Thursday, January 26, 2012

Recipes from Bahrain

This week we're headed to another island nation, but this time it's not in the Caribbean, which is good, because as you know I really need a break from all the coconut. The nation we're visiting this week is Bahrain, which is a small island state in the Persian Gulf.

The big white area is the Persian Gulf.

The nation of Bahrain includes 33 different islands, the largest of which bears the same name as the country itself. The total number of people living in Bahrain is somewhere in the region of 1,200,000, which population-wise makes it roughly the size of Dallas, Texas. I'm sure it won't surprise you to hear that Bahrain is known for its oil production, which puts it squarely into the stereotype most Americans have for the Persian Gulf. Before it had an oil based economy, though, it was known for its pearl industry. The waters near Bahrain are (or once were?) full of oysters bearing natural pearls, which were considered by many to be some of the best and the world and were traditionally collected by "breath-hold" divers.

Because Bahrain is a small nation, there isn't exactly a plethora of websites out there devoted to Bahraini cuisine. I'm sure Bahrain, like all countries, has a long and rich culinary tradition but I'll be damned if I could find anything written about it. Pretty much everyone who mentions classic Bahraini cuisine presents just one recipe: machbous al djaj (spiced chicken with rice).

Machbous ala Djaj with Khubz

Here are the ingredients:
(from The Internet Nations)
  • 2 large onions, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons ghee or butter
  • 1 tablespoon baharat
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 3 or 4 lb chicken
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped tomatoes
  • 3 cloves
  • 1 strip lemon rind
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 6 cardamom pods
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 1/2 cups water
  • 2 cups basmati rice
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
  • 2 tbsp chopped parsley
 So that's what I made, because I was quite frankly tired of looking around for other options. There are a scant few of them out there, but I figured there had to be a pretty good reason why machbous was coming out on top as the Bahraini favorite.

A quick ingredient note: I got baharat, a spice mix, from for about five bucks. I elected not to try making it because the first recipe I found called for "cassia bark," and you know, huh? So I decided I'd really rather just buy the stuff ready made, rather than try to track down some cassia bark, thus adding another level of complication more than I would have if I just ordered the baharat. Of course when the baharat arrived there was no mention on the label of any "cassia bark," and I've since seen several recipes that don't call for it so I guess I wasted some money in order to save myself the 10 minutes I would have spent just making the stuff myself. So if you'd like to make it instead of buy it, you can get a cassia-free version from my good friends at

Here's the baharat I bought on for five bucks. Whatta sucka I am.

For my next recipe, I found a mention on Wikipedia of a pita bread eaten in Bahrain known as "khubz." After digging pretty deeply I found a recipe for it (from The Rhubarb Fool):

  • 2 1/2 tsp dry active yeast
  • 1 1/4 cup lukewarm water
  • A pinch of sugar
  • 3 3/4 cup bread flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
It's actually very, very similar to the recipe I use for naan bread (which like the recipe I did for Azerbaijani Tendir Choreyi falls just that little bit short of being authentic because it isn't cooked in a clay oven).

I almost stopped there (I've got Henry's second birthday party coming up so I figured I could use a little bit of a break), but then I found a recipe for Bahraini-style baba ghanoush, which is also popular in Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey (from Recipes Wiki):

  • 1 large eggplant
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 tbsp sesame tahini
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup yogurt
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 5 kalamata olives
It looked pretty simple, so I figured I'd throw it together in the afternoon and devote the evening to the other two dishes.

In Bahrain, baba ghanoush is usually eaten as a dip with sliced kuhbz (in Egypt they eat it as a salad or a side dish). To make it, just take a large eggplant and put it on a baking sheet, then stick it in a 400 degree oven for about an hour (I turned mine over about 30 minutes through, but the recipe didn't say that was something you needed to do). When the hour is up, take the eggplant out and let it cool, then remove the skin and the green top and put the soft insides into a blender.

After an hour in the oven the skin comes right off.

Add the rest of the ingredients and pulse until smooth. Garnish with the kalamata olives. That's it! Easy-peasy.

