Tastes of Kenya

A couple of months ago we wrote about our culinary explorations through lush wet season Uganda. Since then, we been wandering about Kenya, from the mountains, the plains, the desert, to the coast.  Kenya holds a little piece of both our hearts, and we will miss its huge skies and wide spaces, and the open smiles of its people.Josie Fraser_Kenya_July2016-71

Our Kenyan wanderings involved a lot of public buses and a lot of long distance driving.  Kenyan roads are notoriously poor, and travelling anywhere by road takes a long time!  Along the roads, at most points where an extra large pothole or an unexpected speed bump cause the traffic to slow even more than usual, people gather, offering bottles of water, fruit, and snacks for hungry travellers to buy.  As the staple carbohydrate of the country, maize is everywhere, and hot, freshly fire-grilled cobs are held out in handfuls to passing traffic.  These fill the belly, give the jaw a good work out, and are a tasty meal, particularly spiced with a bit of chilli.  At strategic distances along the road from maize vendors, troops of baboons tend to congregate to feast on discarded corn cobs.  Sugary sweets aren’t much of a thing, except in the more Arab-influenced coastal towns, but fresh fruit and machete-chopped chunks of peeled sugar cane satisfy a sweet tooth.  Our favourite roadside snack involves a hot hardboiled egg, peeled skilfully with a spoon (a trick I’m yet to master), cut almost in half, sprinkled with salt, and filled with kachumbari – a delicious mix of fresh tomato, red onion, and hot green chilli.

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breaking fast with a dhow captain

We were lucky enough to be in Kenya during Ramadan.  After four months travelling in largely Muslim countries, we’ve fallen in love with the gentleness and generosity of Islamic culture, and Ramadan was a delightful way to finish this journey.  Among other things, Ramadan involves fasting for 30 days, from dawn to dusk.  At dusk, people gather together to break their fast, sharing dates or pieces of fresh fruit and tiny cups of Arabic coffee with whoever is nearby.  I spent a few days in an old Swahili town on a tiny sand island called Lamu off the north coast of Kenya where the population is mostly Muslim.  Each evening I was whisked off to the nearest gathering of people to eat dates on a street corner or oranges on the deck of a wooden dhow.  After the flurry of breaking fast, the streets quickly clear as people head home to share iftar, the evening meal, with their families.

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families heading home for iftar

As we’re always interested in fermented and cultured foods, we were overjoyed to discover maziwa lala, a unique Kenyan ferment.  Lala, or mala, is similar to yoghurt, except it cultures milk at a comfortable room temperature of 25°C, rather than the 38°C required for conventional yoghurt (check out this post if you want to make your own yoghurt).  This means that there are lower energy requirements for its production than for yoghurt, as incubation isn’t necessary, and the fermentation process allows fresh milk to last for up to four days without refrigeration.  This is great for communities without much access to electricity.  Lala just tastes like a tangy, liquid yoghurt.  During our travels we bought lala in small bags beside the road, and made our own by adding a tablespoon to a jar of fresh milk and leaving it somewhere undisturbed for a day.

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homemade maziwa lala

Previous British colonisation of Kenya means that there is a lovely community of British descendants scattered throughout the country.  Within this community, one of the nicest traditions we experienced was that of sundowners.  Sundowners are quite literally quiet drinks shared with friends and family as the sun goes down.  Sundowners are generally enjoyed outside, watching the day close over the wide savanna, and allow everyone to come together and share stories of the day finished.  As there is no real twilight in the tropics, one must be relatively punctual to sundowner gatherings, and we often found ourselves wandering homewards in the starry darkness, trying to avoid being stepped on by elephants.

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sundowners
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Aloo (Potato) Paranthas

Paranthas are a wheat-based flat bread found all over the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka.  They are often plain but can be even more delicious when stuffed with potato, onion and spices.  Paranthas are traditionally served hot off the pan with pickles, spicy sauces and yoghurt or as a side to dhal or a breakfast chana masala.  As they travel well, paranthas also make a great addition to an adventure food kit, functioning as tasty wraps for your salad or as a filling snack along the trail or river.

