I’m standing inside a stainless-steel kitchen in the Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management. Normally, this is where degree students receive their culinary training. Today it is full of novices, each donned in an apron and silly-looking – if necessary – hairnet. There are a few recreational cooks in the group, alongside a handful of houmous enthusiasts, but most of us stare at the pile of ingredients before us with knitted eyebrows. The woman to my right wears a perplexed expression as she handles a brittle, grey sphere.
‘This is a lime?’ she asks. It’s actually a loomi – a sun-dried lime that’s a staple in Arabic cooking. So explains Michael Kitts, our teacher and the senior lecturer at the academy, which recently launched a recreational Arabic cooking class.
We’re concocting what looks like a jam-packed menu: there are six courses on the schedule for today. We start with the dishes that take the longest, namely baba ganoush and marinated lamb kebabs. For the baba ganoush, we pierce holes in an aubergine, then place it on a grill, turning it periodically for 45 minutes. When it’s done, we scoop out the interior. Kitts assures us that it’s okay if an occasional burnt bit of skin finds its way into the final mixture. ‘This gives the dip that smoky flavour,’ he explains.
To my dismay, we’re then expected to create a pretty presentation with our batch. This is tricky; I’m the kind of cook that focuses on taste, not presentation. As a result, my rendition looks like it was slopped onto the plate by a toddler, while my neighbour’s looks sleek and professional. But I regain a little smugness during our onion-slicing exercise: as Kitts explains more about Arabic spices and encourages us to try a few professional tricks, my onion comes apart more easily than hers.
Most of the dishes we make are pan-Arabic, except for one: chicken saloona. This hearty chicken stew is more UAE-specific, and is an excellent one-pot meal. But nothing we learn delights me as much as the umm ali. An Arabic version of bread-and-butter pudding, this has been one of my favourite desserts since moving to the region, and the rendition we’re taught is the best I’ve had yet (and to think I made it myself!).
After nearly three sweaty hours in the kitchen, we sit down to eat. Between us, we’ve made enough for a feast – it’s a good thing we’re allowed to take the leftovers home.
Arabic cooking classes are held on Sundays from 3pm-6pm. Dhs450 per session (meal included). To book, call the Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management (04 315 5101)
• When cutting fresh herbs, don’t run your knife back and forth across them – this dilutes the flavour. Instead, roll up the herbs and make a single cut, then move your knife down the bundle.
• When zesting citrus, you should only rub the fruit twice over the zester. Any more than that and you’ll zest the bitter pith (that’s the white stuff).
• Fresh vanilla beats extract. To cook with vanilla, slice the pod down the middle (it should be soft and pliant), and scrape the inside with a knife. Use the inside.