Sharjah International Book Fair 29th Edition

My photo
Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
ExpoCenter 7th - 17th November, 2012. Hours | Saturday - Thursday: 10a.m. - 10p.m.; Friday: 4p.m - 10p.m.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Dining with Diplomats: Sharjah: The Cultural Pearl of the UAE

I had the good fortune of spending last week in the UAE. According to my Facebook messages, many people in the US and Europe don't know where that is, so please bear with me as I digress for a moment. UAE stands for United Arab Emirates, it is a small country in the Arabian Gulf - known for it's capital Abu Dhabi, and glitzy Dubai.

This was my second trip to the UAE this year. I attended the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair in March, and now had the chance to attend theSharjah International Book Fair. Prior to recieving my invitation, I had never heard of Sharjah (spelled shar-i qa in Arabic, but pronounced Sharjah by the locals). When I began looking for info online and in travel guides, the results weren't very exciting. Labeled a "dry" town since alcohol is prohibited within the city limits, many tourists avoid it like the plague for fear that it is a city full of religious fanatics -but it is not.

Sharjah is a city full of proud people who love their ancient culture, religion, and young nation. On any given day, there are over 140 different nationalities working together - and "cultural awareness" takes on a whole new meaning. Locals are used to working and living with foreigners.

Sharjah's vibe is young and energetic full of dreams and aspirations for tomorrow as its citizens work to carve out a niche for themselves. I can't help but think that this must be how it felt to be in the United States during its development.

When I arrived, I found these flowers awaiting me in the hotel room.
This was the view from the balcony of Sharjah overlooking the lagoon.

These two pictures were taken inside the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization.

We enjoyed a tour and a lovely dinner inside. Fellow cookbook authorSophie Grey is featured on my left.

My friend Chef Robert Arbor and I walked back to the hotel from the museum and found a myriad of Persian delights awaiting for us - everything from beautifully displayed nuts and spices (including crates full of bright red quality saffron) and restaurants. One of the guides who escorted me from the Ministry of Culture said that many Emirati families (like his) have Persian origins and that the close physical proximity to Iran makes it's spectacular cuisine popular in the way that Mexican food abounds in the Southwestern United States.

The people of Sharjah are completely clear on what it is, and what it isn't. It doesn't aspire to be as cosmopolitan as Dubai, or as powerful as Abu Dhabi. While it could settle on being a sleepy suburb offering close proximity and more convenience than Dubai - it has declared itself the UAE's cultural capital. Boasting numerous museums, universities, cultural centers, and a convention center with international exhibitions, Sharjah's vision is easy to understand.

These cookies are made to celebrate the UAE's 40th birthday on December 2nd. This national holiday is hugely popular - and people begin celebrating it a month early! They even have a special cologne called "December 2"! I love the combination of new construction and traditional dwellings - the juxtaposition of desert and water, the friendliness of the locals, the parks, and the ability to stroll on the streets in the evenings. One of the best places to witness this attitude is in Al Qasba, the new (but made to feel old) neighborhood below.

We ate dinner at the Shababeek (meaning "windows" in Arabic) restaurant which had a modern Arabesque vibe and featured delicious Lebanese appetizers, kabobs and rice for the main course. Dessert (featured above) consisted of creamy milk pudding with orange blossom petals and pistachios as a garnish and Kallaj which are a special kind of pastry that resembles a cross between phyllo dough and a crepe and filled with Qishta (homemade sweetened clotted cream).

The next day we got an early start to visit UAE's East coast. We passed Al Dhaid (an oasis town) and the Hajar Mountains. We also passed into the country of Oman which has been a long time dream of mine. At the border, there wasn't a remarkable difference between the two countries, other than their flags.

As with other Middle Eastern areas, many tribes shared bloodlines and land long before modern national borders were established, paving way for strong cultural, political, and culinary ties. As we drove inside Oman we noticed that the mosques were stark white (reminiscent of the Greek isles) with bright blue domes like the water. The gulf of Oman is beautiful and home to many types of seafood including shrimp, crab, eel, prawns, and hundreds of species of fish.

We got to visit Fort Nizwa - one of the most impressive of all the Omani forts which was destroyed and then rebuilt again.

Since November is National Diabetes Awareness Month in UAE, and there are unfortunatley many people struggling to achieve a healthy lifestyle, I was asked to give a lecture to the students at Sharjah Women's College.

They gave me this beautiful drawing of a man's hands playing a traditional wooden instrument.

Back at the fair, which was my main reason for going to UAE in the first place, I gave 3 different cooking demos, all focused on healthful Mediterranean Cuisine. Chef Majid (a local TV celebrity,author, and prominent chef) presented all of the guest chefs.

I demonstrated breads including Moroccan, focaccia, and fougasse on the first day. On the second day, my friend Chef Robert and I demonstrated the French and Italian ways of making chicken and vegetables. He made French style chicken and ratatouille while I made Italian style chicken and caponata. We discussed the similarities and common roots between French and Italian cooking styles.

Our colleague Sophie Grey demonstrated sweets from her bakery and Whoopie pies from her latest book...we had so much fun that we decided next year we would turn our duo into a trio!
Sophie's sweets are truly fantastic. After a long day in the sun and touring Oman, by the time we arrived back to Sharjah for our evening demos I was feeling hungry, tired, and faint. Luckily, Sophie made extras and I was quickly revived with the energy I needed to carry on with my own demo.

The next night we had dinner in the dessert. Here are two traditional teapots which were actually used to brew Arabian coffee. With it's light hue and cardamom aroma, many people mistake Arabian coffee for tea. In traditional Emirati culture, guests are greeted with coffee, dates, and incense steam. This is a different from other gulf cultures, such as Saudi, where the passing of the incense sensor usually denotes the end of the meal and is a signal for guests to leave.

A local dessert tribal dance video:

Traditional bread called Khubz Rukhal:

Below are some of the appetizers that awaited us during our desert dinner. Overall, it was a fantastic trip - one that combined professional responsibilities with the opportunity for new personal relationships and an enormous amount of culture. I can't wait to return!

No comments:

Post a Comment