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Daily Gullet Staff

Comfort Me With Om Ali

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<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1155608114/gallery_29805_1195_10886.jpg" hspace="8" align="left">by Chris Amirault

Certain dishes (chicken tikka masala, hamburgers, sweet and sour pork) reveal more about the cultures within which they've flourished than they do about the cultures whence, supposedly, they've come. Food writer Claudia Roden, raised in Egypt, claims never to have heard of om ali until she moved to London, where the dish's popularity required that she include it in her New Book of Middle Eastern Food. It's quite a paradox: how can a dish represent with any authenticity a region and people that hardly know it exists?

The origins of om ali don't sort things out much, being the stuff of mystery, apocrypha or stupidity, take your pick. "Om ali" translates as "mother of Ali" in Arabic, leading many to link the dish to Ali ibn Abi Talib, an important caliph for both Sunni and Shi'a Muslims. Others think Ali was the name of the baker who invented it. A few folks hell-bent on unearthing culinary origins further northwest have identified an English nurse with a penchant for puddings and an Irish surname of O'Malley. (If you say it slowly, you'll get it.)

Most see om ali as an Egyptian dish, perhaps created to appease Turkish tastes during the Ottoman empire. This genesis, like so many, has the dish created out of necessity from "what was on hand": some wheat flake pastry softened with milk and mixed with sugar, a bit of dried coconut, fruits and nuts mixed in, perhaps a scrape of cinnamon or nutmeg on top. With parallels in every dairy-based cuisine, om ali is a comfort food, mother's milk made substantial and warm with sweet surprises tucked among the layers. For the cook, who can tweak proportions here and substitute ingredients there, om ali is as accepting and forgiving as a maternal embrace.

<div align="center">* * * * *</div

I stood surrounded by two dozen buckets of glistening olives in the Al Tamimi Safeway with my hands on my sides, wearing a long-sleeved white shirt, khaki pants and a vexed grimace. After half an hour of strolling the oddly familiar aisles, the fluorescent assurance of the massive supermarket had given way to glaring annoyance. I was there to build the menu and buy supplies for a dinner I was to cook for my friends, their family and more than a dozen additional guests, and damned if I could figure out what to make.

I wanted to make this meal to honor both the birth of Fawziah and Fahad's son, Saud, and the opening of their new home after years of planning and building. After a difficult week of work, I also wanted to spend my Thursday in a kitchen surrounded by food that I'd prepare, cook and serve, hoping to regain some sense of balance on a trip in a month that increasingly felt out of control. At the least, I wanted to begin the impossible task of reciprocating the kindness and support I’d experienced on previous trips.

It's a truism to state that Arab hospitality is without peer. The Bedouin tradition of providing shelter and sustenance for wanderers lost in the desert lives on in the dark, walled streets of Riyadh, where Saudis greet guests openly and without pretense, dropping everything to welcome strangers into their homes. Standing outside the entrance to a home as the evening cooled to night, I’d eagerly await the opened door and smiling embrace that transformed me from an ignorant newcomer to a welcomed familiar, often among men and women, adults and children, whom I was meeting for the first time. And, once inside, there was always food -- lots and lots of food.

Dinner at a Saudi home has a rhythm that manifests Arab appreciation for camaraderie over all. Take "dinner time." Saudis believed that the "start" of an evening was marked not by an announced time but rather by the final guests' arrival, which might come as late as 11 pm. In addition, Saudi meals are preceded by an extensive, multi-hour gathering devoted to conversation. One can eat enough nuts, vegetable crudités, cheeses, olives and dates to go home sated, but the finger food is served to fuel conviviality, not to fill bellies.

Drinks serve the same purpose. At all formal dinners and some casual affairs, hosts serve Saudi coffee, made from roughly ground green coffee beans and cardamom pods. Saudi coffee is always offered with rich, dark dates, to offset the intense and unsweetened brew's jolt. Another common drink is "Saudi champagne," a bracing and slightly sweet beverage made of sparkling apple cider, a slice of lemon or orange and a handful of fresh mint. Strict Muslim hosts often make much ado about Saudi champagne to Western guests, whose innards, pickled by alcohol, must be screaming for a fix; effusive compliments of the beverage by same are the only way to avoid extended jokes at one's expense.

Happily, less strict Muslim hosts are willing to contribute to the pickling of your and their innards. The Kingdom-wide ban on alcohol prevents store purchases, but there's a thriving black market supplying a regular stream of wine and spirits to folks willing to pay extensive markups. The supply chain provides no control over selection, however, so Saudis give their Man some money and hope for the best, learning what they've bought when they open the box. As a result, if a host offers a drink and you ask what's available, he'll say, "Why, we have what the guy brought!" to great laughter. When you're traveling in bone-dry Riyadh, "what the guy brought," be it scotch on rocks, a quirky Chilean red or a Tanqueray and tonic, tastes really, really good.

All of this attention to hospitality culminates around midnight or 1 a.m., when the host announces that dinner is served. The Saudi insistence on guest happiness demands astonishing amounts of food, insuring that no one ever feels their appetite is making a dent on the largesse of the hosts. A typical meal might include individual chicken, lamb and fish dishes; vegetables in various forms; a few rice and potato dishes; salads including hummous, baba ghanoush, cucumber salad and taboulleh; and a wide selection of sweets, cakes and cookies for dessert. All a guest must do is try everything -- it’s considered extremely rude to decline the offer of food -- and take seconds and possibly thirds when encouraged to do so. Virtually all of the time, I needed no such encouragement.

Standing in the Safeway, I remembered the warmth that surrounded me as I waddled out the door after countless such meals, and I searched my brain for a menu that would warm my hosts turned guests. I knew that an unskilled attempt at Middle Eastern cuisine would fare poorly in comparison to the everyday food eaten throughout Riyadh. My New England predilection for seafood would lead to foolish risks in the center of the Arabian desert. Chinese food required pantry items missing from the shelves, not to mention high heat for wok cookery and an appropriate pot for rice.

Frustrated, I shifted my weight from one foot to another and considered another tack. I needed a cuisine that emphasized ingredient quality, required relatively simple preparation in abundance and allowed me to buy everything in this very store. I lacked time and equipment for many techniques, but would have access to a full range and grill. Anything recipe-dependent -- baking, for example, or subtle braises -- was out. I'd have to fly by the seat of my culinary pants.

I looked around again, smelled the olive brine, and realized that my immediate surroundings provided a clear answer. An Italian menu, drawn from regions according to available ingredients, might just work. To produce the best possible meal, all I needed to do was trust what I knew about Italian food, to hand control over to the ingredients and let them tell me what to do.

I scooped up a few pounds of the best olives and found a few long loaves of acceptable bread. I spied a wheel of parmigiano reggiano and some good looking gorgonzola in the cheese case and grabbed some of each. The meat selection lacked any veal, so I settled for some chicken. Avoiding predictably horrible tomatoes (and feeling relief at dodging expectations for a lousy caprese salad), I grabbed every good looking item in the produce section -- fennel, lemons, radicchio, broccoli, red bell peppers, parsley, eggplant -- and loaded up on onions and garlic. In the center of the store, I hunted down several pounds of penne and a few large cans of whole tomatoes. Finally, realizing that I was going into a new, empty kitchen, I rounded out the shop with larder items: two liters of olive oil, some dried oregano and thyme, black peppercorns, kosher salt, balsamic vinegar and capers.

Each item made me feel less vexed, as if I’d been joined by yet another friend lending a hand. Rosemary nudged me back to the meat counter, where I grabbed some leg of lamb to cube, marinate and grill on the thick herb skewers. Endive sent me back to the nuts, where I found a few cups of whole walnuts that, toasted and spiced, could sit on a leaf with a wedge of pear and a thumb of gorgonzola. And the biggest score: some salt-packed anchovies allowed me to dirty up a basic tomato sauce and make penne putanesca, covering the sins of middling tinned fruit with salty, tart excess. The cart filled, I wheeled to the check-out line, paid and headed out to the car, rolling up my sleeves and plotting mise en place as we rolled down the asphalt.

It was mid-afternoon when Fawziah welcomed me at her new house and showed me to the spacious kitchen. I settled into a rhythm immediately. I marinated the lamb and chicken in separate bowls but similar marinades of olive oil, garlic, lemon zest, pepper and the slim branches of the rosemary. I sauteed onions and then garlic in olive oil, added the anchovies and stirred until they broke down, poured in the tomatoes, capers and pitted olives, and set the pot on the back of the range, next to the largest pot I could find for the salted pasta water. I slipped cored red bell peppers and a few split garlic cloves into balsamic vinegar and let them simmer quietly until they were tender and plump. I washed piles of vegetables, split or sliced them, drizzled them with olive oil and salt, grilled them, and assembled them on a plate, awaiting more olive oil and balsamic or lemon to finish.

I spent the afternoon and early evening in this steady, calming labor, sometimes alone, sometimes with a partner or two chatting alongside. At one point, Fahad came home, exchanged a hug and kisses, and shared one of his typically sly tales about life in modern Riyadh. A bit later, Fawziah walked into the kitchen with a smile and announced that an unexpected guest -- from Italy, no less -- would be joining the group. I didn't mind that the number was creeping toward twenty, as I’d clearly bought enough food for forty. And I was in no hurry: as each person arrived, I took a moment away from cooking, met the person or caught up on the latest news, and returned to the unfurling meal with a smile.

At about 11 pm, after eight hours of cooking, I served my friends a wall of food worthy in abundance, if not in cuisine, of the most expansive Saudi banquet: antipasti of grilled eggplant, radicchio, onion and broccoli; bruschetta with an olive tapenade and balsamic pickled red peppers; fennel, parsley, shaved parmigiano reggiano and lemon salad; grilled rosemary chicken and lamb; penne puttanesca; endive with gorgonzola, pear and candied, spiced walnuts. I was exhausted and thrilled by the effort, and though I would have tweaked a dish here or there had I the ability, I allowed myself a bit of pride in a job well done. Sitting at the head of the table, among friends both new and old, I noticed my stomach for the first time all day, and I realized that I wasn't particularly hungry. Though I hadn't eaten, I was sated.

