The F1 2021 season just kicked off in Bahrain, so we’ve kicked off our global cooking project exploring traditional Bahraini foods. In case you don’t know, the Kingdom of Bahrain is made up of a cluster of islands on the Arabian side of the Persian Gulf, and has the distinction of being the smallest country in the Middle East. Well, DP and I haven’t traveled to the Middle East (yet), and it turns out there isn’t much written about Arabian Gulf cooking, let alone Bahraini food. So here we go….(Jump to recipe)
For our research into Bahraini food, we relied heavily on Tess Mallos’ The Complete Middle Eastern Cookbook. Originally published in 1979, it’s one of the most comprehensive books on Middle Eastern cooking available in the U.S. It helped us that Mallos grouped her recipes by region instead of type, dedicating a full chapter to traditional foods of the Arabian Gulf, including Bahrain. Her spelling of Arabic words don’t necessarily match contemporary spelling (you know, like “Peking” vs. “Beijing”), so that was a little challenging. Once I knew what recipes to look for, I was able to find and compare some other sources, but wish there were more.
Being totally new to Gulf cooking, we tried a LOT of recipes. I started with some simple pantry items like clarified butter and Baharat, a spice blend that is as essential to Arabian cooking as Garam Masala is to South Asian cooking. Next, I tried my hand at home-baked pita bread, and stocked our fridge with homemade pickled tomatoes, radishes, and peppers (which apparently need to age, so we’ll have to revisit those in a couple weeks). Then we sampled some rice dishes and curries, like Mashkoul (rice with onion), Mu’addas (rice with lentils) and Muhammar (pearl divers’ sweet rice…yum more on this later), Samak Quarmah (fish poached in tomato sauce) and Tharyd (beef & potato stew).
In testing we discovered so many new flavors, cooking methods, and serving ideas that I’m excited to master and share. But they will have to wait until F1 returns to the Gulf later this season. Today we’re taking a look at what’s widely regarded as the national dish of Bahrain: Machbous. Incorporating basmati rice from Pakistan, dried black limes from Persia (loomi), and Arabian Baharat, Machbous best reflects the country’s history as an important trade hubon the Silk Road. Made the traditional way, fish, poultry, or meat is first cooked in heavily spiced broth, then rice is added and cooked in the same broth. The rice is served on a communal platter, and the meat is served on top.
First we tried Tess Mallos’ recipe for Shrimp Machbous. The rice was so fragrant, we both thought its flavor overwhelmed rather than enhanced the dish. Hoping chicken would stand up better to the spices we tried her Chicken Machbous next, but were still disappointed. Despite our love of heavily spiced Indian and South Asian food, the heavy perfume of this particular Baharat blend continued to put us off. So I compared different Baharat recipes, and found all of them shared common ingredients, but varied their ratios. After all, Baharat is simply the Arabic word for “spice.” So I felt OK about personalizing our Baharat, increasing the quantity of paprika, cumin, coriander, and cardamom, and reducing the amount of nutmeg and clove.
Finally for Race Day, I decided to take what I’d learned and make my own version of Lamb Machbous. To start, you should know I have very strong opinions about meat-cooked-in-rice dishes, but I’m always willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. I just think that unless it’s cured meat like bacon, chorizo or Chinese sausage, any meat you cook in rice gives up all its flavor, and you end up with is delicious rice and bland chunks of meat. Very rarely have I been proven wrong on this.
Since I’m using a bone-in lamb breast, I separate the bones from the belly and make a fragrant bone broth for cooking the rice. First I give the bones a light sear in a saucepan, then simmer them with onions, leeks, garlic, ginger, coriander and black pepper for a minimum of 3 hours, and up to 8 hours for the richest broth. When the broth is ready, I strain it and skim as much of the fat off the top as possible. This keeps the rice from getting too greasy and keeps it light and fluffy.
While the broth is simmering away, I rub the lamb belly with cumin, coriander, cardamom, salt, pepper and saffron steeped in a couple teaspoons of orange blossom water (rose water is traditional but I have an inexplicable aversion to roses). Because lamb belly is so rich and fatty, I slow roast it whole in the oven. It shrinks a lot as it cooks, so it’s important that the roast fills the baking dish, even if you have to squeeze the edges in. This way there will be enough juices and fat to fill the pan and prevent it from drying out and scorching.
