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Food and Folklore

by Philip Iddison

Traditional food is an important component of a nation’s heritage and as such is part of the context of folklore. Folklore may record any aspect of a nation’s past heritage including traditional food.

Food is an essential part of our lives from birth to death. At one extreme it is necessary for our existence and at the other a luxury to be enjoyed on special occasions. It has been an ever present theme through the folklore of any nation and should be an essential part of folklore studies.

Popular heritage themes which have inspired folklore in the United Arab Emirates are often gender or age specific:

  • Children play games;
  • Men train hawks and go hunting;
  • Women spin sheep and goat’s hair for weaving into domestic goods

However, everyone eats, usually several times a day and usually in a family or social context. Perhaps this frequency and familiarity explain why it has been little recorded and studied in the UAE. It may also be quite simply that food is not considered a suitable subject for discussion; a situation that was common in western society until the recent explosion in popular and media interest in food.

Food in UAE society seems to be rarely recorded for its own sake. Judging from the available publications in English it usually receives peripheral attention in oral and written accounts and appears occasionally in old photographs. Gathering together this fragmentary evidence establishes the roles of food in UAE society and gives an insight into the every day lives of the past and present generations:

Food has had a defining role in the culture of the UAE. For instance the local wedding feast is a significant social event at which the status and cultural integrity of a national family is displayed by the hospitality that is given to the guests. By means of traditional foods and other features based on the local cultural heritage, the national identity is reinforced at such occasions when folklore memories will be initiated for future reference. Without the traditional foods, dress and other heritage markers the event would be devoid of its national character.

Apart from special events, food has a role in everyday life, indicating a person’s status, personal preferences and aspirations [1].

Food also has a functional role in many religions, particularly Islam.

Food culture constantly changes. New influences, ingredients and techniques are absorbed into a culture as they become available. A major change occurred in the UAE with the adoption of Islam in the seventh century [2]. These new influences may enhance the food culture whilst some can debase the cohesive integrity of an established culture. Many modern techniques such as freezing and franchising have been introduced into the UAE. The convenience aspect of these new arrivals often displaces old ingredients, cultural routines or techniques. Many frozen foods mimic items from foreign food cultures. In the short term the local food culture is displaced and weakened and this is of course an undesirable outcome. However, it may only be a question of time before the new is applied to the old and for instance ready made harees is available from the supermarket freezer cabinet!

On this particular aspect of response to new influences, it is worth pointing out that UAE food culture has a long history of absorbing the new, creating a particularly rich culinary heritage. Spices, coffee, rice and the Columbian exchange fruit and vegetables have been blended into the food repertoire over a period of many centuries.

The absorption of new techniques and, in particular, the role of the mass media in persuading people to adopt modern food products and concepts has not been accomplished so smoothly. This is primarily due to the hectic pace with which these have been thrust in front of the consumer and the many distractions in modern lifestyles. Aspects of traditional food culture are under threat of extinction and the complex role that food plays in the cultural heritage is changing irrevocably.

Food Culture in the Past

The history of the UAE can be divided into three main periods for the purpose of food studies:

The Archaeological period is documented In a relatively fragmentary fashion with occasional illuminating views of the food of the prehistoric past [3].

The Traditional period extends from the Hijra (seventh century) up the 1960’s and is documented with written and oral records of increasing frequency as time passes. It started with a significant change in the food culture due to the conversion to Islam.

The Development period starts with the influx of significant oil wealth and is characterised by rapid economic development causing major changes in lifestyle. An additional important factor has been the substantial increase in the immigrant population.

Up to the end of the Traditional period the majority of the UAE population was involved to a greater or lesser extent in the provision of their daily food. The main economic activities to sustain the lives of the national population of the Trucial States in the early part of this century can be divided into two groups. On one hand there were subsistence occupations:

  • nomadic camel herding;
  • tending date gardens and associated agriculture in the oases;
  • sheep and goat herding where pasture and water supplies permitted; and
  • fishing and fish drying.

Alternatively there were a limited number of trades:

  • providing land transport by camel;
  • pearl diving and trading;
  • trading including overseas dhow journeys; and
  • activities such as charcoal burning, firewood collection, guarding and crafts such as blacksmith, dhow builder.

All of these occupations were wholly or partially associated with the production, processing and consumption of food. Many households were involved in a variety of these activities [4]. Food was therefore a significant if not dominant aspect of the national life.

