Hussein Naim, Oriental chef at Le Meridien, explains what Ramadan is like for a Muslim chef
How long have you been in the UAE? Since 1991. I am Syrian, but moved here from Kuwait following the outbreak of the Gulf War.
Do a lot of people go out for Iftar?
Not usually at the beginning, because most people tend to invite one another to their houses to eat. After about three days everyone is suffering from fasting and not looking to cook anymore. Then they tend to go out more.
How does food differ during Ramadan?
You’ll find plenty of specialities not served during the rest of the year. A particular favourite is harees. It is made from wet seeds, barley and lamb, and is traditionally cooked in a pot in the ground for 18 hours. Like many Ramadan dishes, it is very rich.
In the ground? How do you make it in the kitchen? Technology. The right way to cook it is underground – it tastes different to when it is cooked in the machine, but we have to use modern methods. Harees is a traditional Gulf family dish and would normally feed around 20 houses. It is rarely cooked because not many people want to spend three hours slashing meat and splitting the wet seeds with a stick.
What are the common dishes? Lamb is a common ingredient. We serve ouzi, a fresh whole lamb, served open with brown rice, pine nuts and seeds. Also popular is thareed, a stew made from marrow, pumpkin, carrot and lamb.
Do Ramadan specialities vary throughout the Gulf? Yes, even within the UAE. There are a great many different emirates and each one has its own culture, traditions and cooking styles.
As a Muslim chef at Ramadan, do you find it difficult to cook and fast? Of course we suffer. But I am one of those people who doesn’t believe in time; I believe in God. At Ramadan we work our nine or 10 hours as normal.
But don’t you have to taste your food? We can ask someone else to do this for us. But, for myself, whether it’s Ramadan or not, I never taste my food. If I want to create a flavour, it will be correct. I have a feel for this.
When do you eat? During the Iftar we stand by and serve. We don’t eat until much later. Mostly it just becomes habit. By resisting eating, we’ve done a good thing for God, for our guests and for ourselves.
3kg lamb cubes, bone in 1.5kg rice Egyptian 100g onion 100g tomato fresh and peeled 8 cloves 1tsp black peppercorn, whole 5g cardamom green 3 cinnamon sticks 4 bay leaves 100g ghee 2g nutmeg powder Salt, to taste 1kg eggplant, sliced thick 1kg cauliflower florets 50g capsicum green 50g capsicum red
• Wash and clean the rice, then soak in water for at least one hour and keep to one side.
• In a separate cooking pot, boil the lamb (covered with water two inches above the level of meat) for at least 30 minutes, skimming the scum regularly.
• Add all the dry spices, onion, tomato, ghee and salt. Boil for at least 20-30 minutes or until almost cooked. Separately, deep-fry the eggplant, green and red capsicum and cauliflower, then drain and set aside.
• Drain the rice and keep it to one side.
• Arrange the fried eggplant and cauliflower over the cooked lamb stew and add the rice on top without mixing them with the rest of the ingredients.
• Now add water to the pot reaching one centimetre above the level of rice.
• Cover the pot with a lid, lessen the heat and cook for a further 12-15 minutes.
• Pour into a dish and garnish with fried capsicum.