To make 10-12 paranthas take:

  • 500 g wholemeal wheat flour
  • ½ tsp sea salt
  • 400 mL water
  • 4 whole boiled or baked potatoes
  • 1 red onion, finely chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp ginger, finely chopped
  • ½ tsp green chilli, finely chopped
  • pinch of salt
  • ½ tsp garam masala
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
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use your hands wherever possible
  1.  Mix flour and salt together in a large bowl, using your hands. Add water a little at a time, scattering it over the flour with your hand rather than pouring it straight into the middle.  This gives a more even distribution, making kneading easier. Knead dough with both hands; as you add more water it will become quite wet and sticky but if you dip your hands in water as you go, they shouldn’t stick too much.

2. To make the aloo filling grate the boiled potatoes into another bowl then add onion and all other ingredients. Stir through gently with your hands, being careful not to squeeze the potato too much – we don’t want mashed potato.

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mix aloo filling gently with your hands

3.  Place a heavy-based frying pan over a low flame to heat. Set aside a small bowl of dry flour for dusting. Dust your work bench and a rolling pin with a little flour. With floury hands take a piece of dough about the size of an egg.

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take a piece of dough

4.  Gently roll it into a disk roughly the size of your hand.

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roll into a disk

5.  Hold the disk in one hand a fill with a big tablespoon of potato mixture.

6.  Pinch the disk closed over the potato, being careful not to squash the potato mixture out as you do; you want to seal the potato inside.

7.  Drop in flour again and gently roll flat until your parantha is about 3-5mm thick. Some of the onion will break the surface, this is fine.

8.  Turn the heat up under your pan and place your parantha on the dry pan.

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place parantha on hot, dry pan

9.  After 1-2 minutes flip the parantha and drizzle a tiny bit of oil (mustard if you have it, or any other oil you like) around the edges then rub the oil over the whole surface.

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drizzle oil around the edges

10.  Straight away flip the parantha again and oil the other side in a similar way. Press the parantha against the hot pan, particularly around the edges.

11.  Keep flipping and pressing until it’s nicely brown all over.

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keep flipping and pressing
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fresh aloo paranthas

Some variations:

If you want a buttery filling, spread a thin layer of butter or ghee on your dough after the first gentle roll, before you fill it with potato. Be sure to leave the edges of the circle unbuttered so they stick together.

Paneer parantha is quite common as well – instead of potatoes use 150 g grated paneer but follow the instructions in the same way.

If you would like paranthas without oil, cook the rolled parantha on a hot, dry pan as usual. Flip once after 1-2 minutes and, instead of dizzling oil over, leave on the second side 1-2 minutes. Remove the pan and, using tongs, place your parantha directly over the flame for a few seconds each side until crispy. You can put butter on one side of your parantha or eat it like this with no oil.

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parantha without oil

 

 

Just Banana Pie

In our travels, we often spend time in the homes of friends or friends of friends across the world. Staying in people’s homes generally gives a much richer experience of a new place than staying as an anonymous traveller in the nearest hostel, and it allows us to strengthen that global community of like-minded people. Travelling in this way also gives us the opportunity for reciprocity – to invite other people into our homes when they visit our part of the world.

Bofa Road house
salt-stained coastal Kenyan sharehouse

What better way to thank a host household than to cook delicious food for them to come home to? I was recently staying in a sharehouse full of wonderful folks on the coast of Kenya; a huge salt-stained place set amidst baobab and coconut trees right on the Indian Ocean. Equipped with nothing but a large bunch of overripe bananas, a tin of ghee, and the remains of a bag of flour I bought for a making sourdough pancakes on the road, I created the most simple, delicious pie out of just bananas: the Just Banana Pie.

