Saturday, February 27, 2010

An Arabic Dinner

We had such a treat last night: a cooking demonstration and traditional Saudi Arabian meal, right here at the schoolhouse.


Nora (an approximation, I think!) and her daughter Sarah did the cooking, while Aziz, the twenty-something son, translated. Aziz does not know how to cook, and his mother and sister don't speak any English, so we did a lot of guessing. Actually I was surprised at how universal the physical language of cooking is, and how useful for communicating! Most of the time I could guess what Nora needed before Aziz could get the term out of his not-so-useful translating gadget.


The centerpiece of the meal was an elaborate rice platter. First Nora put an enormous quantity of jasmine rice aside to soak. Then she put two Cornish game hens in a pot to make broth, with Arabic spices, lots of cardamom and cloves, garlic, and onion, and the cutest two whole dried lemons. In a separate skillet she sauteed onion with chili powder, a seven-spice blend in Arabic packaging, and a pinch of saffron she brought along in a little fold of tin foil. It was a deep burnished brick color when she finished.

Also for the rice platter, she sauteed pine nuts in olive oil until they were rich and dark, and at the same time had a pot of broken-up spaghetti on the boil. When it was cooked, she drained it and tossed it with some of the saffron onions.

Then she took the hens out of the broth, put the rice in the broth in an enormous pot to cook, doused the chickens with the saffron onions, and put them in a hot oven to brown. Whew! At this point we had a lot of dirty dishes!


Meanwhile, she started on the salad. Everything she used she chopped into the tiniest, most delicate shreds, using my shamefully dull paring knife. A head of iceberg lettuce, a bunch of green onions, red, yellow, and green bell peppers, canned corn, black olives, and two whole bunches of cilantro, and several cucumbers. It all went into a big bowl, ready to be doused with the most surprising salad dressing. When I described it to Giles, he said, "Wow, that doesn't sound good for you!" Nora mixed mayonnaise, ranch dressing, and--get this!--salsa con queso from the chip and dip aisle at the store! So unlikely sounding, but really good!

And on the top, a big tomato cut into a flower shape.

Now, back to the rice and chicken assembly. When all the components were ready, we hunted out the biggest platter I own, that only comes out for the Thanksgiving turkey. It was just right for the enormous quantity of rice that was spread out evenly on it. Then came a layer of saffron onions. Then the two game hens were nestled down in vertically, and in their cute little empty cavities Nora stuffed the cooked pasta! It flopped out so festively! Then the pine nuts were sprinkled over all, and the platter was garnished with slices of tomato and green bell pepper.


All of this was carried in state to the table, which had been set by the girls. We admired the food, and Nora told us in Arabic that "the eyes eat before the stomach." I love that!


She and Sarah and Aziz very graciously served up all the plates, and I was so impressed that Aziz could carve two Cornish game hens for fourteen people. It was just right. They encouraged us to mix the salad and the rice dish together, and Aziz tried to get us to eat with our hands, like him, but I noticed that both Sarah and Nora were using their forks!


After we ate Aziz served the men, and Sarah served the girls, tiny cups of "Arabic coffee". This was our second hot drink of the night and Aziz was driving me crazy with his inability to tell us what we were having. The translator said *java* which was really not helpful. I'm sure our after-dinner cup was ginger with lots of sugar and some cinnamon. The first one was creamier and almost orange with lots of floral and spicy notes . . . I'll probably never know, but it sure wasn't java!


Such an enjoyable evening! Nora has a twinkling, friendly, quiet presence and showed off her fancy party clothes under her covering coat when all the men were outside.

A culture so different from ours, but cooking and eating together, and good times in in the kitchen and around the table, are truly universal.

36 comments:

Christine said...

Who, What When Where and WHY?
Got the who.
Got the what.
Got the when.
Got the where.
Didn't get the WHY!
Looked like so much fun and delicious.

Anna said...

Just for fun! Aziz and Sarah are students at the local university and their mother was visiting and wanted to share some of her culture, just because! Their ESL teacher is one of our close friends, so we met here in the big kitchen.

Elizabeth said...

sounds so fun! and completely delicious.

Rose said...

What brilliant fun! I was going to ask if this was part of Clara's food course but I see there was a different reason. Best wishes as always, I haven't commented for a while but enjoy your blog as much as ever, Anna. Regards, Rose

Mrs.Rabe said...

That looks like a lot of fun and the food looks really good! That is saying something for me since I am not the 'adventurous eater' my husband is!

Garnet said...

It does sound like fun! And it looks super yummy!

Quick question, though: Is it okay to show the first picture, where Nora and Sarah are cooking with their scarves off? Just because anyone could see it, men, women, goats, anyone!

Garnet

Sarah said...

Oh what an incredible evening! I have often wanted to learn cooking from another culture like this but so far have not been brave enough to suggest it! It is such a good way to embrace people who may be struggling in a new country. Thanks for the inspiration, Sarah in New Zealand.

Talia said...

This was so fun to read. When I was in college a Saudi student and I became friends. She taught me to make a sort of Saudi stir fry thing with sauteed potatoes, pepper, chicken broth, tomatoes, garlic, tomato paste, and jasmine rice. I felt the same way....two women cooking and trying to communicate but understanding what was happening on the stove before she spoke....I see why Christ shares meals with people and how easy "community" happens when you do things like "be" and live life "eat" together.

Bethany Hudson said...

