Explanation: Over the last four years, I have spent a portion of Ramadan in a Muslim majority country, twice in the Gulf countries of the United Arab Emirates (home to balaleet) and Oman. Upon sundown after a long day of fasting during Ramadan, the holiest month in Islam, families, groups of friends, mosque communities, and neighborhoods gather for a breaking of the fast known in Arabic as an iftar dinner. While these dinners take many forms, if an iftar meal is held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), it is safe to bet that balaleet—a light dish of vermicelli noodles, saffron, egg, and rose—will be served. Below is a creative interpretation of my inner monologue while experiencing Ramadan in the UAE and longing to break my fast with balaleet.
4pm: “I didn’t eat enough at suhoor. It’s my own fault really, I need to stop being so disagreeable—a breakfast doesn’t necessarily suck without balaleet. Ugh. My stomach has been growling for hours and to make matters worse, I can hear and smell the beginnings of our iftar balaleet in the kitchen. I ask for balaleet so often it seems my friend’s family is prepared with the necessary ingredients each time they know I am coming over. I commented on this last night at iftar saying ‘الحمدالله في بقال قريب منا’ (Thank God there is a grocery store so close to us). My friend’s ever-wise (and totally gorgeous) older brother replied saying, في الحقيقة، يا جوليانا، المكونات في بلاليط عندها تاريخ مهمة قوي (Actually, Juliana, the ingredients in balaleet have an important history). Let me be clear about something, my friend’s brother really never talks to me so this was VERY EXCITING! Naturally, I let him continue.
‘The strong aroma of saffron in balaleet is, actually, sort of deceiving. Though an important ingredient, a pinch of saffron goes a long way in both yellowing the dish and providing the pungent and misleadingly spicy smell. The history of saffron is, in many ways, indicative of this reality. Saffron threads are found in the blossoms of the crocus flower where each bulb has only three threads of saffron. We actually grow some in our garden, have you seen it? (I nodded politely.) Thus, cultivation is an arduous process and because of this, the spice was historically cultivated in poor countries with a peasant class.1 Though the earliest indications of saffron cultivation can be found in modern day Iran, the spice was common throughout the Silk Road. Coveted by kings and rulers from Nero in Roman times to Alexander the Great, the spice became an important and luxurious commodity—a true staple of trade. Its luxurious history has influenced its position in society and in cooking as one of the few spices that has retained its value for so many years. Today, saffron is grown in Iran and traded with the United Arab Emirates and countless countries around the world.2 Second only to saffron, the floral scents and tastes of rose water define balaleet. Like saffron, the rose water component of the dish has its origins in Iran, specifically in the Sasanian Empire which reigned from 224-651 C.E. in which the manufacturing of sweet waters as perfumes was first created.3 The similarities between the two ingredients continue, furthermore, in that rose water was also a luxury item, demanded by kings both for themselves and their wives and because of this, it became an item not only traded, but in high demand, on the silk route. Though there is not a clear moment in history when rose water became a coveted ingredient for cooking, it has taken the world by storm and is found widely in the cuisines of the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent. Its use is so widespread, in fact, that the New York Times calls it a “power ingredient”. Given the closeness of the UAE to Iran, it is unsurprising that the two ingredients, which are sourced from the latter, found their way to the former through years of trade. According to Touraj Daryaee, Persian Iranologist and historian at UCLA, whom I took a class with during my semester abroad, these goods were traded through Silk Road camel or ship routes. After the advent of Islam in 610 C.E. the intensity of trade with neighboring places actually increased. Daryaee goes on to explain that the shores of the Persian Gulf, were, furthermore, centers of life for rich businessmen—exactly the type of people interested in trading saffron and rose.4 The main component of the dish however, seems different from much of the food you have probably eaten with us. What about, then, vermicelli noodles? When most people hear vermicelli noodles they usually immediately think about Southeast Asian cuisines such as Vietnamese food where the thin, light, rice noodles are often used. While this association is understandable, in actuality, vermicelli noodles (in varying sizes and shapes) can be found throughout the world most notable in the cuisines of Egypt and, of course, the cuisines of the Gulf. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure how the vermicelli noodle arrived from Southeast Asia, where it is believed to have originated, to the Gulf.5 While Silk Road trade is a likely cause, I wonder if maybe cooks have brought the noodles to the UAE more recently?’”