As an example 17% of the population were estimated to derive their livelihood wholly or partly from fishing as recently as 1969 [5]. Folklore provides plenty of detail on the pearl fishing industry which has a prime position in the folklore memory of the country, but the fishing efforts which provided an equal and more stable means of existence are relatively poorly recorded and publicised.

Food Studies

A logical sequence for food studies takes us through the main stages in the acquisition, processing and consumption of food as shown in the following table [6].

Stage Main Cultural Features
Primary production, hunting, crops, animal husbandry, fishing
Trading and imports
Work organisation within society
What is/is not food, religious proscriptions
Storage &
Owning, renting, tax, distribution
Food retention for future need
Processing methods
Storage methods, store foods
& Cooking
Distribution of duties
Skills and techniques, recipes
Eating and Meals
Social context of food
Appropriate foods, prohibitions
Allocation of duties
Gifts of food, disposal of food remains
Processing of food remains

In the UAE there is a significant overlap in the archaeological record and the folklore history periods. Similarly there is considerable overlap and interaction between these five stages.

Each stage has aspects which are of particular interest from the folklore and heritage perspective in the UAE. Samples are identified in the following table.

Stage UAE Folklore and Heritage Aspects
Procurement Dominance of procurement in peoples lives
Broad range of food sources in the UAE
Assimilation of new resources and response to change
Storage &
Specific local storage methods
Endemic store foods
Traditional and local markets
& Cooking
Skills and technique
Ingenuity in techniques
Specific combinations marking the food culture
Aversion to sale of prepared food
Eating and Meals Dichotomy between family meals and public feasting
Ramadan traditions
Form of meals through the day
Social context and function of food
Disposal Gifts of food
Disposal of food remains

Allied subjects of particular heritage interest are food processing, cooking and preparation vessels and utensils, food processing structures and kitchens and associations between food and religion.

Many of these fields of study are poorly documented, even in the contemporary environment. For instance markets are a prime source of food ingredients and serve to distribute new and different foods to the population. They have a transient nature and are rarely studied or recorded. Similarly the recording and preservation of the domestic architecture of the country is only partial and ethnographic displays are limited in location and scope.

Two examples of different aspects of food studies in the UAE are offered to illustrate the changing role of food in UAE society and stress that a record should be kept to present a full picture of both traditional and modern UAE food heritage for future researchers and the general public.

The local markets are cited as an example representing the second stage in the food study spectrum. Traditional markets are a cultural resource of inestimable value. They are the public face of a society and display many facets of local culture in fascinating detail. Some Western societies are finding that these markets are being re-created in line with modern public interest as well as satisfying the vendor’s interests. For instance there is now a proliferation of farmer’s markets in the USA fulfilling a role like that of the traditional market.

Bread has been one of the staple foods since pre-history and still forms a major part of the national diet. It is an example of the third stage in the food study spectrum, Preparation and Cooking. Local home prepared breads now have to compete against the commercial product. Given the chronic time shortage in modern lives and decline of the extended family in UAE society, the production of these home products is dwindling

Traditional Markets

I have been a regular patron of the Suq as Samak (the fish market) in Al Ain for five years.It is a wonderful traditional market and in my view is the culinary heart of the city.I estimate that somewhere in its stalls, shops and casual traders you will find 90% of the range of individual foodstuffs available in the whole retail marketing system of the city.As might be inferred from the name it is primarily a fish market and for a city 100 miles from the sea the range of seafood is extraordinary.On a typical Friday morning I have recorded between thirty and fifty different marine food species available.

What has this market got to offer to the folklorist? Apart from the food resources of the city being on display for purchase and use in the buyer’s everyday life, the market is a social entrepot. Women may converse freely with men, whether as vendor or buyer. A stranger will discuss the finer points of a purchase with another stranger. After repeated visits and purchases a friendship at a basic level is established with a stall holder, to flourish as time passes with the offering of good advice on a purchase or some new item. The normal social rules are relaxed in the informal short-term relationships which are an essential part of market trading.

From a cultural aspect seasonal local products from artisanal processors or farmers are available, often with particular heritage values. The suq is the only trading source I know of the following local food products:

  • kami - dried de-fatted milk curds
  • samn - clarified butter
  • regag - one of the national breads
  • wild honey comb of the Asiatic honey bee, Apis florea
  • date palm pollen and female flowers
  • wild harvested greens, for instance Rumex acetosa and Caralluma sp.
  • traditional medicinal herbs, Artemisia herba-alba is one I have managed to identify to date
  • seasonal fruits such as trinj (bitter orange), ambarella, mulberry
  • a more extensive range of fresh herbs than any other source

Many of these are fringe products and do not form the bulk of the local diet. They do however define a specific and very local character which could never be replicated in a modern commercial establishment.