Thank you for sharing! I love Middle Eastern cuisine, but I've never had it cooked for me by a native in my own home! What an incredible treat.

Lucille said...

What an amazing event for you to host. It gives me the opportunity to ask something that has puzzled me for years. I once got a handbook with an appliance that told me how to cook Cornish Game hens and I had not the foggiest idea what they were. Is it just an older boiling fowl? Why Cornish? Why game? Can you shed any light on this? Brilliant word verification' dinsup'. Perhaps children in the US don't refer to 'din dins' or 'supper' so it might not tickle you.

Lucille said...

And excuse me for hogging the space, but the next w.v is 'scoura' which is what we use for washing pots and pans with. You must have needed a few of those.

JMS said...

What a fantastic opportunity to share your cultures. We need to see more of this type of harmony in the world. What a wonderful memory for both families.

Julie in Australia

Very Verdant said...

Really enjoyed this post.

Kate said...

Wish I was there for that! In recent years my husband and I have developed and taste and love for middle eastern cuisine. We are getting more Muslims and Hindus in the area so the grocery stores are starting to accommodate them more with wider ethnic selections. One local grocery store chain in particular is run by a Jewish family, so they have a lot of Jewish and Kosher items.

Polly said...

Everything sounds and looks utterly delicious--maybe even the strange dressing! So fun to merge cultures, even with language barriers.

mommyoffaith19 said...

Looks like a wonderful meal

www.mommyoffaith19.blogspot.com

Lisateresa said...

Lucille, the game hens aren't older fowl - they're only 1 to 2 pounds each. If you Google it, you'll find more info.

That food looks so delicious!!

Anonymous said...

I think most of the world could be at peace if we would all just sit down and share a meal.

Katie said...

What a treat!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a busy day Anna!!
Were there any leftovers? *wink*

Christine

Dawn said...

Anna-
I'm curious if you or G took the photo peering down over Sarah and Nora cooking? I love this, was the person taking the picture standing on a chair? It's gorgeous photography. Your kitchen looks so vibrant and inviting! Have a blessed day!

Your Friend in Christ,
Dawn

Val said...

Looks wonderful! We have some wonderful Middle Eastern restaurants here in Michigan. The largest Middle Eastern population in America lives just outside of Detroit, in the Dearborn area. We try to make it down there at least once or twice a year for the good food!

Shellie said...

Anna,

Love the pics and the idea of sharing a meal.
I do have one point to make however. Seeing Nora covered in the later pictures suggests that as a muslim woman, she would not be comfortable with the inclusion of the picture of her uncovered in the first picture. It's ok for women not wear a scarf in the presence of other women and family members or in photos that will only be shared among other women or family members. Since the blog is open to anyone to view, I doubt very much that she would want that particular photo included.

samcarter said...

Now I really want to make that salad.

Anna said...

She didn't cover except at the table, and there were strange men present all evening, and her daughter doesn't cover at all, and I checked with my "cultural liaison" and got the all-clear, but I appreciate yall's sensitivity to the issue.

I forgot an ingredient in that salad dressing-- a big proportion of it was plain yogurt--maybe half.

A.D. said...

Sounds delicious and so fun! Several years ago I went to a Christmas party. An Iranian family was there and they brought the most delicious rice dish. Not exactly like this, but similar. After lots of research online, I believe it was something called "Chelau". It had tiny bits of chicken, vegetables, nuts (probably pine nuts), and a little dry berry thing. Soooo good!
I've tried making it from recipes online, but it's never quite the same as what we had at the party. It takes piles of pots and lots of time to make.

Anonymous said...

Isn't "yall" such a wonderful word? Up here in Freezingland we feel unnatural using it, but it would so very handy.

Saminda said...

What a wonderful experience Anna!! Thank you for sharing all those delicious photos. :)

Blanca said...

Looks good! I had the opportunity to try Lebanese food once, and till this day it is one of my fave cuisines! Love middle-eastern food!

Martha A. said...

What an amazing feast! Thanks for sharing with us! I am amazed too she used 2 cornish hens to feed 14 people. I think we americans are spoiled in the amount of meat we eat!

Kimmie said...

How fun...so nice to have a nice big kitchen to share.

Was this the longest post ever? I am thinking YES ;-) I loved it...I always love more of you Anna.

Hey, we passed court! I am an official mother of 8! Praise God, praise God.

Thank you dear friend for all of your love, support and prayers...you made this road a blessing. I am so thankful for you and for your love.

xoxo
Kimmie
mama to 8
one homemade and 6 1/2 adopted (lol)

we leave in 5 weeks!!

Mrs. U said...

What FUN!!! I love learning about different cultures and if you can go visit another country, at least we can bring different foods into out homes! What FUN!! And thank you for sharing it with us!

His,
Mrs. U

Caroline said...

Oh wow, that looks like it was such a treat for all.
...and now I'm hungry. :)

cyn said...

What a lovely experience for you. We have been blessed to share many meals with our Arabic friends ( we are Australians living in the Middle East). The work and love that goes into each meal is amazing!

Emily said...

Just belatedly reading this. Anna, I have a Lebanese friend who adds orange-blossom water to almost everything, and I think that may be what you were tasting in the coffee. It really does have a heavenly scent: a little fruity, a little flowery. If you don't have an Arabic market nearby, I'd be glad to send you a bottle!

appledapple said...

I come back to this post over and over again. I'm still trying to create this meal, 4 times now and this last time I think I finally got it where I like it!

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