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Crust:

1.5 cups flour (wheat, spelt, buckwheat, rice, or any combination you like)

2 Tbsp ghee or coconut oil

¼ cup water

Pinch of salt

1 Tbsp of sweetness, if you like… honey, rapadura sugar, coconut syrup

  1. In a bowl, use your fingers to rub ghee or coconut oil into the flour. If you’re using just rice flour, you may need to add a binding agent such as a mashed banana, an egg, or a vegan linseed “egg” as explained in this recipe, to prevent the crust becoming too crumbly.  Slowly add water, combining with your hands until it forms a cohesive dough that is relatively firm and not too sticky. You may need a little more or less water, depending on the flour you choose to use.
  2. Again using your hands, press dough evenly over the base and sides of an oiled pie dish.
  3. Blind bake crust in a moderate oven for 20 – 30 minutes, or until it begins to brown slightly.
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blind bake crust until it begins to brown

Filling:

7 – 10 bananas, the riper the better (my favourite are small Cavendish, but any variety of sweet banana will do)

Pinch of cinnamon

Pinch of nutmeg

1 Tbsp coconut oil

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  1. Slice bananas lengthwise, and layer into the pie crust. Use as many bananas as it takes to fill the pie, pressing the pieces in to reduce the empty space… you want your pie to be as full of banana as possible!
  2. Sprinkle with spices and drizzle coconut oil over the top.

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    fill pie crust with sliced banana
  3. Bake pie in a moderate oven for 30 – 45 minutes, or until the crust is good and crunchy and the bananas have softened nicely and are beginning to brown.
  4. Slice into generous pieces, and serve warm with yoghurt or fresh cream. This pie is also great cold; in fact it’s so simple and wholesome you could eat it for breakfast the next day without even feeling indulgent!
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just banana pie for breakfast

Chana Masala

Chana are chickpeas, and masala simply refers to a mix of select spices.  This is a North Indian recipe that is quick and easy to prepare.  You can adapt it to your tastes and to the ingredients you have in abundance, using different pulses and vegetables.  We ate chana masala all through Northern India and each tasted unique; here we have given you just one of many spice combinations, or masalas.

In Northern India, chana masala is often eaten for breakfast with curd or yoghurt (click here for how to make your own yoghurt) and an assortment of flatbreads.  Chana masala is also a great addition to an Indian feast, with dhal, samosas, sourdough pancakes or paranthas and chutney

Ingredients (this will serve at least four people with breads or rice, and condiments):

  • 2 red onions, finely diced
  • 1 tsp finely chopped ginger
  • 1 tsp finely chopped garlic
  • 1 tsp finely chopped green chilli (or more, if you like it spicy)
  • 2 tsp ground coriander
  • ½ tsp garam masala
  • 1 tsp turmeric powder
  • ¼ tsp red chilli powder
  • 4 medium tomatoes, diced
  • ¼ tsp salt (Indian chefs use tons of salt…start with this much and, if needed, add more to suit your taste)
  • 2 Tbs oil (mustard oil, sunflower oil, or ghee)
  • 1 tsp whole cumin seeds
  • 1 – 2 cm cinnamon, broken into small pieces
  • ½ nutmeg, ground or finely grated
  • 4 cloves
  • 2 green cardamom pods, slightly crushed
  • 250 g (dry weight) chickpeas, soaked overnight, cooked until soft, rinsed and drained (click here for a detailed explanation on cooking pulses.  If you don’t have a pressure cooker and can’t be bothered to cook chickpeas in a normal pot use two 400 g cans of chickpeas, drained and very well rinsed)
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cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom
  1. Heat oil in a heavy-based pan over a hot flame. Add cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and cardamom, followed by ginger, garlic, green chilli and onion. Cook, stirring from time to time, until the onion is soft and becoming translucent.

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    onion, chilli, spices
  2. Add the rest of the spices with 30 mL of water, then the tomatoes and salt. Cover and reduce heat, steaming for a few minutes until the tomatoes have softened.
  3. Add chickpeas to the pan. Using the edge of a large spoon, mash the chickpeas in the middle of the pan, leaving those on the perimeter whole. Stir well. This should result in a mix of broken and whole chickpeas. Cover the pan and leave on a low heat until ready to serve.