When the meat is tender, I set it aside to cool and cook the rice. This part is pretty traditional. First I wash and drain the rice so I don’t forget later and accidentally add it to the pot dry. Next I sauté the onions in a bit of clarified butter until they’re translucent and a little browned on the edges. Then I add Baharat and turmeric, and briefly toast the mixture before adding tomatoes, whole cinnamon, cardamom pods, and dried black limes. After the tomatoes soften, I add the rice, cilantro, a bit of salt, and just enough broth to cover the ingredients. Once the liquid comes to a boil, I put the lid on the pot and continue to cook on low heat until the rice is tender.
This recipe tends to stick to the bottom of the pan as it cooks. Some folks do like the toasty bits, so I just let the pan sit covered, off the heat for a few minutes. The trapped steam helps the those bits release from the bottom of the pan and I serve them along with the rice. If you don’t want brown bits, stir the rice periodically while it cooks. You can also cook the rice in an oven set at 350 F. The even heat of the oven helps to prevent rice from sticking to the bottom of the pot as it cooks. Simply bring the liquid to a boil, cover the pot and transfer it to the oven to finish cooking.
When the lamb belly is cool it’s easier to get clean slices. To warm them, I just lay the slices in a single layer in the pot of rice while the rice is still hot, and let the pot sit covered for 5 to 10 minutes. Then I spoon the rice onto a platter and top it with slices of roasted lamb. The method for our Machbous might not be traditional, but I believe the result is in keeping with the spirit of the dish. Prepared this way, the meat stays tender and juicy, and retains its full flavor. Bone broth gives the rice the desired lamb flavor, and homemade Baharat gives it the just the right balance of spices to suit our taste.
The traditional accompaniment to Machbous is Dukkous Al-Tamat, a simple tomato sauce made by cooking down tomatoes with garlic and seasoned with Baharat. According to Mallos, Bahrainis also add tamarind to their dukkous. I couldn’t find a recipe for that so I just added a little tamarind paste to Mallos’ recipe. Make sure to serve Machbous with plenty of fresh warm pita bread, a crisp salad, and pickled peppers. For a tasty treat, I recommend tearing off a piece of pita bread, smearing it with dukkous, and topping it with a thin slice of fatty lamb belly, pickled peppers, and a sprinkle of sea salt.
 Melissa van Maasdyk, Streetsmart Bahrain (Streetsmart Publications 2013), 118
To read more about the food of the Arabian Gulf and Bahrain:
Tess Mallos, The Complete Middle Eastern Cookbook, 1979, 2012
Sarah Al-Hamad, Cardamom & Lime, 2016
Habib Salloum, Arabian Nights Cookbook, 2010
Suzi Wells, Arabian Gulf Cookbook 1993. It’s out of print and not available digitally. Used copies are available through online sources but they are not cheap.
Melissa van Maasdyk, Streetsmart Bahrain, 2103. An eBook tourist guide available as an iBook, containing a good overview of the contemporary food scene in Bahrain.
Sand Kitchen https://sandkitchen.com I only just found this site from a Bahraini-Iraqi cook posting her traditional recipes. Can’t wait to try some of them.
Bahraini Style Lamb Belly & Rice
I know there are a lot of steps to this recipe, but don’t let that deter you. They are mostly unattended and totally worth it. The bone broth will have the richest flavor if you let it simmer a full 6 hours (or 2 hours in a pressure cooker) and you can always make a day or two ahead. You can even roast the lamb belly the day before, and refrigerate it overnight. Save yourself a step and have your butcher debone the roast for you. If you can’t find bone-in lamb breast, you can substitute lamb shoulder or leg of lamb, but you will need to adjust the cooking time.
