Week 13: Bahrain

One of the unexpected discoveries of cooking around the world has been learning just how many different ways there are to cook rice, far beyond the basic boil-then-simmer that a rice cooker does.

For example, parboiling, as I've learned, involves cooking it quickly in a rolling boil for a few minutes, until it's soft on the outside but still crunchy on the inside. Then you drain it, and then either put it in another dish or cook it on its own to finish. This Bahraini meal features basmati rice parboiled rice two ways: seasoned and put into a chicken dish, and boiled in caramelized sugar water.

This cuisine also involves a lot of stirring. Stirring whole spices as I toasted them in a pan on the grill outside to prevent the house from getting smoky. Stirring plain sugar until it melted into a caramelly goop. Stirring green coffee to lightly roast it. It's enough to make you stir crazy.

Three of our guests were from my college dorm: Sarah, Sebastian, and Jeff. Also there were Jeff's girlfriend Elly, and Sophie and Henry.

Sala6a | Salad | Recipe

Did you know there's a whole colloquial system for writing certain difficult-to-transliterate Arabic letters onto a Western keyboard? Check it out. The 6 is pronounced kind of like a T, but it's pharyngealized, so I think you should kinda swallow as you say it. Anyway, this was a nice light salad with a lime juice vinaigrette, featuring parsley and mint to freshen it up. Thanks to Sophie and Elly for getting the dressing just right.

Mechwi jader | Upside-down chicken-rice cake | Recipe

This was nice enough, but given all the time and spices that went into it including exotic things like dried limes, I expected more flavor. Also, it was supposed to kind of solidify into a cake, but even after Sebastian expertly inverted the contents of the pot onto a platter, it just kinda slumped. Maybe there was too much liquid? Anyway, it was not bad, and that parboiled basmati rice had a nice bite, but I feel like I kinda missed the magic.

Fried fish with bezar spices | Recipe for bezar

Remember how I found some other round-the-world cooking projects when looking up Andorran food? Well, I'd found lots of evidence that fried grouper is a big thing in Bahrain, but precious little guidance on how to do it, and that's what led me to Cooked Earth. This guy Mark is doing an awesome job, with amazing attention to detail and gorgeous photography. It's going to be hard not to just follow in his footsteps, but a) I want to learn by doing research for myself, and b) he's going at a slower and steadier (and better researched!) pace, so I'll probably pass him soon. He most recently did Benin.

So anyway, I took Mark's suggestion to use a bezar spice blend rub on fish. Couldn't find a decent and fairly priced whole fish resembling grouper in the neighborhood, so I hopped on my bike for Sunset Park, Brooklyn's answer to Chinatown. I ended up with snapper that was really fresh at a fair price, and expertly scaled. (Speaking of scaling: wow, getting to 8th Ave involves quite the hill! I'm still feeling that climb in my legs.)

The bezar, made of whole spices like cumin, fennel, coriander, cinnamon and more, was quite a hassle. It took nearly 45 minutes on the grill outside in the dark before it got toasty enough. Then the hard part began. It turns out that cinnamon sticks just will not be ground by a Cuisinart, which I learned the hard, noisy, and long way. In the end I cheated by pulling out the sticks and using pre-ground cinnamon. And I ended up with a quart of the stuff!

The result, however, was worth it. I slipped the spice-crusted fish into my big skillet with two cups of clarified butter and some added vegetable oil for good measure. It fried up super nice, about ten minutes on each side, making a luscious buttery-spicey crust. The bones were picked clean. That bezar, which has a bit of an acrid and sharp nose, turned so rich and flavorful once cooked.

Muhammar | Sweet rice | Recipe

Man, I would eat this dish a lot if it weren't such an involved process. First you wash and soak the rice, then it takes about a half hour just to melt the sugar (with a weird intermediate lumpy phase), and then you have to parboil the rice, drain it, and continue cooking it on low heat. But man, the caramelly color and flavor just make it amazing. Despite the two cups of sugar it's not too sweet (remember, you drain the sugar water), and it was an amazing balance to the richly spiced fish.

Qawha arabeya | Arabic coffee | Recipe (we omitted the sugar)

Coffee is the sign of hospitality in this region, so despite the dangers of Sunday night caffeine, we did it. Thanks to Sahadi's for the green coffee beans, which Sebastian roasted on the stovetop until they turned brown, and then Sarah and Elly smashed when it turned out the Cuisinart couldn't grind them. (Note to self: food processors don't grind stuff well. Get a grinder or a spice mill or something like that.) Blended with cardamom and a bit of saffron, it made a heady brew that was somewhere between coffee and chai: with the spices and the very light roast it was far from a classic coffee. I wish I could have enjoyed more without the fear of never falling asleep, 'cause this stuff gets you wired.

Khabeesah | Semolina cardamom pudding | Recipe

I just couldn't find any good description, let alone recipes, for "halwa showaiter," which is supposedly Bahrain's famous treat. But I figured that if khabeesah was good enough! I followed most of the modification recommendations on the linked recipe, except that replacing condensed milk with maple syrup just seemed quite out of place. This dessert turned out quite nice, not too sweet and nicely perfumed. A great accompaniment to that coffee.

We sent our guests home with some of that bezar spice mix, but not before press-ganging a few of the into helping us remove the air conditioner, a true admission of the changing seasons.

Next week we head across the Arabian Sea and over the Subcontinent to Bangladesh, yet another place on the sea with a British colonial legacy.