 

 

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break some chickpeas and leave some whole

 

* instead of chickpeas, you can add red kidney beans to make Rajma Masala, any kind of lentil to make North Indian Dhal Fry, crumbled or grated paneer to make Paneer Bhurji, or diced cooked potatoes and steamed cauliflower to make Aloo Gobi.  Or you can get creative and add any assortment of vegetables and pulses and call it what you’d like.

 

 

The Pearl of Africa: eating our way through Uganda

Uganda is sometimes known as the Pearl of Africa. This little equatorial East African nation is a postcard of lush jungle-covered mountains, huge lakes, wide plains, and magnificent rivers including the mighty Nile, the source of which Uganda disputably claims. Being mostly of volcanic origin, the soil is generally highly fertile and all landowning Ugandan families grow a wide abundance of food both for subsistence and trade.

Due to our insatiable curiosity for food we have tried to taste everything edible that has crossed our path. We’ve eaten fried grasshoppers and winged ants, goat stews and chunks of Nile perch, bananas prepared in every way imaginable, and we’ve sipped warm, foamy komek beer brewed from ground maize and sprouted millet in backyard bucket breweries.

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komek

Typical local food is heavy on starch and predictably simple. One orders food and sauce. ‘Food’ is the starch part: sweet potato, pumpkin, cassava, plantain, rice or posho (thick maize meal porridge) wrapped in banana leaves and steamed in a big pot over a coal stove.

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coal stoves and pots of food and sauce

You can choose one of the above or just order ‘all food’, in which case you end up with a dauntingly large pile of mashed everything. Posho has been our favourite, for its simplicity, texture and ease of digestion. Next you must choose your sauce. The choice is often between beans and meat, with sometimes a gooey purplish sauce of ground raw peanuts as a third option; fish might also be offered when close to the lakes and rivers. Occasionally, if you ask nicely, you may be able to order vegetables: cabbage and tomato, generic ‘greens’ and the ubiquitous avocado.

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beans, posho, greens and avocado

As the day abruptly turns into night, as it does so efficiently in the tropics, street vendors with tiny candle-lit stalls begin to fill the muddy lanes with hustle and raucous cheer. Here you can wander with a pocketful of coins and buy a dinner of fish, chicken or beef grilled on sticks over hot coals, grilled finger plantains or matooke and chewy cobs of maize, crunchy-soft sticks of cassava deep fried in woks of oil, or chips of Irish, as potatoes are known. Chapattis are all over Uganda, an interesting remnant of the Indian involvement in early British colonial efforts here. Unfortunately they are nothing like wholesome Indian chapattis but will fill a hungry belly if you are willing to stomach the oil. A quintessential Ugandan street snack is rolex (rolled eggs): a fried chapatti topped with a fried egg and rolled up with shredded fresh cabbage and tomato. You can also buy greasy chapatti chopped into small pieces and shoved in a plastic bag with hot saucy beans spooned on top. Our favourite evenings have been spent wandering busy alleys responding to calls of ‘Yes sister! I have rolex! You want meat? You want cassava? I have!’, and eating newspaper wrapped bundles of grilled matooke and Nile perch.

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grilled “finger” matooke

We can only cope with so much starch and fried food so, as we do in any new land, we’ve spent a lot of time in local markets haggling for produce. We’ve discovered Uganda is the land of avocados, bananas and peanuts. We were fortunate to be here in the final throes of avocado season and have been buying the most enormous, creamy avos for a few cents each and challenging each other to eat two or three a day, cut open and filled with backpack-grown mung sprouts and lime juice.

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Bananas of all varieties seem to be grown in Uganda; in fact bananas are such a staple that a couple of Ugandans have been astounded to learn bananas grow elsewhere in the world, as well as in Uganda. Bicycles are a common form of transport for farmers and every road seems to be lined with men pushing hundreds of kilograms of green bananas up and down the endless hills to market.

The majority of bananas grown are plantains, matooke, as they are locally known, but sweet bananas of all shapes and sizes are also grown in huge abundance.