Yield: 4-6 servings
Active Time: 45 minutes
Total: 7 hours
3 lbs. lamb breast, deboned to yield approximately a 2 lb. slab of lamb belly and 1 lb. rib bones
For the bone broth:
1 Tbsp. clarified butter or ghee
1/2 ea. med. onion, peeled and chopped
1/2 ea. leek, white and greens, chopped
4 ea. garlic cloves, smashed
1″ piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
1 tsp. coriander seeds
1 tsp. black peppercorns
For the lamb belly:
(measurements are approximate)
a pinch of saffron
~2 tsp. rose or orange blossom water
~1 tsp. kosher salt
~1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
~1/2 tsp. paprika
~1/2 tsp. ground coriander
~1/2 tsp. ground cumin
~1/4 tsp. ground cardamom
Baharat, makes 1/4 cup:
1 Tbsp. black peppercorns
2 tsp. cumin seeds
1 Tbsp. coriander seeds
1 tsp. cardamom seeds (not pods)
1/2 tsp. whole cloves (about 10)
2-1/2 tsp. paprika
1-1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
For the rice:
2 cups basmati rice
2 Tbsp. clarified butter or ghee
2 ea. large onions, peeled and diced
2 tsp. Baharat (or more to taste)
1 tsp. ground turmeric
1-1/2 cups (375 g) diced tomatoes
1/2 tsp. grated loomi or zest of 1/2 lemon
2 ea. cinnamon sticks
3 ea. cardamom pods, bruised
about 2 tsp. kosher salt
about 2-1/2 to 3 cups lamb broth
3 tsp. chopped cilantro, plus more for serving
- Start by making the lamb bone broth: Melt the clarified butter or ghee in a 3 quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Working in two batches, gently brown the rib bones, render some of the fat out of the meaty parts.
- Set the browned bones aside, leaving just enough fat in the pan to coat the vegetables. Lightly brown the onions and leeks. Return the bones to the pan along with the garlic, ginger, coriander and black pepper.
- Add enough water to just cover the ingredients by just 1-2 inches. Simmer gently for at least 3 hours and up to 6 hours. Check periodically to make sure the ingredients are still covered with liquid, replenishing as needed.
- When the broth is ready, strain and set it aside to cool. Skim any accumulated fat that rises to the top. Reserve 3 cups of broth for cooking the rice, and refrigerate the unused portion. The broth can be kept refrigerated for 7 days or frozen for up to 6 months.
- While the broth is cooking, roast the lamb: Preheat the oven to 350 F. Steep the saffron in the rose water or orange blossom water and a couple tablespoons of warm water.
- Rub the lamb belly with salt, pepper, coriander, cumin, cardamon, and the rose water-saffron mixture. Place the belly in an oven-proof casserole, fat side down. The lamb should fill the dish, and it’s OK if you need to shove the edges into the pan a bit. The belly will shrink a lot, and the idea is for the belly to cook slowly in its own juices and fat.
- Cover the casserole with a tight fitting lid or aluminum foil and transfer it to the oven. Bake for 1 hour, then uncover the pan and flip the lamb belly over so it’s fat side is up. Cover the pan again and roast for another 45 minutes or until the lamb is tender.
- When the lamb is tender, uncover the pan and roast for 15 minutes longer until the top is slightly browned. Let the lamb rest in the pan for 20 minutes at room temperature, then drain most of the fat off (there will be a lot, which can be saved for another use). Transfer the roast to the refrigerator while you prepare the rice.
- For the rice: If you haven’t already, make the Baharat. If desired, you can toast the whole spices in a dry pan until fragrant. Allow them to cool completely before grinding them fine in a spice grinder or coffee grinder. Add the paprika, cinnamon, and nutmeg into the ground spices and mix to combine.
- Rinse the rice until the water runs clear. Drain and set aside.
- In a 3 to 5 quart dutch oven set over medium-high heat, melt the clarified butter or ghee. Add the onions and cook until translucent and just brown on the edges. Add the Baharat and turmeric and cook for 1 to 2 minutes more.
- Add chopped tomatoes, grated loomi or lemon zest, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, and salt, and cook on medium heat for about 10 minutes.
- Add the rice and 2-1/2 cups of the bone broth and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and cover the pan with a lid. After 10 minutes, add the cilantro and give the rice a stir, adding a splash of hot water or stock if needed to dislodge any bits beginning to sick to the bottom. Cover again and cook for 10 to 15 minutes more until tender. Let the rice rest off the heat for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
- To serve, slice the lamb belly into 2″ long x 1/2″ thick pieces and if necessary, reheat them gently. Spoon the rice onto a platter and arrange the lamb on top of the rice. Garnish with fresh chopped cilantro.
Bahraini friends, please feel free to share any comments, corrections, advice or recipe links below by leaving a message in the comments section below!