It is a busy lunchtime at Mushrif Mall, but the sound of one particularly animated conversation, complete with bursts of raucous laughter, floats above the usual hubbub of the food court. Four female friends – three Peruvians and a Colombian – all regulars at the Amazonas Venezuelan Kitchen (3rd Floor Food Court, Mushrif Mall, 02 448 4080), have gathered to say adios to a fifth. Mirnoska Scott, the only Venezuelan in the group, is about to return to home for a long vacation.
It is entirely appropriate that the women should gather around a table loaded with traditional Venezuelan dishes such as cachapas – sweet corn pancakes – and pastelitos – small sweet and savoury puff pastries – because this food, eaten in a foreign land, has helped them form sustaining friendships that cross barriers of age, nationality, and race.
For Alexandra Ibanez, eating recognisable comfort food from home is about more than just taste. “This is my first time away from Colombia,” explains Ibanez, “I grew up with this food, and I need it to be happy here.”
Scott points to a plate of tequenos – deep-fried pastry twists stuffed with queso blanco (white cheese) – “I cannot make these at home here. The flour and the cheese are not available.” Amazonas is the only source of authentic South American food they have discovered in Abu Dhabi and they feel lucky to have found such an important cultural and emotional link, not only with home, but with each other as well.
Unfortunately, the Peruvians around the table are not so lucky. “We are very proud of our food,” says Nataly Leslie, from Cuzco. “Sadly we cannot find it anywhere here.” She describes both the excitement and the disappointment of a recent visit to a Peruvian food festival in Dubai. “If I see Peruvian food I always eat it, but it doesn’t taste the same. I think they must have used different ingredients, or cooked it in a different way. The order in which you do things in Peruvian cooking is very important. It makes a big difference.” Leslie misses Peruvian cheeses most. “Whenever my mother comes to visit, I make sure she brings a whole bagful.”
The relationships between food, identity, and our sense of wellbeing are especially strong. Languages and customs are often lost between one immigrant generation and the next, but food and the rituals and identities that accompany it, are far more enduring.
“Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are,” said Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the eighteenth-century French epicure and gastronome who effectively invented modern food writing with his essay The Physiology of Taste. As the following food tales attest, what you eat is also a matter of who you are, where your heart is, and the efforts expats make to retain those vital culinary and emotional links with each other and with home.
CHINESE GROCERIES, FRESH VEGETABLES, AND TEA
Chinese City Grocery
Tourist Club, beside the Fortune Hotel Apartments, between Electra, Al Falah, and Salaam Streets (02 650 7998)
A team of electricians are still making the final additions to the Chinese City Grocery, a new Baqala-compliant store on a quiet backstreet in the heart of Tourist Club. The shop’s lighting and sign are still not finished, but the owner – a smiling Chinese woman with the adopted name Jenny – has found time to hang traditional good luck charms and red paper lanterns in the windows. They bring the mute storefront to life and provide the only clues to the cabinet of culinary curiosities that awaits customers inside. Packets of fresh lotus root (36Dhs/kg), 6ft lengths of gnarled black sugar cane (Dhs10/Kg), and arm-long yams all bewilder the eye, as do packets of dried jellyfish, goji berries, and black ‘cloud ear fungus’, a near tasteless mushroom that is nevertheless prized for its crunchy texture and medicinal properties.
The shop is Jenny’s third in the capital. She opened her first in 2004, a small Chinese tearoom in Khalidya, and the beverage continues to be an important part of her business. To keep them fresh, Jenny refrigerates delicate jasmine green tea flowers as well as bags of sought after Tie Guan Yin, or ‘Iron Goddess’ tea, from her native Fujian province (300Dhs/500g). Of the three specialist Chinese groceries on Abu Dhabi Island, the Chinese City Grocery has the widest range of ingredients and is the easiest to use, as shoppers dazzled by printed Mandarin will find Jenny a patient and very necessary guide.
SOUTH ASIAN FRUIT & VEGETABLES
Selected Vegetables & Fruits LLC
Madinat Zayed, behind Ma Wa Weel Restaurant, Al Falah Street , (02 634 4131)
The temperature drops as you cross the threshold of this tiny one-room shop and your nose fills with the unmistakably vital smell of fresh produce. One of Abu Dhabi’s best-kept secrets, Select has attracted a loyal following amongst Sri Lankan and South Asian expats from the time when the current owner’s father opened his first store in Mina Zayed. That was forty years ago. A second followed in Khalidya, but now this tiny shop in the Southeast corner of Madinat Zayed is the only outlet that remains.
Select carries a wide variety of dried groceries including peyawa, an ayurvedic herbal mix used as an infusion for the treatment of flus and fevers, but it is the deliveries of fresh vegetables, leaves, and fruits that draw customers from as far afield as Mussafah, Shahama, and Baniyas. These include Nidhi Jain, an office worker originally from Mumbai who has come to buy coriander, spinach, and fenugreek. “I come because of the freshness and the quality and I always find everything I need. This place caters to everyone.”
