Newsletter March 1999

Newsletter March 1999


Inter-Emirates (event-filled)Weekend in Abu Dhabi

Walking trips, dolphin sightseeing and a challenging quiz night are a few of the highlights of this month’s Inter-Emirates Weekend being hosted by the Abu Dhabi chapter of the Emirates Natural History Group on the March 25/26 weekend. All ENHG members from across the UAE are invited!

The weekend’s events will be held on Futaisi Island, a large island located just west of Abu Dhabi city with access from the wharf located near the Khalidiya Palace Hotel at the western end of the Corniche. The island, home of the Futaisi Island Golf Club, is also home for a large population of sand gazelles, lizards and birds. All meals (Thursday evening, Friday morning and noon) will be served in the Golf Club’s clubhouse.

A year ago, the Al Ain chapter acted as hosts with a program which featured a comprehensive survey of Jebel Hafit. The Abu Dhabi weekend will be concentrating on the incredible sights on Futaisi Island, just minutes from the hustle and bustle of downtown Abu Dhabi.

If you are planning to attend, please contact Steve James by fax (02-653094). Steve will send a map of the loading dock by fax.

(If you do not have access to a fax machine, you can email Steve at If you have neither fax nor email, please contact Brien Holmes — see contact numbers on last page of the newsletter.)

Registration Information

Registration fee for the weekend is Dh150 which includes a meal late Thursday afternoon along with Friday breakfast and lunch, all served on the island. The fee also includes a boat trip in search of dolphins, water taxi service to and from Futaisi Island, and the sleeping accommodations (large carpetted tents and cots). Those attending should provide their own sleeping bag (and pillow?).

When registering, please provide an estimate of your time of arrival so organizers can schedule water transport. Boats begin the water taxi service at 9 am Thursday.

Depending on what time you arrive, you may go directly to the island or enjoy a leisurely cruise around the vicinity observing sea life as well as the diverse bird populations.

The proceedings get underway late Thursday afternoon with opening remarks and a natural history quiz hosted by Simon Aspinall, co-author of the Shell Birdwatching Guide to the United Arab Emirates with Colin Richardson. There will be prizes for both winners and losers!

There are a number of activities planned for Friday but the main options will involve three walks around the island.

Two of the walks will concentrate on the centre of the island with individuals sarching for dhubs and gazelles. The dhubs — spiny-tailed lizards — are particularly large on Futaisi and, with an absence of persecution — are relatively tame. Photographers should have several opportunities to capture these amazing lizards on film.

Diverse Bird Population

The third walk will be held along the shoreline and is organized with bird watchers in mind as the island’s shoreline is teeming with a variety of birds. Osprey are resident on the island and keen observers will likely also spot Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Scops Owl, Rock Thrush, Woodchat and Lesser Grey Shrike. Among the shorebirds typically found on Futaisi are Terek Sandpiper, Greater and Lesser Sand Plover and the occasional Crab Plover. “Socotra Cormorant is a possiblity, while both White-cheeked and Saunders’ Little Terns breed close by,” according to the Shell Guide. “Gull flocks are worth looking at, with Great Black-headed Gull possible from December to March.”

Directions to the GASCO dock: drive west on the Abu Dhabi corniche past the Hilton Hotel and past the Adnoc complex. Continue to drive west until the Khalidiyah Palace Hotel roundabout. Drive around the roundabout until you are heading east, back towards the Adnoc HQ. Street renovations are underway but there will be signs to the ferry wharf. Depending on the state of construction, visitors my leave their vehicles in the wharf carpark or, more likely, in the GASCO carpark located nearby.

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Preparations for the Wedding Feast

by Phil Iddison

(The following article by Phil Iddison was written in November 1998.)

Driving through one of the suburbs of Al Ain late on a Thursday afternoon I noticed some outdoor cooking activity on the other side of the dual carriageway. Making a U-turn to go back and investigate I passed two large tents and also noticed the UAE flags, both of which heralded a wedding party. It was on the edge of a shabiya housing area for nationals.

Cooking activities were well advanced. Nine or ten huge aluminium pots were bubbling on fires in an area protected with makeshift screens of eight by four sheets of plywood nailed to stakes driven into the ground. Each pot rested on three concrete building blocks and was fired directly by tree trunks of acacia wood which were fed into the fire progressively. The pots varied in size but most were about five feet in diameter and thirty inches deep. A nearby water tanker had provided the liquid to fill them up.

Across the road in neat piles lay the viscera and hooves of eight young camels, almost certainly young bulls, the cows being too valuable for the pot. They had been slaughtered and butchered on the spot, there was no sign of the skins and all the edible delicacies such as heads, hearts, livers etc. had probably gone in the pot. The fatty humps would certainly have as they are considered a delicacy according to Mark Beech. He was offered boiled hump fat from a young camel at a wedding celebration in Ras al Khaimah as an honoured guest and told me that it had rather an unappetising gelatinous consistency.