6:30pm: “I am continually in awe of how gorgeous it is here. Really though, how can a modern house of worship (Sheikh Zayed Mosque was built in 2007) be THIS gorgeous? Oh, shoot, my sheila is slipping and my friend is giving me her signature “pull yourself together” look. Awkward. I begin whisking the thin black fabric around my head and, uh oh. It smells the like rose oud I sprayed on before we left. Rose…rose water…balaleet…OH MY GOD I AM SO STARVING!! I can’t stop thinking about balaleet. After my mini-history lesson last night I spent some time in the library and found out a bit more about the dish.
While balaleet is a delicious Emirati dish, I realized that the dish is, in many ways, a deviation from the typical Gulf dishes such as al machbous (a rice and chicken dish), al hares (a whipped wheat dish often served with lamb), or stuffed camel. Sarah Al-Hamed’s Cardamom and Lime: Recipes from the Arabian Gulf, a unique book on Gulf cuisine and one of the few ever written, describes typical Gulf cuisine as being defined by rice and meats, two ingredients noticeably missing from balaleet. Perhaps even more interesting is the reality that balaleet is not included in her book as an important recipe from the Gulf. There is no mention of sweet noodle dishes and she seems to ignore balaleet’s position in Emirati cuisine. What is typically “Gulf” of balaleet, however, is the “combining sweet and savory” that Al-Hamed describes as characteristic of Gulf cuisines. Because the people of the Gulf were historically quite poor, dates, known in Arabic as tamar, became a staple of the Bedouin diets as they were widely available, had a long shelf-life, and kept people full for long periods of time. Dates, and other sweeteners, are thus common in Gulf diets.6”
7:30pm: “Okay. Break number one. After eight rak’ahs I am always in need of a rest…especially after a long day of fasting!! Some more to go! I have always wondered the significance of twenty rak’ahs in taraweeh prayers during Ramadan. I really can’t seem to find a satisfactory answer. To be honest I am just so honored my friend’s family and mosque community has welcomed me into prayer. Not everyone is so generous. Since our friendship began, it has been important to us that we share our cultures with one another. I remember the first time she spent a holiday with my family. It was Yom Kippur (The holiest day in Judaism, Yom Kippur is the day of forgiveness and is marked by fasting.) and, as is tradition in our family, we broke our fast with sweet noodle kugel. I actually started realizing last night that noodle kugel is pretty similar to balaleet. I read more and I was really surprised by what I found!
While the mixing of sweet and savory flavors into a dish is typical of the Persian Gulf, the concept of a sweet noodle dish may seem novel to some (it was to me the first time I tried balaleet). Upon further research, however, it became clear that such a mix actually has deep roots in the culinary histories of countless countries and cultures. According to Stanford University professor and self-defined foodie, Dan Jurafsky, the origin of sweet noodles can be traced to the year 827 C.E. when Muslim explorers established an emirate in modern day Sicily and introduced rich, usually almond based, sweets to Europe. With the advent of pasta occurring in the same place at a similar time, the two were often combined. Jurafsky writes, “Early pastas were often sweet, and could be fried or baked as well as boiled….it’s probable that the word maccarrunir referred to two distinct but similar sweet, doughy foods, one resembling gnocchi…the other more like marzipan.”7 Similar sweet vermicelli noodle dishes such as sheer khurma (a noodle with dried dates) and muzaafar (vermicelli noodles with screw pine essence) can be found, according to food historian and critic Pushpesh Pant, along the Grand Trunk Road between India and Pakistan.8 Balaleet also has a striking similarity to the Persian frozen, ice cream-like-dessert, faloodeh, that too incorporates rosewater and vermicelli noodles. I guess the reality that sweet noodle dishes can be found throughout the world and play an important role in the cultural and religious lives of many different people speaks to the dynamic, cosmopolitan, and trade based history of balaleet.