Popular ingredients include mukunuwenna, the most widely grown and consumed vegetable in Sri Lanka, katura murunga (edible white flowers and leaves from the agati tree, Sesbania grandiflora), and the kidney-shaped leaves of gotu kola. The leaves have both medicinal and culinary uses, but when mixed with grated coconut it becomes malluma, a popular Sri Lankan accompaniment to any number of curries and rice. Select’s fresh produce arrives each Wednesday – as do customers in their hundreds – and by Thursday afternoon, most of it has gone. Be quick.
Mussafah, near the Cambridge High School, E30/63rd Street, Sector ME9 (02 553 4842)
Asphalt may soon give way to sand on the outskirts of Mohammed bin Zayed City, but the interior of the Karat supermarket is a glacial expanse of immaculate white tile, tightly packed shelves, and enormous freezers. While the shop’s owner Kim Myeong Sin watches over the till, a team of friendly assistants clean, stack shelves, and answer questions, no mean feat in a store that attracts expat customers from all over East Asia.
Products like green rice cakes with wormwood, fermented cod gills, and sea urchin roe may capture the attention, but most customers come for the very basic ingredients that can help to make daily life in a foreign country more manageable. Karat’s best-sellers include popular Korean beverages such as Dongshu Five Grains Tea (15Dhs/144g), Maxim Mocha Gold instant coffee (65Dhs/1.2kg) and sikhye, a sweet drink made by pouring malt water onto cooked rice, the residue of which can still be seen at the bottom of each bottle (23Dhs/1.8lt).
The most valued ingredients however, are the bags of frozen seafood that fill Karat’s chest freezers and the large bags of Kyong Gi rice, stacked shoulder high wherever space allows. “Rice and soup are the basis of our cuisine,” explains Kinam Kim, an engineer who has come to Abu Dhabi from Seoul with his young family. “You cannot do anything without the right rice, and whenever we eat it, it reminds us of home.”
BESPOKE ITALIAN BREAD
APi CAE Gourmet
Khalidya, Block A Khalidya Tower, behind NBAD (02 666 8909)
APi CAE Gourmet is an Italian restaurant whose in-house bakery has established an international following amongst those who value their daily bread, especially Abu Dhabi’s French community. This may have something to do with the fact that APi CAE’s bakers only use French butter in their croissants and that all of their bread is made from scratch using flour imported from Italy as opposed to off-the-shelf flour mixes.
APi CAE can deliver nine varieties of fresh bread to your door on a daily basis ranging from plain white pane bianco and pane di Altamura – a mixed wheat and semolina sourdough – to baguette-style filoncino and Tirolese, a brown bread made with buckwheat flour. “Some of our bread can take a day to rise before it is baked. When you start from scratch and combine your own flour, you get a better taste and complexity of texture,” explains APi CAE Gourmet co-founder Gergana Konova.
APi CAE offers private baking lessons and will even make bespoke bread to customer’s own recipes, something they do on a daily basis for sixty patients with special dietary requirements who are registered with the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre. For Konova, the restaurant’s commitment to the community as much as to the quality ingredients that makes the difference, “I thought that Abu Dhabi needed food made by people who cared,” she explains proudly.
SOUTH AFRICAN SPICED MEAT
Mina Zayed, Shop 37, Butcher’s Market, 20th Street (02 6736 988) www.springbokbutchery.com
Operating from a tiny glass-fronted cubicle in Mina Zayed dominated by a central butcher’s block and a large industrial meat drying cabinet, the Springbok Butchery has managed over the past five years to develop, largely by word of mouth, a network of loyal customers that now extends from Abu Dhabi to Dubai and Al Ain.
The butchery sells fresh beef, lamb, chicken, and camel but its speciality is traditional South African dried and spiced meats such as biltong (marinated, spiced and dried meat), droewors (dried sausage), boerewors (spiced sausage), and sosatie, a type of kebab that is marinated and then skewered with capsicum ad other vegetables. All are prepared, marinated, and dried on the premises, as are the butchery’s infamous chilli bites – strips of spiced and cured silverside beef – a snack so popular that one customer buys 6kg for their personal consumption each week.
Given the repertoire, it should come as no surprise that a significant part of the butchery’s business is in supplying bar snacks to local hotels. The Springbok’s other speciality is that South African culinary institution the braai, a barbequed lamb spit roast, a perennial favourite for parties and special events.
The Springbok’s experienced South African butcher Neil Pommerel and Filipino brothers in meat Eric and Felix will happily take special orders – cheese sausages are not unusual – and can then deliver your order on request.
A version of this article originally appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi