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Persian Comforts

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 definitely try!

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.
Shisha!

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!

Decorative
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.

Delicious
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.

Rice dishes
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 especially mouth-watering.
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.

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