Alright, break is over…”
8:45: “Wow. What a truly incredible evening, moment, month, culture, religion, and people to be welcomed into. To me, there is nothing more beautiful than Islam and no bigger honor than being welcomed into a community. I am at my happiest when I am in the UAE and I wish there were more in NYC that would remind me of this amazing place.
In the last few years the UAE has gained recognition thanks to its vibrant cities, role in OPEC, and constant stability in a volatile region. Despite this, its cuisine, and Gulf cuisine as a whole, is almost impossible to find in New York City. To be honest, I am not entirely sure why this is. To my knowledge, and I have searched extensively, there is only one restaurant in the city, Yemen Cafe in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, serving Gulf cuisine. While a delicious restaurant, the menu lacks balaleet and is clearly catered towards an American audience as it includes shahshuka, babaganoush, and foul, all dishes not native to the Gulf. Actually, come to think of it, balaleet is hard to find in any restaurants in the UAE. While Emirati food is eaten at home, restaurants in the country serve food from all over the world and tend to shy away from Emirati cuisine leaving the average visitor, and even, I would argue, the average expatriate, uninformed. I feel so, so lucky, then, that my friend has shared it with me. يا ترى (I wonder), is it due to the complex cultural politics surrounding the country, and thus, balaleet?
Only forty-four years old, the UAE is a young country still navigating its place on the global playing field. While the country has a strong cultural history, a unique story of camaraderie between the former trucial states, and a deep national identity, these beautiful realities are often overshadowed by the large expatriate population (roughly 80% of people living in the UAE are not native to the country) and glitz and glamour of cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Because of this, Emiratis have worked to preserve their culture and shield it from change. Jane Bristol-Rhys, cultural anthropologist at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed University, wrote a book Emirati Women in which she explains that the cultural identity of Emiratis was originally formed as a response to the pre-oil poverty of the region and continues to evolve and strengthen due to the threat of foreign influence. After years of research, Bristol-Rhys sees tribal and historical realities deeply affecting the choices people make. In reference to clothing for example, Bristol-Rhys chooses not to discuss Muslim norms of hasha (modesty) and instead remarks that “the genesis of the distinctive black and white national dress…was first adopted as a means of making the indigenous population distinct from the foreigners now living in their midst”.9 While Bristol-Rhys does not discuss cuisine in her work, I wonder if a similar framework and rationale could explain the lack of Emirati restaurants, and thus, lack of knowledge about dishes such as balaleet, both in the UAE and around the world.”
9:45pm: “Believe it or not, all of that thinking made me completely forget how hungry I was!! Time to break our fast. Finally…BALALEET!!!!!! The sweetness of the dish is almost pungent. People seem to use the word pungent in a negative light but in this case, I mean only the best. The lightness of rose takes over my nose and is cut sharply by the unique-ness of cardamom. The yellowness of the noodles is confusing for a moment—off-putting even—until I take my first bite. My tongue wiggles through the thin, light, surprisingly dry, noodles searching for a taste of egg but never really finding it. This time, the balaleet tastes sweeter than usual—maybe I am just starving! The powdered sugar coats my tongue and I am almost begging for more. The dish melts in your mouth. There is truly nothing like it in the world.”
- “Mad About Saffron.” In Food Crimes. Zero Point Zero. January 29, 2015.
- “Mad About Saffron.” In Food Crimes. Zero Point Zero. January 29, 2015.
- “Gülhsa Rose Water.” Accessed April 14, 2016. http://www.gulsha.com.tr/en/rose-damascena/history-of-rose-water.aspx.
- The Persian Gulf Trade in Late Antiquity, Touraj Daryaee, Journal of World History, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Mar., 2003), pp. 1-16
- Noodle Road. Performed by Ken Hom. KBS, 2010. DVD.
- Al-Hamad, Sarah. Cardamom and Lime: Recipes from the Arabian Gulf. Northampton, MA: Interlink Books, 2008.
- Jurafsky, Dan. “Macarons, Macaroons, Macaroni.” Slate, November 16, 2011.
- Pant, Pushpesh, and Huma Mohsin. Food Path: Cuisine along the Grand Trunk Road, from Kabul to Kolkata. New Delhi: Roli Books, 2005.
- Bristol-Rhys, Jane. Emirati Women: Generations of Change. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.