Traditional markets all over the Emirates have their own individual character, for instance the fish market at Ras Al Khaimah has casual vendors selling chammi outside and the excess catch of tuna being processed by wet salting inside. The Masafi Friday market always has fresh locally grown produce for sale.

These markets deserve support and preservation. If it is inevitable that they be redeveloped then it should be done with sensitivity to maintain the cultural nature and context of both the physical structures and the market ethos.


Archaeologists have found evidence of the availability of food grains in the UAE from seven thousand years ago. Various types of wheat, barley and sorghums were all available to the resident population. They may have been used as animal feed but were more likely grown for human consumption. They are excellent store foods with a number of food uses, boiled as whole grain, made into gruels or porridges, and also ground to flour for making into baked goods including bread, the most technically accomplished use. For comparison, rice was a latecomer in the ethnobotanical record, it is likely to have only become common in the local diet in the last two thousand years [7].

Bread is an important staple around the world. It takes many forms and is made from many grains. It may be leavened or not, baked, steamed, fried or cooked on a flat griddle or tava. In Middle East societies it is not unusual for bread to be consumed at all the main daily meals as well as a snack in between [8]. In some societies bread is treated with reverence as an important element of life and it also has religious connotations in some societies.

Wheat is the preferred grain for bread and the tanur ovens excavated on prehistoric sites in the UAE testify to the probability that leavened wheat breads have been a part of the local diet since those times [9].

The preparation of an unleavened bread in the embers of the camp fire is well attested in UAE folklore, it is the simplest way of making flour palatable with the minimum of water, a precious commodity in desert life.

Wheat and wheat flour are principal ingredients in UAE dishes such as harees and aseeda. Bread is used as an ingredient in the key local dish thareed and a bread derivative is used in another dish, gress [10].

The traditional breads of the UAE are of particular interest. The range of cooking methods exploits most of the techniques available, leavened and unleavened dough is used and there are indications that sourdough techniques have been and continue to be used. The bread occurs in both savoury and sweet forms, khamir, jabeeb, logaimat, regag, mahalah and wagafi are the ones I have recorded to date. This variety and ingenuity indicates a rich cultural heritage. I have been fortunate to see the bakers at work and sample their bread at several heritage events in the UAE. At one event a national in young middle age commented to me that traditional bread was disappearing quickly under the pressure of modern lifestyles. Given the delicious taste of the bread sampled at these events, I appreciate the inestimable loss to UAE food culture if these breads are no longer available to each new generation to help define and cultivate a national palate for good wholesome food created by fine cooking skills in the home. The bread produced by immigrant artisanal bakers, khubz, is generally good and all the better for its freshness but it lacks the variety of form and flavour of the “national breads”. (Local bread making techniques will be illustrated by photographic slides at the presentation of this paper.)


Trends with a negative impact on food traditions observed in the western food chain and likely to or already occurring in the Emirates are:

  • movement towards private agri-business where commercial gain over-rides other considerations (eg. bacterial infection of chicken meat);
  • the widespread distribution of international franchise fast foods which pay scant respect to local traditions and are leading to a global food uniformity;
  • uncontrolled use of chemicals in food production building future problems ( eg. build-up of pesticide residues in the food chain);
  • loss of choice and bio-diversity (whereas small producers often persist with traditional varieties or methods);
  • distancing of consumers from the producers, loss of basic appreciation of food sources (eg. children unaware that milk is produced by cows and goats);
  • unquestioned adoption of new processing methods (but the sterilisation of food by ionising radiation has been largely rejected by European consumers);
  • consumer unease at what it is being offered (uncertainty over additives or processes, the BSE crisis is a classic example);
  • elimination of small-scale suppliers (producers or traders who may be able to maintain a market niche at a modest economic level);
  • dehumanising of the food acquisition process, either by lack of knowledge in sales staff or there being too many links in the chain (buying at the supermarket rather than the traditional market), and
  • overconsumption leading to health problems and debasing the essential value of food as life support (the plate piled high at the buffet and subsequent waste of food).

