed together, and each was outfitted with a massive marble table, air-conditioning (temperatures in the summer in the Emirates can climb to 60ºC, or 140ºF, and they told me going outside was pretty impossible), and each butcher’s space was crowded with all sorts of slabs of meat and hanging carcasses.
I’d never been to a fully Arabic country, and it was a somewhat gloriously surreal adventure; men and women in long robes and headscarves, a swirl of cultures and religions passing around you, a genteel politeness, and the beautiful cursive writing of a language that I swear I’m going to try to learn at least a little of before I meet whatever maker you believe will take of us in our afterlives.
In Paris, there is a large Arabic community, and I’m one-quarter Arabic as well. But to be immersed in a place that you just see snippets of on television or in magazines, is quite a cultural eye-opener. It really is a very different place and it took me a few days to adjust to the differences in culture. Plus Sharjah is a “dry” city so I had to make do with drinking fresh carrot juice or mint-infused lemonade instead of wine, which to be honest, was something I could get used to.
The market isn’t far from where I was staying but when I asked how to go on foot anywhere in the city, people were incredulous that I wanted to walk anywhere. But I like to move around that way to get the feel of places. And I noticed a lot of small supermarkets, and I love going into them, as well as going to the outdoor markets, in foreign countries.
Plus I have a slightly irrational fear of getting in taxis or having drivers take me places. It might be a loss-of-control issue perhaps? Or maybe it was getting stuck listening to too many rants by drivers or stepping off a plane after eleven hours and getting grilled on my life, and my opinions. And worse, listening to theirs. So unless I have heavy suitcases, walking is my preferred way to see a place.
Although I was glad when I stepped outside into the fierce midday heat that Hussein, my driver who was actually quite the pal and took me everywhere I wanted to go, had the AC going. Plus with the dust, the heat, the pounding sunshine, and someone telling me, “I am here to take you wherever you want to go and to do whatever you want, Mister David” well, maybe it was time to conquer my fear of drivers. (But if they stopped addressing me as if I was a hairdresser, that would be great.)
Like the meat market, the outdoor live animal market pens were scrupulously clean. And it doesn’t get more local than this.
There were lots of little lambs and sheep—Anissa, who speaks Arabic, asked the price and they were around $200. She told me when they have camels, they go for about $1000, which seems a bit expensive to me. So if you get one, don’t throw away that hump.
To be honest, though, we weren’t really in the market for any live animals (and I’m not sure I want camel hump), plus my sandal-clad feet has stepped in a few dubious brown puddles, so we marched over the fish market.
There was a lot of small fishes, which had come off the decorative wooden boats moored just across the way. They were all sparkly, wet, and fresh, but I didn’t recognize a lot of them. And I was more concerned with not wiping out on the wet floor rather than taking notes, which I’m sure you can understand.
The blue-legged crabs were gorgeous though, and I’m going to add them to the short list of foods that are naturally blue, since that’s always something that stumps me when I see blue-colored anything. (Blue foods, unless naturally that color, scare me.) Small sharks were lined up, something that looked like bonito were on offer, and there was a kind of fish with an ugly mug and catfish-style whiskers that were like steel tubes with fins.
I did love the thin wire baskets the smaller fish were stacked up in but I didn’t know what I’d do with the twenty to thirty fish inside, so like the camel hump, I unfortunately passed. And we headed in to the arched fruit and vegetable market.
The relaxed politeness of the city permeated the atmosphere of the market as well and instead of being hassled to death so much that you never want to return, like in other countries (Morocco, I’m looking at you…), the vendors were cheerful and friendly, offering tastes and even asked me if I could take their photo.
There were plenty of greens that I had never seen and lots of parsley, Arabic thyme (which resembles tarragon but has the elixir-like taste of concentrated herbs), fresh mint, feathery dill, and basil leaves. If you’ve not had real تبولة, go to an Arabic country. Instead of being a heavy mound of bulgur with a few herbs flecked in here and there, tabbouleh is meant to be an herb salad, and I mean lots and lots of herbs with just a few bits of tomato and maybe some nubbins of cucumber poking around in there.
I loved the giant coconuts, which came in green and orange, and for a few dirham (about $1) they’d take out the machete and hack the top off a young coconut, stick in a few straws and hand it over, which made a refreshing drink. Did you know that coconut water apparently is sterile, at least until it’s opened? Even more interesting was the date market outside and I’ve never seen so many dates piled up on platters anywhere.
My only regret was that if one is going to be sitting on an airplane for seven-plus hours later than evening, eating a couple of dozen dates probably wasn’t such a great idea.
But they were hard to resist: the dates were so different—and so good! Some were sweet, others had a slightly burnt coffee-like flavor, and others were spicy and sticky, or as rich as creamy toffee. They kept handing us samples to try and it was very hard not to pop yet another one in our mouths when offered.
Amongst all the dates was a stand with sugar cane that they’d feed into a machine which pressed out the juices into a cup.
It sounds sweeter than it is, believe me. But is quite tasty and not any sweeter than various kinds of tropical fruit juices you’re used to drinking. It’s probably best served over ice, which they offered, but we weren’t certain where it was from so we took a pass on that. (Suspicious water after eating too many dates isn’t a wise combination, I think.)
Afterwards we went into Dubai to Shabestan for a lovely Persian meal which Anissa recommended and I was happy to take her advice.
And even though Hussein was quite sweet, it was nice to know that men everywhere don’t want to stop and ask for directions when they’re lost. And after a few choice words passed in Arabic between them, we finally made it to the large, modern hotel where the restaurant was located.
I often avoid hotel restaurants, especially if they’re part of a giant hotel chain, as was this one. But Anissa explained to me that people in the Emirates like eating in hotels (perhaps because most of the new buildings seem to be housing banks in the lobby and restaurants aren’t the natural accompaniment to ATMs) and we ate splendidly.
I saw a lot of charred kabobs going by and really wanted one, but considering I was with a Middle Eastern food expert, I decided to follow her lead and order something that I couldn’t get elsewhere or wouldn’t even know what it was if I saw it on a menu.
We had Halim Bdjm and Mirza Ghasemi, two eggplant-based appetizers, then had two stews: Ghormeh Sabzi and Fesenjan. And the only reason I can recall the names so accurately is because of the check.
Handmade Iranian flatbread with sesame seeds and yogurt, cucumber, and fresh garlic dip is the Iranian version of bread & butter to eat before the meal, and dip into every once in a while when the mood hits, and every bite made me think what a much better alternative to bread & butter this Arabic combination is. But what was the most memorable were the mounds of rice.
Each pile of rice was like a dream; so light, fluffy, and the grains so perfectly separate it made me think there was a team in the kitchen polishing each one individually. One mound was colorful and verdant green, with fresh dill tinting the rice and a flurry of saffron-orange grains scattered over the top added for striking contrast. But my favorite, which is now officially The Best Thing I Ever Had in My Life was the tah-deeg (or tahdig), which are the crisp rice shards that forms at the bottom of the pot when the rice is cooked to just the right point.
When they brought the first platter of plain rice, which had one measly chard leaning against the side of it, sensing upcoming sparring between the two of us, Anissa immediately told them we needed a very big dish of it. And within seconds, out came a plate of them that made me want to push just about everything else aside on the table and focus on that. Like Socca, tah-deeg is one of those things you can eat and eat and eat and eat, no matter how full you are. Which we did.