This article appeared in the National Day special edition of the Weekender Weekly.
All pictures by Sushil Sasheendran
Bahrain has a rich culinary culture that borrows heavily from the migrants from all over the world who travelled and eventually made this beautiful island-country their home. Over the years, Bahraini cuisine adapted and evolved and formed its own unique identity among all other Arab cuisines. The Bahraini cuisine today is influenced by all the cultures such as Indian, Persian, Sri Lankan, and Palestinian to name a few. In the course of my culinary adventures, it dawned pretty soon that it was only in Bahrain that the aroma of Indian food merges seamlessly with the waft of Mediterranean cooking methods interspersed with Arabic ingredients making it a heady concoction and a true foodie’s delight. From simple aromatic cuisine and local markets to snazzy restaurants and sizzling grills, Bahrain pleases and teases with the variety of food it has to offer. On the glorious occasion of National Day, it is only fitting to talk about all the popular and traditional Bahraini dishes to give it the attention it deserves.
It was quite easy to put this list together with the help some Bahraini friends and bloggers. These dishes are national favourites and the places where you can find them, even more so.
Sharbat Zaffran ( Saffron) We start with a refreshing drink that promises to quench thirst and has medicinal properties too. The color of sunset, this Sharbat ( cooler) is a must have on a hot day.Many restaurants in Bahrain serve this drink but Chai Café’s ( in Sanabis, opposite Bahrain Mall )never ceases to delight. You can have option of choosing the Saffron drink with either rose water or palm water and both of them are equally fantastic.
Balaleet – Breakfast is the most important meal in all cultures around the world and Bahrain is no exception. Balaleet is a unqiue Bahraini dish that combines a sweet and savory flavours together in one dish. Sweet and cardamom flavoured vermicelli noodles are topped with an omelet making it a complete meal.It can take a little getting used to but once you develop a taste for it, you will love it. Children particularly enjoy Balaleet for breakfast because of the sweet noodles. You can order Balaleet at plenty of places around Bahrain but the most satisfying one that I found is at Chai Café.
Liver with Khoboos & Mehyawa – Bahraini cuisine is marked by strong and bold flavours and enjoy eating liver for breakfast with fresh –out-of-the –oven Khoboos ( Arabic bread) in the morning for breakfast. The best liver dish that a lot locals rave about can be found at Haji Gahwa- a tiny whole –in-the-wall place in the heart of Manama. Do not miss out on their home made Mehyawa ( dried fish sauce), cheese and labneh. It is simply out of this world!
Bahraini Breakfast Platter – if these single Bahraini breakfast dishes aren’t enough to whet your appetite, you can try the Bahraini breakfast platter from Saffron by Jena. For an authentic experience try the outlet in Muharraq. The breakfast items are available in a set menu fashion and offer fried potatoes, different kind of Arabic breads, Balaleet, fava beans ( mashed), red kidney beans, Tahina dip, dates and so on. It is a gargantuan meal and you might feel the necessity to skip lunch after a breakfast meal at Saffron by Jena.
Fish Machboos – Lunch for most Bahrainis is about enjoying a hearty plate of rice and fish or meat. Machboos is the National dish of Bahrain that is made at home and at restaurants at near-same frequency. With the sea serving up the freshest catch each day, the fish Machboos is what you must try. Machboos uses a unique blend of spices such as black lemon, saffron, black pepper, cardamom which makes it a dish that fills up your senses as it does your tummy. The best Fish Machboos is town is to be found at Tabreez in Adhari. This is an absolute favourite among locals as it is among Saudi nationals who frequent the restaurant to enjoy the Bahraini style fish preparations.
Saafi & Rice – Meal as simple as plain rice served with fish is what life is all about. Saafi fish is brought fresh from the sea, dried in the sun and salted and served atop plain rice. Tabreez restaurant offers the best Safi and rice that locals promise is finger licking good.
Sambusa– This mouth- watering snack is perfect for any occasion and Bahrainis cannot think of a gathering without Sambusa. Stuffings for sambusa vary from meat, chicken, vegetable and cheese. Deep fried and serve piping hot, Sambusa can really turn a day around . The best Sambusas can be found at Abdul Kader in Manama opposite American Mission Hospital where they start serving them hot from 5 am onward and are always busy.
Bahraini grills – Meat grills , kebabs are big part of the Arab food tradition. Bahrain has a grill shop every half a kilometer serving different types of grills like Turkish, Persian etc. However, the authentic Bahraini style grills are available at Tikka Abul in Exhibition road. Smaller in size, marinated in Bahaini spices, these flavourful grills are extremely popular among the locals. They are always crowded and visitors from neighbouring GCC countries flock their window for their share of what may probably be the only authentic Bahraini grill place in Bahrain.
Sulaimani – Where there’s tea, there’s hope! Tea is a ritual across cultures that people take very seriously. Bahrain is no different when it comes to matters of their favourite hot beverage. Off late, Chai Karak has taken prominence but not many know that Chai Karak finds it origins in Qatar and not Bahrain. However, the good-old Sulaimani has evolved over centuries from the Indian style of tea preparation. Sulaimani uses no milk and is usually strong. Many local joints offer Sulaimani but none as fantastic as Haji Gahwa. Try their Sulaimani and feel the day turn better.
Halwa –Festivals, family gatherings, trips to relatives, corporate gifts aren’t complete without the traditional Halwa. Prepared in large cauldrons in the narrow streets of Manama and Muharaq find their roots in Zanzibar, located in Tanzania. Omanis, who have always maintained close commercial ties with Zanzibar, were the first to introduce this delicious Middle Eastern sweet in the Gulf countries. This dessert found its way into Bahrain probably 150 years ago. Halwa Shwaiter and Halwa Murooj Al Muharaq are the shops to visit if you want to have the authentic taste of Bahraini Halwa made with corn starch, sugar, nuts and spices.
In my six years of living on this island and observing the local food traditions closely, one trait stands out. Bahrainis are food lovers and love to try out different places. They do not care about how small the joint or restaurant might be but if they hear about the food being good, you are sure to find BMWs, Porsches and grand cars like that parked outside these humble joints. During the National Day holidays, when you are out and about with your families and friends and feeling adventurous, head to any of these local joints and be sure to try some of the recommendations.