Many of these issues are now being seriously questioned by western consumers and reverse trends are beginning to be established, a backwash culture where old practices, customs and products are cherished as being more sympathetic to the individual and quality of his or her life.


"Tradition must be thought of as dynamic" [11]. Similarly folklore is dynamic. Current events, artefacts, characters etc. are the building blocks of future folklore if they have the interest or intrinsic value to be worth remembering or aggregating into a folklore. Will future folklore be scattered with accounts of:-
  • meals at Macdonalds or Pizza Hut
  • or the feast at a cousin’s wedding?

Whilst modern western eating habits will create their own folklore, it will not have the wealth and connectivity of folklore referencing traditional cultural foods, processing and consumption patterns.

Anecdotes from Wilfred Thesiger’s writing [12] will finally illustrate some of the interaction between food and folklore which I have raised. At the end of his travels in the Rub al Khali, Thesiger stayed in Dubai with his Rashid travelling companions. At Edward Henderson’s house he told his companions that whilst he had been travelling he had followed their eating habits. Now their host was a Westerner and they would eat in the Western style. Thesiger notes that Bin Kabina and Salim bin Ghabaisha adeptly handled the cutlery which they had never used before. He also noted that this self possession would shame the efforts of an Englishman required to eat with his hands for the first time. This adaptability to the incoming food cultures is beneficial but also potentially detrimental to the survival of traditional cultures.

Thesiger took his two companions across the creek on a abra to dine with the Sheikh of Dubai. He arranged to meet the abra boy at ten o’clock for the return journey. As they headed for the abra station for the return journey, bin Ghabaisha suddenly stopped Thesiger and told him they had done something awful. He said that they had forgotten to bring some food for their travelling companion. Puzzled, Thesiger asked him who he was referring to. "The boy who brought us over", Bin Ghabaisha said. Thesiger tried to explain that the customs of the town were different to the desert. He received the following response:

“We are bedu. He was our travelling companion. Did he not bring us here? And we forgot him. We have fallen short.”

The traditional hospitality of the Emiratis is legendary, one hopes it does not become just a legend and that it can survive to enrich the folklore of the future.

Recording traditional food, associated folklore and heritage is essential to build the base for maintaining and reinstating, if necessary, a rich cultural legacy for future generations.


Brock-Al Ansari, Celia, The Complete United Arab Emirates Cookbook, Emirates Airlines, Dubai, 1994

Catterall, Claire, Food: a design for the senses, in Food - Design and Culture, Laurence King Publishing, London, 1999

Facey, William, Al-‘Udhaibat: Building on the Past, in Aramco World, July/August 1999

Goody, Jack, Cooking, cuisine and class. A study in comparative sociology, Cambridge University Press, 1982

Heard-Bey, Frauke, From Trucial States to United Arab Emirates, Longman, Harlow, 1996

King, Geoffrey R, The History of the UAE: The Eve of Islam and the Islamic Period, in Perspectives of the United Arab Emirates, Trident Press. London, 1997

Potts, D T, Contributions to the Agrarian History of Eastern Arabia - II The Cultivars, in Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 1994:5, Munksgard

Samuel, Delwen, Approaches to the Archaeology of Food, in Petit Propos Culinaires 54, Prospect Books, November 1996

Thesiger, Wilfred, Arabian Sands, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1964

[1] Catterall expands on the social aspects of food and draws attention to the function of food as a design element in modern society.

[2] King

[3] Fortunately the situation is improving all the time, for instance a recent Gulf News article (4/2/2000) reported that Mark Beech has established firm evidence that 7,000 years ago shaeri (emperor fish) were caught by shallow water fishing methods for food.

[4] It was not unusual for a nomadic herdsman with a small palm garden in Liwa to leave his family during the date harvest whilst he spent part of the summer fishing on the coast.

[5] Heard-Bey

[6] This sequence is based on work by Samuel in an assessment of studies in the archaeology of food in turn based on work by Goody.

[7] Potts

[8] Personal observation in Turkey.

[9] Charred pieces of bread more than 5,000 thousand years old were found at an archaeological site in southern England confirming the antiquity of bread as a food (Gulf News 9/10/99).

[10] Recipes can be found in Brock Al Ansari.

[11] Prince Sultan ibn Salman ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa’ud quoted in an interview with Aramco World about his reconstruction of Al-‘Udhaibat, a traditional mud-brick oasis house near Riyadh.

[12] Arabian Sands



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