by Rana Asfour
'Table Tales: The Global Nomad Cuisine of Abu Dhabi' by Hanan Sayed Worrell is designed for food and travel lovers everywhere. This unique book, published by Rizzoli New York, presents Abu Dhabi as a global crossroads of culinary experiences. Worrell weaves the words of over 40 individuals who share with her their stories and offer up the recipes that have shaped their life in Abu Dhabi. As such Worrell ends up with a culinary language that she uses as narrative to reveal to her readers the beloved city's dynamic culture, the place she has called home for over 25 years.
In 2003, I landed on the shores of Abu Dhabi and claimed the city as home for the second time in my life. Arriving from London, my then eleven-year-old and I had come to rejoin my husband who’d moved there just a year and a half before. It was the eve of the last day of Ramadan – Muslim’s annual month of fasting. Just as the sun was sinking into the horizon behind the landmark building of Al Dar Headquarters on Sheikh Zayed Road to our left, we navigated our way from the airport to take a right turn that would take us to our new home on Yas Island.
All around were signs that the city was in the throes of preparing for the commencement of next day’s Eid al-Fitr, the religious holiday that celebrates the end of a physically taxing month. With my passion for food, which really translates to ‘I love food’, our arrival at the start of a holiday famous for being an extravaganza of culinary delights was all the sign I needed that my stay was kicking off to the sweetest start.
When I look back, as I often do, I find that most of my fondest memories of that time are cemented around the meals I shared with family, friends, neighbours, visitors and co-workers. The UAE is a country host to 200 nationalities, so for a culinary adventurer like myself, it is only a brief time before one salivates at the limitless potential of dietary possibilities - the Abu Dhabi first year stone weight gain is not a myth!
As we relocate from one place to another following my husband’s job, there are two things that always see me through: books and food, two pleasures that C.S. Lewis found combine admirably. In the first I find the solace of companionship until new friendships materialise in the real world and with the second, I conjure up the warmth and safety that come from familiar scents and flavours that will magically transform a new dwelling into a treasured home. My introduction to Abu Dhabi society would come courtesy of both.
It was a fortunate encounter at a book launch – on food - that I met Susan, an American married to an Emirati who would by the end of the evening invite me to join the folds of her book club. It is through the bi-weekly meetings of the Tuesday Morning Book Club that my most precious friendships would be forged as we sat around a hostess’s crafted meals sharing my story and theirs, swapping tips on the wheres, the whos and how tos of my new city. And now, as I sit in my Virginia home, I find that it is a book, yet again, that bridges the distance and re-joins me with the friends I left in a city that only seven months ago I bid a teary farewell.
'To watch someone cook is to watch them live' - Hanan Sayed Worrell
‘Table Tales: The Global Nomad Cuisine’ by long time resident of Abu Dhabi Hanan Sayed Worrell, is that book. It is one that gives an unprecedented tour of Abu Dhabi’s fascinating culinary treasures through the recipes and personal stories that the writer has gathered from UAE locals and expatriates and presented in an engaging book that ‘narrates the story of a rapidly evolving city where the aromas, flavours and textures of its diverse influx of people has blended with the local food-ways to create a vibrant urban food culture of reinvention and collaboration, at home and on the streets’.
‘Table Tales’ is a celebration of the senses; from the vibrant photography – in local homes and restaurants - to the deeply intimate stories to the enticing recipes from Syria to Spain, India to Italy, Afghanistan to the Americas. In her introduction, Worrell describes ‘Table Tales’ as a book that captures ‘moments in time’, one that says ‘we were here, and this is what we ate, and this is who we became’.
For myself, reading through Worrell’s ‘Table Tales’ proved a delightful surprise. Unknown to me when I purchased the book that the stories would come from many of the people I knew intimately during my time in Abu Dhabi and who remain precious friends to this day. ‘Table Tales’ brought back the soothing aroma of Chai Karak (cardamom milk tea) that I would sip at Asma Siddiq Al Mutawaa’s sumptuously decorated, lavishly catered literary al-Multaqa salon set up during the Abu Dhabi Book Fair.
