We ask a top chef to go through the foodie treats we eat over the holy month and why they're so popular
Time Out Bahrain staff
How did you come to work at the Mercure Grand? As a young boy growing up in Muharraq, I always wanted to work with food. I was fascinated by the aromas, spices and preparation of dishes in the kitchen at ours and relatives’ homes. We always had an abundance of food and a variety of influences, with cuisines from all over the world that we have adapted, mixing all the cultures together. After finishing secondary school, I studied for three years at the Muharraq Hotel & Catering College, of which part of the course required training and work experience in the five star hotels in Bahrain.
After this, I joined the Diplomat Radisson Blu, who sent me to the Netherlands to study food and beverage management. So my fundamental training as a chef has been a la carte, creating many European foods such as Italian, Spanish, British, Irish stews and Mediterranean dishes. I worked at the Diplomat for 14 years, but have now been with the Mercure Grand (Accor Group) for over a year. During Ramadan at the Mercure we will serve a buffet for Iftar. This will have a combination of traditional Bahraini dishes, world food and some special a la carte options.
Why is the fast usually broken with dates? The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said: ‘A house that has no dates, its owners are hungry. Date palms and trees are a blessing for their owners and their offspring.’ In Bahrain, to break the fast, we start with a few dates and laban. The dates are rich in vitamins and full of glucose, which raises the blood sugar level that goes down when fasting. Since ancient Dilmun times, the dates from the palm trees in Bahrain have always been an important food source, eaten fresh in summer and dried for winter consumption.
Laban is a yoghurt drink usually made from cow’s milk, but often in summer it is made from goat or camel’s milk, so it does vary in flavour. It’s a traditional Bedouin food rich in vitamin D and is a quick source of calcium, protein and fats essential for body tissue maintenance. We slightly warm the dates and laban, as it’s easier on your digestive system to consume warm food after fasting all day. After this we will wait for 30 minutes or so and then begin the Iftar, usually with family or friends.
What is the right amount of food to eat at Iftar? It’s important to keep in mind not only how much you eat, but what you eat when breaking the fast. Foods that are high in spice or salts can cause dehydration the next day. It’s also not recommended to drink tea or coffee at Suhoor, as it will dehydrate you during the fast, and you should not consume excess food, as firstly it contradicts the point of the fast if you make up for the food you have missed and more during the daytime. Secondly, you are generally more sedentary during the day when fasting, so a balanced diet that is less in quantity than normal should be sufficient.
What kinds of food are usually served at Iftar time? We start with soups and serve two types generally; a clear broth type and a heavier vegetable and legume soup. We also put out stews. During Ramadan, even if it occurs during summer, most people tend to go for the heavier food and there’s less demand for salads. Usually you will have traditional stews and a la carte dishes such as beef stroganoff, stir fry etc. We serve a mix of world food and traditional Bahrain dishes at the hotel.
The important traditional dishes are thareed (a Bahraini stew), hares or madrooba and ouzi. Thareed is a tomato, vegetable and meat (usually lamb) based stew. We line the bottom of the dish with flat bread that has been broken into small pieces and pour the sauce from the stew over the top. As you can imagine, the bread absorbs the sauce and it’s a delicious and satisfying meal after the fast. It is eaten with the meat added separately.
What are hares and madrooba? They are really both the same dish except that the meat is different. With hares, beef is used, and with madrooba it’s chicken. This is when you ground the wheat and stew it with the pumiced meat. It has a porridge texture, but is full of nutrition and has a hearty and fulfilling effect.
How is ouzi made? Ouzi is a rice dish served on a large platter mixed with meat (usually lamb) and nuts, which are all minced in with the rice and a few herbs. You then serve the lamb (often the head of a lamb) on top of the rice. We avoid dishes like makbous (Bahrain biryani), as it tends to be quite heavy with all the spices and can cause dehydration the next day.
What desserts would you find in an Iftar buffet? We have our traditional sweets, which are eaten in small doses to provide energy for the next day. It’s important to eat sweets in moderation, as we have an issue with diabetes in Bahrain. But on offer we have sagoo, kamfaroush and lokaimut. For the kamfaroush we use the honey that comes from the dates – it’s simple and delicious. Sagoo is a type of milky custard, and lokaimut is fried, so these dishes really are a delicacy.
As well as Iftar and Suhoor, there is Gabga. What’s that? Gabga means gathering and is about the activities in the evening. Ramadan is a very social experience, and in many ways the day becomes night at this time. Gabga is like a party and often people will book out function rooms in our hotel for their own private Gabga with friends. So food is not so much the main focus, but there are dishes that are frequented by locals.
At Gabga, fried fish with sweet rice is a favourite, which is sugar and rice cooked together called muhamur and served with sofie fish. Most people do seem to have their Suhoor (last meal before the break of dawn) during the Gabga at around midnight to 1am. They do eventually wind down and finish before the sunrise to begin the next day of the fast. It’s a festive time, routines alter and life responds to the Ramadan heart beat. Mercure Grand Hotel Seef (17 584 400; www.mercurebahrain.com) is offering two different Iftar experiences this Ramadan.