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local market with piles of matooke bananas
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g. nuts and g. nut paste

Peanuts, or g. nuts (ground nuts), as Ugandans call them are another widely grown crop of which we have taken full advantage. Aside from the weird, gooey g. nut sauce mentioned above, whole peanuts are sold everywhere, roasted or raw. On our first day in Kampala we made the magnificent discovery of fresh roasted g. nut paste sold out of enormous drums in whatever quantity one wants. We thought this was the greatest thing ever until we discovered odi, Uganda’s gift to all lovers of peanut butter and tahini. Odi is simply a mix of ground, roasted g. nuts and simsim (sesame) that is even tastier than the expected sum of its parts. Odi has changed our lives; we’ve been buying it by the kilogram every few days and licking the jar clean.

We’ll cross the border into Kenya tomorrow with full bellies and warm hearts and a big bag of avocados and odi for the road.

 

Samosas

Samosas are India’s ultimate snack food.  You can buy them for 10 rupees a piece out the window of a slow moving bus, from vendors on any dusty back lane, and men carrying enormous baskets of them patrol train aisles announcing in that familiar gravelly voice ‘samosa samosa samosa’.  Samosas are typically deep fried but you can bake them instead and they taste just as good.  As well as a delicious hot snack immediately out of the oven they are a great thing to take to pot luck dinners or to shove in your backpack for a satisfying hiking snack halfway up that mountain.Josie Fraser_Naveem's_Mar2016-42

This is a traditional recipe from the north of India using peas and potatoes but you can experiment with any combination of vegetables and/or pulses as long as the filling is not too wet.

Samosas are delicious on their own but even more so served with chutney, chilli pickle or fresh yoghurt.

This recipe makes about 14 samosas

Filling:

  • Josie Fraser_Naveem's_Mar2016-135 boiled or baked potatoes, chopped into small pieces
  • 100 g raw green peas (you can use thawed frozen peas)
  • 1 Tbs oil (mustard oil, sunflower oil, or ghee)
  • 1 tsp finely chopped ginger
  • 1 finely chopped green chilli (or more if you like your samosas spicy)
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 ½ tsp ground coriander
  • ½ tsp garam masala
  • ¼ tsp red chilli powder
  • pinch of salt
  1. Heat oil in a heavy-based pan and add cumin seeds. Fry cumin for a few seconds then add all other ingredients and mix well.
  2. Reduce heat and use the edge of a spoon to break up the potato and mash the whole mix a little.

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    samosa filling

Pastry:

  • 400 g wheat flour (you can use spelt or a combination of besan and other flours, although flours with less gluten may not hold together so well… experiment, as you may need to add a binding agent such as an egg)
  • 100 mL oil (mustard oil, sunflower oil, or ghee)
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp carom seeds (also known as ajwain caraway, these should be available at an Indian grocer or, if not, can be replaced with caraway seeds)
  • 150 mL water
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mix together with your hands
  1. Mix all ingredients together with your hands. Combine into a stiff dough and knead until it all comes together nicely. It should form a consistency similar to shortcrust pasty (if you’re a pastry baker); add a little more water if it’s too dry to come together.
  2. Break dough into egg-sized pieces. Knead and shape each piece into a rough ball. Dust these with a little more flour and roll flat to form oval shapes of pastry around 2 – 3 mm thick. Cut each oval in half.
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cut each oval in half

To make samosas:

  1. Take a piece of rolled, cut pastry in your hand, holding with the cut edge running from your thumb to your forefinger.

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    take a piece of pastry
  2. Wet half the length of this cut edge. This will help the pastry stick to itself as you form the samosa.