As soon as I read Lina Mikati’s recipe for a modified Muhammara made with flaxseed, I squeal with glee. It is a recipe I have coveted since it was served at her tastefully decorated home in Abu Dhabi when I attended the first of her literary salon gatherings. I was instantly in total awe of this full of life, poised woman who spoke her mind, commanded the room and who proved time and time again to be my soundest reference for all things nutrition. This is the same woman who tells Worrell about the time she stuffed raw cabbage leaves with a rice and meat concoction flavoured with ketchup and Parmesan, then secured them with toothpicks to hold their shape. Needless to say, that did not go down a treat with her husband or his guests.
My husband and I could never have pulled off hosting our Christmas gatherings without the wonderful catering of Lana Baramki, whose mother, Gisele, is a magnificent hostess in her own right and whose elegant, generous tables were ones I looked forward to gathering around on many an occasion. It is where I often shared my most intimate stories and had the most stimulating book discussions.
And on and on the memories flowed as page after page I was greeted with all the stories of the familiar faces and the dishes that once helped shape and create the scents of our Abu Dhabi home that thanks to Worrell I can re-create in our latest residence in the US: Emirati Hamam Mahshi bil Freek (Freekeh-stuffed squab), Luqamaat dumplings with Date Syrup, and Chicken Machboos, Syrian Poached Chicken with Walnut Sauce, Indian Spiced Chickpea Curry with Fried Bread, Egyptian Jute Leaf Soup, Portuguese Chilled Beetroot Soup with Yogurt and Spanish Paella. I could go on but suffice it to say the book is over three hundred and fifty pages long, and the stories come from forty individuals who offer up enough recipes to keep me busy for a very long while.
Worrell hits the nail on the head when she writes: ‘A hearty meal from your homeland may help cure sickness when you are first immersed in a foreign culture, but when you return home, you start missing the foreign dishes that were once exotic: many global nomads of Abu Dhabi know this feeling too well’.
'When you share food, suddenly, everyone becomes human, with the same desire for health, happiness and a satisfied belly' - Fatima Al Shamsi, UAE, as interviewed in 'Book Tales'
‘Table Tales’ is divided into sections – by decades - that on a deeper glance appear to compare the city’s evolving history as one would the makings of the perfect cup of Arabic coffee brew, a task that involves planning, precision and a steady grasp. Each chapter offers highlights of the events that spurred each decade forward along the country’s 40 plus years since its inception. The stories begin in the 60s when Sheikh Zayed al Nahyan assumed leadership of a country simmering above its vast oil reservoirs, that he mobilized into projects aimed at the expansion of his city. Worrell’s historical narration, the recipes she presents, and the stories of the men and women behind them, gently boil their way to the present, a time when Abu Dhabi’s international reputation now brews confidently and steadily among the world’s largest economies.
As Abu Dhabi welcomes in each new decade, it also ushers in a new wave of expatriates with new stories to tell of where they have come from and what anchors them to the city. Worrell does a marvelous intelligent job pairing the decades, the people, the stories with each other so that as the book progresses from beginning to end, the reader not only experiences the trajectory of evolution with regards a city’s history but also a progression of how far Abu Dhabi has come in the sophisticate culinary dishes and choices now available to the residents who refer to the city as home.
'Most [recipes] are not thirty-minute, throw-together efforts, but for the time spent creating these dishes, you will be rewarded with a depth of flavour that only 'the real thing' can offer' - Hanan Sayed Worrell
On her website, Worrell writes that ‘the expatriates who came to Abu Dhabi in the mid-twentieth century brought their recipes from home but often found themselves in a cooking experiment when they had to substitute original ingredients with what was locally available. For Emiratis, who welcomed the multicultural communities, native food and customs became infused with flavours and spices from around the globe. As the city grew, cooking and entertaining friends at home became an integral ritual in how people bonded with each other. The eccentric selection of recipes in Table Tales illustrates the diverse global nomad cuisine of the city and the universal nature of a dish served with generosity and love’.
Abu Dhabi is that place that does nothing by half measures. It is a place I have called home twice in one lifetime. It is a city, within a country, celebrated for ascribing to an ethos of greatness aiming well and truly above the standards of excellence – Hanan Sayed Worrell’s book is nothing short of the quintessential embodiment of that very same spirit. And, from now on when anyone asks me what living in Abu Dhabi was like, I'll know exactly what book will stand in for the best possible response.