Before I moved to Dubai over eleven years ago, I came for a three-week visit with my husband en route from a wedding we had just celebrated in London. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived in the UAE, as it was the furthest I had ever travelled from Canada. I remember sitting on the airplane, looking at the map on the overhead screen in front of me thinking, “We’re flying over Baghdad, wow, I’m really far away from home”. And indeed I was.
As soon as we landed, we rushed through security to collect our baggage and hop into a taxi. It was late, we were exhausted, and I was stunned at how hot it was given the sun had already set several hours before. Driving down Sheikh Zayed road, I remember thinking how smooth and modern the highways were, and I was completely struck by the bright, festive lights that paved the roadsides. G (my darling husband) explained that the lights signified the month of Ramadan, which had just started a few days before our arrival. I had yet to step out of the taxi and I was already in awe – the back seat driver in me was totally impressed.
Before heading off to sleep, G took me to the rooftop of the Jumeirah Beach Hotel. It was a little past midnight, and there were only two other couples on the terrace. The view was incredible. With a sense of stillness in the air, everything looked so vast, peaceful, and majestic. I don’t know what came over me, maybe I was just caught up in a moment when I turned to my husband and said, “If we don’t move here, I’m divorcing you!” He laughed, and I was joking of course, but I had a strong feeling that this was where I belonged.
As I learned more about the city that I would eventually call home, I became familiar with Ramadan and the traditions that are so beautifully rooted within this important time of year. Among the many elements that I look forward to, shared meals at Iftar are what I love the most. It really is a time to connect with family, nurture old friendship and welcome new ones. The sense of togetherness that comes with gathering around the shared table is what, to me, reveals the essence of Ramadan.
Since chickpeas are prevalent in Middle Eastern cuisine, I have included three easy ways to use this versatile legume. Classic hummus is given a modern makeover with the addition of roasted peppers, while the dressed chickpeas (balila) and cinnamon rice with chickpeas can be served as side dishes to meat, chicken, or fish. They also work well on their own as salads and vegetarian mains.
These three recipes call for chickpeas that have been soaked for 6 hours or over night. Soak them in 4 times their volume of water with a pinch of baking soda. Keep in mind that dried beans usually triple in volume once they are cooked. One cup of dried chickpeas will give you about 3 cups cooked. Remember to drain them prior to using (do not rinse!).
Roasted Pepper Hummus
- 1 red capsicum
- 200 grams cooked chickpeas (about one cup)
- 2 tablespoons tahini (sesame paste)
- 1 large clove of garlic
- Juice of half a lemon
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons olive oil (plus more for garnish)
Preheat your oven to 210 degrees C (400 F).
Roast capsicum in the oven until soft and slightly charred on all sides, turning occasionally. About 25 to 30 minutes.
Remove capsicum from oven. Immediately place it in a bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap (careful, the capsicum will be hot). You will see a lot of steam form in the bowl, which makes the pepper easier to peel. Let it rest in there for a few minutes until it is cool enough to handle. Peel off the skin, and remove the stem, core and seeds. Let cool to room temperature.
Place all the ingredients in the bowl of a hand blender or food processor. Blend until you’re left with a very smooth mixture. If the mixture becomes too thick and stiff, add a bit more lemon juice or water to loosen the hummus. Taste for seasoning and add more salt if necessary.
Serve with thin Arabic bread or pita crisps. It also makes a wonderful dip for vegetables.
Dressed Chickpeas (Balila)
- 400 grams cooked chickpeas
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon olive oil plus 2 teaspoons for frying the garlic
- Small handful of toasted pine nuts (optional)
Heat a small frying pan with a couple of teaspoons of olive oil. Add the garlic, and sauté for 2 minutes until soft but not brown. Add the chickpeas and salt toss to heat through. Add the cumin and mix through the chickpeas until incorporated. Remove from heat. Add lemon juice and olive oil. Mix well.
Garnish with a bit more olive oil and toasted pine nuts if desired.
Cinnamon Rice with Chickpeas:
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon of ground cinnamon
- 1 cup jasmine rice or basmati rice
- 2 ¼ cups water for jasmine rice OR 2 ½ for basmati rice
- 1 cup cooked chickpeas
- 1 ½ teaspoons salt
Rinse your rice with cold water and drain well. Set aside.
Heat a frying pan over medium heat with one tablespoon of olive oil.
Add onion and salt. Cook until the onion softens and starts to brown slightly, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, and cook for two more minutes, stirring constantly.
Add the cinnamon and water. Bring to a boil.
Add the chickpeas and rice. Let boil until the water starts to evaporate, about 3 to 4 minutes.
Reduce heat to low, cover and continue to simmer for 18 to 20 minutes, or until all of the water has been absorbed.
Let stand covered for 10 minutes before serving. Check for seasoning. Fluff the rice with a fork and dig right in!!!