South American cuisine is the hottest trending food worldwide, with its flavours and accents on the top menus of 2017. Within 24 hours of being in Bahrain, I’d been to two restaurants that specialise in them: Classy gourmet Mexican at Cantina Kahlo and laidback chic Cuban Fusion at Asia de Cuba.
You might say I was surprised and you’d be damn right. I always judge how traditional a city is by what its citizens have for breakfast. When I ask this question, mostly nowadays I get a raised eyebrow and “eggs and bread, just like everyone else”, in response. Not so in Bahrain. Even in Manama, its capital and biggest city, people still eat a traditional Arabic breakfast at home, and even at restaurants. “It’s usually balaleet (vermicelli mixed with sugar and eggs) or shakshuka (eggs poached in a tomato gravy),” says young Ayat Nasser, whom I met in Manama at Haji’s Cafe, one of the oldest and best for traditional Bahraini cuisine.
It was quite intriguing that this tiny island country has so much going on in terms of trendy world flavours and yet, even with a large expat population, manages to retain its traditional food culture.
Home is best
So what is traditional Bahraini food? In simple terms: any combination of rice and meat or fish. Rice is a must for lunch in Bahrain – if you are not having rice, you are not having lunch. I tried machboos, a traditional dish of fragrant rice (cooked in stock) topped with caramelised onions served with roasted chicken, eggplant and potatoes, at Haji’s Café. The chicken was so well cooked that it fell off the bone at the lightest prod. It was served with a saluna: gravy with beans and potatoes. Haji’s Café doesn’t have a menu, they just have a few dishes each for breakfast, lunch and dinner and you never return disappointed.
A popular food on the go is fried chicken liver with kuboos, the Arabic pita bread, often as a sandwich. Bahrain was a major trade centre, so its food has been influenced heavily by…