By Rukshana Rizwie
Its flair and finesse, no wine can come close to delivering and its smoothness
and soothing effect, no puff of cigarette smoke can waft away. Taking the
chaotic daze out of my grounded busy life and letting it mingle with the cool
breeze and salt spray of the ocean close by, was nothing but divine. And it all
came in a small package.
Dating back to some 500 years, this is probably what Jasmine must have been
talking about in Aladdin. The Genie pipe! It’s simply the captivating allure of
smoke, the perfumed wafts, and the subtle effects, commonly known as Shisha in
the Middle East, also referred to as water pipe, nargile, ghelyo-on or
hubble-bubble, the hookah is a sociable Middle Eastern tradition that one must
The perfumed smoke swirled the wooden benches under the tall palm trees, the
pleasant purr of conversations competed with the rumbling calypso music beats in
the backdrop on Friday night as the second day of the Middle Eastern food
promotion at the Hilton kicked off. Mixed in a base of honey and molasses,
hookah tobacco (Shisha) comes in as many as 30 natural flavours, such as
coconut, bubblegum, coffee, apple, grapes and melon. Mint, lemon or milk can
also be added to the water to further the flavour of the smoke.
Growing up in the desert kingdom, I have often passed by Starbucks cafes where
I’ve seen socialites of Saudi; women clad in full cover of the abaya from head
to toe, would slowly lift their veil half-way only to take a puff of out Shisha.
The allure was always one of temptation and the guilty pleasure of committing
the so-called sin of smoking.
I had the opportunity of trying out two of the flavours Chef Bassel Ibrahim had
brought all the way from Syria. He was flown into cook the special meals for the
promo, which continued till March 31.
The apple was delicious and rather soft. I felt the tingle in the beginning but
it didn’t have the stinging effect the grape flavour had. I myself was not
surprised how I got hooked to the hookah with just a few puffs of it! Grounded
in cool breeze, and the sound of water hitting the rocks in a fountain close by
and billowing smoke was a pleasant feeling. The grape was rather strong and no
sooner the puff disappeared I instantly felt that the ground and environment
looked hazy. With a circling dizziness I quickly came back to my seat and
decided not to have anymore of the grape! Phew! That was some high!
It comes in a highly decorative glass pipe, the contraptions feature coloured
glass bases etched or painted with a design, sprouting ornate embroidered floral
designs. Water in the base cools the smoke from the tobacco and makes the
characteristic gurgling sound. Shisha tends to be very low in nicotine – 0.5
percent – but the tobacco is unprocessed. Make no mistake – this is smoking. You
can choose to inhale or not (although tradition dictates inhaling), despite the
many health warnings, one plus side is that Shisha omits the nasty chemicals
addictives that tobacco puts in cancer sticks.
Apart from the hubble-bubble of the hookah, came the enthralling and delectable
food from the east. Served in a buffet and with a courteous waiter especially
for your table, the ambience and experience couldn’t get better.
With a spectrum of savoury dishes to choose from, I simply could not take my
eyes off the shawarma. The best sandwich shawarma I have ever tasted was in
Balad, a commercial hub in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Ever since, I have found myself
going back there for the taste of it. I quite can’t recall the last time I had
it, but I know the shawarma at the Middle East food promo came quite close to
delivering the delicious taste!
You can have it your way; they’d either scrape some off of it and put it on your
plate or have it placed inside the ‘lafa’ for you. ‘lafa’ is a type of soft
white sweet fluffy flatbread, staple food of the Egyptians.
Typically, it is pita bread with loads of dressing inside. It would normally
comprise tomatoes, onion, French fries, tahina, Amba sauce (pickled mango with
Chilbeh) and hummus, flavoured with vinegar and spices such as cardamom,
cinnamon, and nutmeg.
Shawarma is made by placing strips of meat or marinated chicken on a skewer.
Animal fat and an onion or tomato, are placed at the top of the stack to provide
flavouring. The meat is then roasted slowly on all sides as the skewer rotates
in front of or over a flame for a period of several hours. Traditionally, a wood
fire is used, but recently a gas flame is more common.
Central to a Persian meal are the numerous rice dishes, most containing almonds,
pistachios and raisins, others with vegetable and spices and occasionally, with
meat. Some of the other recipes include stews, dumplings, kebabs, and stuffed
vegetable accompanied by different sauces. The sweetmeats and pastries are
Persian cooking is known to be one of the oldest cuisines in the world. It is
justly famous for its fragrance, sophistication, elegance and subtlety. They
have a unique combination of ingredients such as fresh herbs, dried limes and
saffron to make that remarkable impression.
In the mist of having desserts, my attention was quickly diverted to the Arabian
belly dancer who enthralled the crowd with her moves and music. Almost everyone
in the room sat there with forks dropped and cameras in the air, and the cheers
were loud. The ethnic vibes were simply tangible. I have never seen a belly
dancer who could do the moves that she did.
To add to the food, the dance and ambience was some of the best. The result is a
feast of flavours and textures as well as a visual delight.