The chefs at Café Arabesque are loading a table bowls full of creamy dips and hot plates emitting amazing smells. I’m drooling as the table gets more and more full but I can’t touch a thing. This is for the photoshoot, not for my lunch. Meanwhile, executive chef Hani Alfaraan and pastry chef Fadi Kalkosh are explaining the nuances of each dish to me. But I already know what goes into tabbouleh and kibbeh. What I want to know is the history behind these dishes, and what, if any, memories they bring back for them.
1 Tabbouleh: ‘Of course, you can get a lot of these cold mezza dishes all year long,’ says Alfaraan, ‘but still, no iftar is complete without them.’
2 Muhammara: This dip isn’t as well known to the hordes of shawarma lovers inhabiting the city. It’s a cold dip made from pureéd cashews, walnuts, capsicum, chilli and olive oil. Alfaraan explains that it’s a speciality that’s particular to Syria and Lebanon.
3 Stuffed vegetables: ‘You don’t see this as much in restaurants,’ says Alfaraan, ‘but this is a real staple of Middle Eastern home cooking.’ What gets stuffed often depends on what grows in the garden, says Alfaraan. In this case they’ve filled courgettes with rice and parsley.
4 Beetroot salad: Kalkosh swoons over this cold dip, which made with shredded beetroot, yoghurt and tahine. ‘This goes beautifully with fried kibbeh,’ he tells me. Later, Kalkosh reveals just how big a fan of kibbeh he is.
5 Samke harra (spicy fish): ‘You can’t have a proper iftar without samke harra,’ says Alfaraan. ‘It’s an amazing dish: a whole fish stuffed with chillies, onion, capsicum and coriander.’
6 Friki: Alfaraan tells me that this dish is another iftar must, and is the item on the table most evocative for him. It is made with chicken, almonds and cracked wheat. ‘I remember as a child my mother bringing the wheat fresh from our farm. It took forever to make. The word friki comes from the Arabic word meaning “to take a long time”. She would put the wheat in the oven and it would burn, then she’d spend all day shaking the skin off the wheat and it would fly everywhere.’
7 Kibbeh: For Kalkosh, these fried balls of minced lamb have always been his favourite part of the meal. ‘My mother used to get mad at me because I couldn’t even wait for them to come to the table. I’d eat them in the kitchen straight from the fryer, never caring how hot they were, even when I burned my mouth… over and over again.’
8 Dates: Alfaraan put out three type of dates for us: khidri, fresh dates and sukari. ‘The khidri dates are large and juicy. Fresh dates are nothing like dried dates, really, and they’re only available certain times of the year. Sukari are aged and much drier.’ Alfaraan explains that how many dates you eat to break fast is significant. ‘Even numbers are considered bad in Islam,’ he explains. ‘So as a result you can eat one date, or three, or five, but you can’t have two or four.’
9 Arabic sweets: Café Arabesque has 20 different types of Arabic sweets. Kalkosh has put three types on the table: baklava, ghorayebah – or almond cookies – and mamool, a biscuit made with dates. ‘We call these “Ramadan sweets”, because you don’t really eat them any other time of year, at least not all together. During Ramadan, though, they’re special.’
Café Arabesque, Park Hyatt Dubai (04 317 2222). Iftar Dhs160, Dhs85 for kids six-12.