The pots were tended by several Pathan or Pakistani cooks. One was using a garden shovel to turn over the contents and extract a sample of the cooking liquor to taste it. Bones protruded from the cooking liquid and dried limes, loomi, bobbed around on top. The pots had been liberally dosed with saffron or more likely turmeric as they had an insipid yellow colour. Carrot and onion remains around the pot indicated some of the other ingredients and I saw the cooks adding half kilogram packets of cummin and several kilo packs of salt per pot.

Large aluminium buckets were being knocked into shape ready to receive the meat and bones when they were cooked and it was time to cook the rice in the cauldrons. The cooked rice would be heaped on large oval aluminium serving trays and the meat would be piled on top to serve to the wedding guests.

I had seen similar preparations in a back lane in Khadimiyah in Baghdad in 1984, there the pots were the more traditional copper pots, qidr.

Passing by the site next day, the tents were being dismantled and all that remained of the kitchen area was a selection of fire blackened concrete blocks, some fine ash and across the road eight circles of blood stained sand.

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Cultural diversity evident in local fish recipes

(This is the final installment of Phil Iddison’s report on the ‘fish suq in the desert’, the Al Ain fish suq. The membership if grateful for his generosity in sharing this insightful report with members.)

There are few accounts of local food published in English. Reviewing recipes that are available for traditional food in the UAE and neighbouring countries reveals several categories of fish dishes.

My definition of traditional food is the food endemic in the UAE before the advent of oil wealth and the social changes which ensued. This was already a cultural mix with Iranian, sub-continental, Iraqi and north Arabian influences. It had however developed a distinctive character which is evident in the fish dishes, particularly those requiring preserved products.

Given the good quality of fish, the simple methods of frying and grilling fish, samak maqli and meshwi, are understandably popular. The ready availability of cooking oils is relatively recent and the frying medium was probably clarified butter, samn. Ovens were the clay tanoor type and do not seem to have been used for cooking fish dishes. Fish stews are well represented with spices being an essential component. The local spice mix, bezar, was used for meat and fish dishes.

Dried anchovies or sardines were ground with roasted fennel seeds to make a garnish called sahnah for rice. Gashr are also cooked with egg and cheese and eaten with bread. In Oman red pepper and garlic were pounded with the anchovies to make a similar condiment. Awal was used for a range of dishes including stews and salads. It was prepared by soaking and boiling before being incorporated into the dish. The recipes for this product are almost all Omani and this reinforces my view that these products are falling out of favour in the UAE. Local advice is to avoid drinking milk after eating awal and other dried fish as it is likely to upset the stomach. Oman also has many recipes for salted fish, malih, and a keen general appreciation of its broadly based and historic culture.

Matharubah originates from Kuwait and is made from fish and rice which are reduced to a paste after the first stage of cooking. There are recipes for fish kebabs and fishcakes and many recipes include a stage where the fish skin and bones are removed and the fish is flaked into the dish. This could explain the fish butchery in the suq.

Some Omani recipes call for the dish to be smoked as a final cooking stage. This is achieved by placing half a lime rind on the surface of the dish, placing a little samn in it, adding a piece of burning charcoal and sealing the lid so that the charcoal smolders and flavours the food. This seems to be a particular taste of Oman.

Crustaceans were also popular food and the Gulf prawns have a well deserved culinary reputation. Swimming crabs are a common market item, the remaining coastal mangroves providing the necessary breeding environment. A national told me that they were one of his children’s favourite foods, simply cooked on the barbecue. Dugong meat was also eaten when these mammals were caught in the fishing nets and was considered a delicacy. These mammals may weigh up to 500 Kg. and the flesh is like very tender beef.

Food on the pearling expeditions was dependent on fish as a source of protein to sustain the arduous work. Rice was the staple accompaniment and with dates and coffee completed the bill of fare on these voyages which lasted up to two months.


The diversity of fish dishes reflects the important role that food from the sea played in traditional life in the Trucial States as one of the main economic resources. The taste for fish has not diminished and is well served by the modern fish markets such as the Al Ain fish suq where a large variety of seafood is available. The fish market in the desert is not an anomaly.

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Project to reprint works of Phil Iddison for members

The article on the Al Ain fish suq which appears on this page is the last installment of Phil Iddison’s paper on the suq’s products.

Unfortunately, space has not permitted the inclusion of the detailed footnotes which accompanied the original article. These footnotes, together with other papers prepared by Phil, will be reproduced in their entirety for ENHG members later this year.

Phil has also undertaken a project to locate the bread shops in Al Ain and Buraimi for those of us who share his enthusiasm for traditional bread.

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