<div align="center">* * * * *</div

The intricacies of the day unwound as I rode back to my hotel at 2 a.m. The first thing to disappear was the gorgonzola, pear and walnut endive, which made me rue my hesitation to double those quantities in the store for fear of the new. I realized that I’d forgotten dessert, making me hanker for a few dates when back in the room and for Friday evening dinner in the hotel garden, where another bowl of om ali awaited. My guests didn't seem to mind, having turned to the lemony fennel salad at the end of the meal, chewing on parsley and chatting as folks grabbed their robes or abbayahs to leave.

I rolled down the window and breathed in the jasmine wafting on the cool, dry air moving through the desert at the edge of the city. I realized that I was most proud of the puttanesca, whose three hours of simmering transformed tomatoes and their accomplices into a heady, oily sauce. The Italian guest had done me the kind turn of complimenting both the menu and the execution, and she had paid special attention to the puttanesca, granting it an authenticity I knew it lacked. Let's face it: a solid penne putanesca wasn't going to get me any awards. It was thrown together with this and that, a concoction I knew I'd never repeat, one linked forever with this night, when an American made Italian food for a bunch of Saudis, two weeks after 9/11.

As we turned into the hotel driveway, I felt a sense of calm that I hadn't felt since the second plane hit the second tower. It wasn't mother's milk, but that whore's pasta was all the comfort I needed.

<div align="center"> -- This is part two of two. Part one is here. --</div>

Chris Amirault (aka, well, chrisamirault) is Assistant Director of eG Forums, the self-styled Czar of the eGullet Recipe Cook-Offs, and the proud owner of an apron displaying Yoko Ono's ass. He also runs a preschool and teaches in Providence, RI.

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At about 11 pm, after eight hours of cooking, I served my friends a wall of food worthy in abundance, if not in cuisine, of the most expansive Saudi banquet: antipasti of grilled eggplant, radicchio, onion and broccoli; bruschetta with an olive tapenade and balsamic pickled red peppers; fennel, parsley, shaved parmigiano reggiano and lemon salad; grilled rosemary chicken and lamb; penne puttanesca; endive with gorgonzola, pear and candied, spiced walnuts. I was exhausted and thrilled by the effort, and though I would have tweaked a dish here or there had I the ability, I allowed myself a bit of pride in a job well done. Sitting at the head of the table, among friends both new and old, I noticed my stomach for the first time all day, and I realized that I wasn't particularly hungry. Though I hadn't eaten, I was sated.

Excellent story. I too love the process of planning a huge dinner from scratch just by wandering around a market and letting inspiration guide me. Inevitably, the meal is always missing an element or two and off kilter due to forgetfulness but it always turns out to be more genuine and fun.

I too experience the feeling of not being hungry after intense bouts of cooking.


PS: I am a guy.

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Thanks, Shalmanese.

The strangest aspect of being in the store was the sense of simultaneous familiarity and confusion. I'd been in dozens of similar places -- it was laid out like any major US grocery store -- and still felt suddenly and utterly at sea at different moments. Some of that was due to many of the product labels being in Arabic (though a lot were in English too), but things I expected to find would be missing, or in odd places, making me go from confident to disoriented in a moment. An uncanny shopping experience!


Chris Amirault

camirault@eGstaff.org

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Thanks, Shalmanese.

The strangest aspect of being in the store was the sense of simultaneous familiarity and confusion. I'd been in dozens of similar places -- it was laid out like any major US grocery store -- and still felt suddenly and utterly at sea at different moments. Some of that was due to many of the product labels being in Arabic (though a lot were in English too), but things I expected to find would be missing, or in odd places, making me go from confident to disoriented in a moment. An uncanny shopping experience!

What can make it even more fun is when, after you've finally accustomed yourself to the store, and have a comfort level on what's where, they decide to remodel and randomly move all of the stock around. That can really make your day when you've rushed in to beat prayer, wanting only to grab one or two items you need quickly.

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To provide a bit of context in case folks don't know: in Saudi Arabia, a conservative Muslim country, all stores and shops must "close for business" during the daily prayers. If you don't get your groceries, get in line, and check out before the prayers start, then you wait outside the store -- probably with a few other slackers -- until they can reopen. In most large stores, however, they let you stand at the front of the store or in the foyer, and in the malls you can wait in the main halls but not in stores. Remember, it's probably 100-125F out there. :wink:


Chris Amirault

camirault@eGstaff.org

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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thank you for sharing this facinating tale. it's funny the things that matter the most in life. the making and sharing of food is just one of those things. so simple and so meaningful.


"They tried to stay in from the cold and the wind making love and making their dinner" - Fiest

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