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    wet half the cut edge
  3. Fold the dry half of the cut edge in, then the wet half so it just overlaps.
  4. Carefully insert your fingers to make a cone-shaped pocket, and fill with a couple of teaspoons of the potato and pea filling.
  5. Wet the back edge of the pastry, pinch it together, then fold the pinched section over so it’s flat.
  6. Pinch both open edges of the pastry together to seal the samosa.
  7. Brush with mustard oil or ghee and bake in a moderate oven for about 30 minutes until the pastry is golden-brown and they smell delicious.  Samosas are traditionally deep fried but as deep fried food is intrinsically bad for your health we recommend baking.  Feel free to deep fry if you want – the result will be delicious.
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samosas  ready to cook

 

Bahrain: the land of dates and camels

Last week we went to Bahrain to visit a dear friend. We had a vague idea of the location of this tiny Arab kingdom, but it wasn’t until we spontaneously decided to extend a stopover in the Middle East between two long international flights that we actually looked at a map. Bahrain is in the Persian Gulf, south of Iran, and tucked in between giant Saudi Arabia to the west and the small peninsula of Qatar to the east. For over 4000 years, Bahrain has been an important point on trade routes between Asia, Africa and the Arab world and as a result has long been influenced by a diverse range of cultures. Since oil was discovered here in the 1930s, the Bahraini economy has exploded, metaphorically, but despite huge developments the culture and cuisine have remained unique and delicious.

Manama skyline
the ancient ruins of Qal’at al-Bahrain and the skyline of modern Manama

Being desert, agricultural options are few and far between in Bahrain. Dates and date syrup have a long history of economic importance. Today, dates are still eaten daily and date syrup is ubiquitous as a sweetener. Unfortunately, our visit didn’t coincide with date season so we weren’t able to try fresh Bahraini dates, but we did taste an abundance of different preserved dates and left the country with significantly heavier backpacks than when we arrived!

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unpressed, undried dates from the previous season

Like date palms, camels are an image I have long associated with the Middle East. Bahrain didn’t disappoint; there certainly are a lot of camels. The King’s uncle has a camel farm on which he breeds hundreds of pedigree Arabian racing camels, and gives camel milk away to anyone who asks. Camel milk is pure white with very little fat, and has a delicious savoury flavour, vaguely similar to goat milk but not as strong tasting. We were assured that it is much healthier that cow milk, particularly for Arab people who have centuries of digestive adaptation to camel milk.

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In our travels around the globe, we’ve noticed that most cultures seem to have a staple carbohydrate that makes up a large part of their cuisine.  Southeast Asia has rice, Polynesia has root vegetables like taro and cassava, communities in the Andes use grains like quinoa and amaranth as well as potatoes.  The staple carbohydrate in Bahrain is a wheat based flatbread called khoubiz khabaz.  Khoubiz khabaz is a variation on other similar Arabic breads that is cooked in a tanoor – a cob-style oven, traditionally wood fired, that was brought to Bahrain by the Persians when trade routes first developed between these areas.  Pieces of soft, yeasty dough are rolled flat and stretched over a floury cushion, then slapped against the inside wall of the hot tanoor where they inexplicably stick, and quickly begin to bubble and brown.  Within seconds, the cooked flatbreads are whipped off with the use of a long metal hook, and tossed frisbee-like onto a pile.  The whole process lasts less than two minutes, with eight or nine smiling, flour covered men rocking rhythmically as they pump out piles of bread in a super efficient production line, and stacks of khoubiz khabaz are rapidly delivered to hungry breakfast tables or wrapped in waiting blankets and rushed home for dinner.

Khoubiz khabaz must be eaten hot.  Minutes after leaving the tanoor, the bread begins to cool and loses its delicious soft, chewy texture.  Although most home kitchens do not have a tanoor, the demand for this bread is huge and most neighbourhoods have a tiny hole-in-the-wall bakery that is open morning and night to service a steady flow of customers.  Khoubiz khabaz is so culturally important that despite economic developments, the government subsidises these bakeries so that people can still buy this important staple for the equivalent of a few cents a piece.  Khoubiz khabaz is eaten every day.  It is used to scoop up mouthfuls of eggs scrambled with fresh tomato or creamy spiced beans at breakfast time, dipped in bowls of hommous or pomegranate garnished mutabal (charred eggplant and tahini dip, very similar to babaganoush), or wrapped around chunks of lime spiced lamb, goat or camel meat in a delicious tikka.

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piles of fresh, hot khoubiz khabaz