Baba ghanoush. Yes, I forgot the olives, which was annoying because kalamata olives cost like $5.99 a jar.

The khubz is pretty easy too, until you get the part where you have to put it in the oven. As always, I'm going to give you the manual instructions, even though I just put mine into my bread machine.

Dissolve the yeast and the sugar in about a half cup of the lukewarm water. Let stand until frothy.

Sift the flour together with the salt and add the yeast mixture. Knead by hand until the dough is soft, adding water as necessary. Add the oil and keep kneading until the dough becomes elastic and is no longer sticky, which should take about 15 minutes.

Here's the dough as it appeared in my bread machine.

Now form the dough into a ball and rub all over with a little bit of olive oil, to prevent it from drying out. Cover with a damp cloth and let rise in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

Punch down and knead for another five minutes or so. Now break the dough into tennis-ball sized portions. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and roll flat, until each ball is about a quarter inch thick. Dust with flour and transfer to a lightly floured surface, leaving a few inches between each one to allow for rising. Let rise for another 30 to 60 minutes.

About halfway through the second rise.

Now for the tricky bit:

Oil two large baking sheets. Preheat your oven to 500 degrees. About 10 minutes into the preheating, put the sheets in the oven. Leave them there for another 10 minutes.

Now open your oven and quickly transfer the dough balls onto the baking sheets. Close the oven and go press the "hush" button on your smoke alarms.

Bake for 6 to 10 minutes. When the breads are lightly browned, take them out. Now go hush your smoke alarms again. Let the bread cool.

If you did this right, each bread should be puffy with a little pouch inside. I did not do it right, apparently, since mine came out light and airy inside but with no pouch. Still pretty danged tasty though and went well with the baba ghanoush.

No pockets but still tasted very good.

Now on to the machbous. Start by melting the ghee (you can also use butter, ghee is just a clarified version) in a saucepan and frying the onions until they are transparent and beginning to turn brown. Add the baharat and turmeric and stir for another two minutes or so.

Saute some onions. Ho, hum.

 Now add the chicken pieces to the pot and turn to coat. Cook over a medium heat until the pieces are lightly browned on all sides.

This is where it all starts to smell really good ...

Then add the tomatoes, cloves, lemon rind, cinnamon, cardamom pods and salt. Stir to get everything well incorporated, then add the water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cover. Simmer for about 45 minutes.

Add the water and simmer for about 45 minutes.

Wash the rice in cold water and drain (this helps remove the starch and makes for a fluffier finished product). Add the rice, cilantro and parsley to the pot and bring back to a simmer. (You can also wait until just before serving to add the cilantro and parsley, which is what I did. 'Cause you know, I like my herbs to taste fresh. Or maybe it was because I forgot to put them in until just before serving).

Keep cooking for another 35 to 40 minutes, until chicken is tender and almost all of the liquid has been absorbed. Remove from the heat and let rest for 10 minutes.

Now, my kids don't like rice because they were spliced with alien genes in utero or something. So although I thought the rice was the best part of this meal, their plates all still had rice on them when everyone left the table. The chicken did go down pretty well, though I thought the white meat was way too dry. But I find that to be the problem whenever I try to stew white meat--even white meat that is swimming in liquid always seems to come out dry unless it's removed at the precise moment it reaches 165 degrees.

We liked the bread, too, even though it wasn't the pocket-pita it was supposed to be. I thought it tasted great with the baba ghanoush, which was really very similar to hummus (with eggplant instead of chickpeas) but of course my kids wouldn't go near that wierd brownish gray substance I put in a bowl on the table. Poor Martin didn't think much of the baba ghanoush, because I didn't give him any, because I'd forgotten all about it by the time he got home from his late night at work. Oh well.

Next week: Bangladesh

For printable versions of this week's recipes:


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Thank you so much for posting this!!!! My husband and I are being deployed to the Middle East next month, and I'm gearing up by learning some local recipes. This was fun and easy to make, and my house smells like a Middle Eastern spice market :)

  3. You're welcome! You definitely won't have any trouble finding good food there. Good luck in your travels!


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