Meal 90: Kuwait

When I asked my parents if we could host the Kuwait nosh at their house while visiting over Thanksgiving, I had no idea that their new neighbor across the street, Amira, had grown up in Kuwait! The happy coincidence made planning and cooking this meal a dream, especially because Amira's father Al, now living in northern Wisconsin, was more than happy to dictate his family recipe for a chicken-and-rice dish with a great deal of precise advice.

Amira taught me a fascinating perspective on recipes: in Kuwaiti cuisine, what defines a dish isn't so much what kind of meat or vegetable is used, but rather the blend of spices. Hence, a machboos could be chicken, or lamb, or something else, but if the spices are about the same, then it's all under the same name. And if we were going super-authentic, we'd all be eating cross-legged on the floor with our hands, but that didn't quite feel comfortable with over a dozen people two days after Thanksgiving, so we stuck to a table.

This may look like a small menu, with only two dishes plus dessert, but trust me that there was plenty of variety to be had. The machboos is essentially three dishes in one, and we also had an assortment of pickles and olives on the table, plus copious lemons and parsley to freshen up each dish at will.

It was a full house at my parents' place: Chris, my Aunt Jody, Uncle Guy, Amira and her husband Grant, Chris, Terry, Albert, Karen (another neighbor!) and Betty (who wrote a story on us in 2013); my cousin Bryan and his wife Shilpi joined soon after Laura snapped the photo.

Vimto | Berry-flavored drink

Alcohol is completely illegal in Kuwait; not even foreigners can bring it in or enjoy it at a hotel bar as in Dubai. One favorite beverage in Kuwait and several other Arab countries is this cordial from a British company. I thought it tasted one step above cough syrup, but many around the table took more than just polite sips, particularly appreciating the dash of rosewater. Although most of us were enjoying wine with our meal, Amira stuck with Vimto, declaring that even though she has a drink now and then, it just felt too strange to have alcohol with Kuwaiti food!

Laban | Yogurt drink

Another, more traditional, beverage is kefir or yogurt mixed with an equal amount of seltzer, plus a pinch of salt. From Turkey to Afghanistan, this is a very popular and healthy beverage in a hot part of the world. While yogurt has finally cemented its position in the American kitchen, it rarely makes it into our beverages. I happen to love it (particularly with the slight improvement of a crumble of dried mint), but this pitcher just didn't get passed around as much.

Machboos | Chicken with spiced tomato sauce and split peas over rice | Recipe at end of post

I've never done so much to chicken in one dish: you first boil it, then sear it, then braise it, then finally bake it. All this work is to lend flavor to the rice and the sauce, and also serves to make the meat simply fall off the bone by the end. None of the individual steps in this dish is particularly difficult, but the combination, especially when tripling as we did, makes for a whole lot of chopping, stirring, and monitoring. Making the spice blend from scratch also added to the effort.

The peas also took more attention than expected, particularly because it took them longer to soften up than expected when simmering with the raisins and onion. It was worth it, 'cause they ended up tasting so nice! I'd never considered that split peas could marry well with sweet, but it sure did, and that gentle sweetness was a good contrast to the thoroughly meaty chicken.

If you've got a few hours for a weekend cooking project, the effort will pay off. Even an hour before dinner, the enchanting smells of freshly ground spices, earthy chicken, and tangy tomato got us all really hungry. And the final result, of cinnamon-encrusted chicken on top of all that rice and sauce, was just fantastic. The split peas, with that improbable studding of raisins, also exceeded expectations — just a great dish overall, and easy to see why Amira's family cooks it time and again.

Zubaidi | Stuffed fish over rice | Recipe

What with so many people coming over, and knowing that Kuwait has a long and storied maritime history, I wanted to try out a fish dish. As with many meals from far-off countries, I had to substitute the fish, as silver pomfret is a few oceans away from the West Coast, and went with snapper. The dish came out okay, with some of the haunting tang of the dried lime playing off the sweetish white flesh, but it just couldn't hold a candle to the fantastic chicken. It felt to me like the ham on the Thanksgiving table: it has to know from the start that it's just playing second fiddle to the turkey.

Gers ogely | Cardamom saffron sponge cake | Recipe

While Amira suggested we cook lugaimat, a seasoned doughnut rolled in honey, I passed because of the "don't deep-fry in other people's kitchens" rule we codified early on in the project. It was probably a kind gesture to our full stomachs to give them something lighter, in the form of this fragrant sponge cake. With bold but not overpowering spices, a little went a long way: a single cake fed the whole crowd. Which is good, because Mom's first attempt at making a double batch failed. Turns out some recipes simply can't be scaled, such as those leveraging the complex and delicate physics required to make a sponge cake.

We ate the cake with sweet, strong black tea with cardamom, in classic Kuwaiti style. Unfortunately, being unused to a late-night caffeine jolt, many of us stayed awake into the wee hours! The occupational hazards of experiencing other cultures!

Thanks again to Amira and Al for all the help, and to everyone who came and gave generously to our new non-profit cause, Mercy Corps!


Recipe for Machboos from Al, Amira's dad

Serves four, but if you're going through all this effort, consider doubling it and inviting friends over or freezing it.

Basmati rice, according to how hungry your crowd will be (maybe 1/2 cup per person) 1 chicken, cut in half, or in pieces; or four leg quarters A few cloves Vegetable oil 2 onions, chopped 2 cloves of garlic, minced Small can of tomato paste Arab spice blend: look for “bezar” or “chicken spices” at an Arab market, or make the fantastic blend from this recipe (and use the leftovers for barbecuing) 1/2 pound yellow split peas 1/2 cup golden raisins Ground cinnamon Pinch of saffron

Thoroughly wash the rice, then leave to soak as you prepare the rest of the dish.

Heat water, cloves and a pinch of salt in a pot to boiling, reduce the heat to medium, and cook the chicken just until the flesh turns white, maybe 5 or 10 minutes. Save the flavorful broth for cooking the rice. Note that some recipes call for adding other spices to the boiling water: cinnamon, cardamom, bay leaves, and whatnot.

Heat a skillet on medium heat. Sauté half the onion and garlic with vegetable oil until soft. Add the chicken, and nestle it in so as much flesh as possible is touching the pan, skin-side-down. Once the first side is seared, flip and sear the other side. Add the tomato paste, a generous dose of the spice blend, and enough water to let the chicken braise. Add some salt, too. Stir to break up the tomato paste into the water, and once things starts bubbling, turn down the heat. Cook until the chicken is soft and the sauce tastes amazing, maybe a half hour. Remove the chicken to a baking dish, which you can optionally line with foil for easier clean-up.

While the chicken’s simmering, get the split peas going. Cover them with water in a small pot, bring to a boil, and simmer until tender but not mushy. Drain and set the peas aside for a moment. In the same pot, sauté the remaining onion and garlic, plus the raisins, with oil until the onion is soft. Add the peas back in with a splash of water if it, add salt and your favorite seasonings (to keep it simple just use a pinch of cinnamon, or you could add allspice or whatever other spices strike your fancy). Simmer gently until it’s all nicely soft.

You can cook everything up to this point well in advance if that suits your schedule better.

45 minutes before you want to serve, start heating the oven to 350, Sprinkle a healthy dose of ground cinnamon all over the chicken on both sides, if it’s too hot use tongs to flip. Bake skin-side-up until the smell is unbearable.

About a half-hour before it’s time to serve, drain the rice and put it in a pot or a rice cooker. Add enough of the chicken-clove broth to cover the rice by the length from your fingertip to your first knuckle, somewhere between a half an inch and an inch. (Don’t throw out the remaining water just yet, you may need a splash at the end if you didn’t use enough water.) Crumble some saffron in your fingers and sprinkle it over the water. If using a rice cooker just set it going; if on the stovetop, bring the water to a boil, then reduce to a very low simmer and cover tightly for about 20 minutes. Fluff.

Serve on a large platter, with the rice in the center, the split peas on the edge, and the chicken and tomato sauce in the center. Whether to put the tomato sauce under or over the chicken is a matter of your aesthetics. (Ours was actually on the side to accommodate allergies.) Serve alongside abundant parsley and limes.