A small island nation made up of 36 islands spanning 760 square kilometres - with its largest island measuring 55km by 18km - Bahrain is not as well-known as some of its larger neighbours such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia. As a result, many people couldn’t pinpoint the country on a map, let alone describe its special traits, which include a rich history going back thousands of years, legendary pearling grounds and natural springs that once made it an important stopping point on the trade routes between the Indus Valley (India) and Mesopotamia (Iraq), which in turn fed into a rich and multifaceted culinary tradition.
So, what, you may ask, is Bahraini food? As diverse as its people, culture, and heritage, it’s a complex melting pot of ingredients, cooking styles and flavours. As an archipelago of islands, seafood takes centre stage in many of its dishes, while the greatest influence on local flavour is arguably the Kingdom’s strategic position as a trading crossroads in the past, which meant that aromatic spices and rice came to the islands from India, and ingredients such as pomegranates, dried fruit, nuts, black limes and rose water were added to the mix from Persia. Add Bahrain’s ubiquitous date palms to ensure an abundance of sweet treats and the result is a culinary tradition with depth and complexity to satisfy a decidedly discerning, food-loving local palate.
While Bahrain’s prowess in the kitchen is no secret to residents, who today enjoy a vibrant restaurant scene, fuelled by exciting chefpreneurs who are taking Middle Eastern ingredients to the next level, it hasn’t featured much on the world culinary map to date. But this is all changing as a growing number of creative chefs, bakers and restaurateurs who’ve collected accolades at home are travelling abroad to showcase their talents to the world. And they’re causing quite a stir.
Whether using traditional ingredients in unique new ways, fusing Western and Middle Eastern flavours, or making lesser-known foods familiar to all, these culinary ambassadors, dedicated to their craft and culture, are pushing the boundaries, and finally getting a global audience to sit up and take notice of Bahraini cuisine.
Hot in the City: From Saar to Soho
Photo credit @LibraeBakery
In New York, Bahraini-owned Librae Bakery has been ‘baking’ a name for itself in vibrant Soho for the past 12 months. Featuring large windows, airy interiors and minimalist decor, the space alone is a magnet for NYC trendsetters, but it’s the bakery’s innovative breads and pastries, incorporating Bahraini flavours, that have customers coming back for more.
Having gained recognition in Bahrain for her popular bakery, Hopscotch, and adjoining coffee shop, Grind, owner, and baker Dona Murad moved her focus to the US during the pandemic, to showcase her fusion of Western and Middle Eastern flavours to a wider audience. A bold move, it was clearly a wise one as she’s already attracting a significant chunk of the Big Apple’s foodies.
Creativity abounds at Librae Bakery, where Murad is turning traditional Western recipes on their head with the incorporation of exotic ingredients from her homeland. For example, sumac, a spice traditionally used in savoury Middle Eastern dishes, finds its way into her delectable sweet-but-not-too-sweet Lemon Olive Oil Cake, while the sesame pastes tahina, best known for its key role in hummus, stars in her Moorish Tahini Chocolate Chip Cookies.
Also flying off the counter each morning is Murad’s signature Rose Pistachio Croissants, along with the likes of Za’atar Labneh Buns and Black Lime Babka Buns, and if that’s not enough, traditional holidays such as Eid bring with them special one-off treats such as Coffee Sticky Bun topped with whipped cardamom icing. In a word, Yum!
Promoting not only the flavours of Bahrain but its culture, Murad has added the unofficial title of culinary ambassador to her roles and accomplishments.
Recipes for Success: Cooking Up Magic on the Page
Foodies and home cooks around the world, with a yen for Middle Eastern flavours, have been lapping up Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipe books for quite some time now. But if no stranger to global foodies, the Israeli-born British chef/restaurateur famous for his contemporary spins on Middle Eastern classics, has a lesser-known ingredient in his repertoire, namely Noor Murad.
Photo credit @NoorishbyNoor
Born in Bahrain and trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, Murad has recently finished her tenure at Ottolenghi, where she worked for nearly a decade, developing recipes in the OTK Ottolenghi Test Kitchen, as well as co-authoring books with its owner, including ‘Ottolenghi FLAVOUR’ and ‘Shelf Love’.
Murad incorporates flavours from home in many of her recipes, including Bahrain’s subtly bitter black limes, which add a certain je ne sais quoi to her popular Sesame-Crusted Feta with Black Lime and Honey Syrup or the spice flecked Turmeric & Tamarind Eggs. These jostle for attention with dishes such as Baked Polenta with Feta Bechamel and Za’atar Tomatoes, all of which give an elegant nod to the region of her birth, defining her signature style.
By bringing her creative flair to these bestselling recipe books, Murad has helped to elevate Bahraini ingredients and to give its cuisine a star turns on the world stage. With her recent departure from OTK, we look forward to seeing where her influence and experience will take her next.
Cool Customers: Bringing Bahraini warmth to Geneva
Having left a large culinary footprint on Bahrain’s sandy shores, chefpreneur Mureed Nusseir is now making footprints in the snow, gaining fans and followers for a newly opened Geneva edition of his popular Bahrain-born brasserie, The Foundry.
Palestinian-Bahraini Nusseir did his culinary training at La Salle in Montreal, Canada, following with a degree in Hospitality Management at FIU in the US, before returning home to Bahrain to open the country’s first gourmet butchery and deli, Sage & Sirloin, in 2008. A runaway success, loved as much for its top-quality meat as for its signature burgers, this was followed by the opening of a modern brasserie, The Foundry, in 2014, spread over three floors, topped by one of the coolest rooftop lounges in Manama.
Photo credit @TheFoundryBH
Sharing the original restaurant’s chic industrial interiors, The Foundry Geneva may not be bringing Bahraini flavours to Switzerland (as some of our other globe-trotting chefpreneurs are doing), but it’s serving up delicious international fare with a large side of Bahraini hospitality and flair: dishes like Tuna and Avocado Tacos, Moules, Steak Frites, 72-hour Short Ribs, Sticky Toffee Pudding… Helping to set this fare apart is Nusseir’s experience as a butchery owner, which enables him to source exceptional meat from premium suppliers around the world. The same goes for other ingredients since growing up on a small desert island teaches one not only to be resourceful with what’s growing in one’s backyard but to forage the world for the best produce available.
In a region known for hosting numerous local branches of international restaurants, it’s quite a feat for this local chefpreneur to have exported his homegrown brand to such an international city!
Keeping the home fires burning
While the focus of this feature is on Bahrain’s culinary ambassadors abroad, it would be incomplete without mentioning Chef Tala Bashmi, whose Bahrain-based restaurant, Fusions, has been attracting attention from far and wide. Like a pebble cast into the local sea, she’s made a big splash on the Bahrain food scene for her ingenious twists on local staples, causing ripples throughout the region and beyond, winning numerous awards including the notable 50 Best ‘Middle East & North Africa’s Best Female Chef’ title.
Innovative dishes like her Ghoozi Tacos, a mouth-watering fusion of a traditional spiced lamb dish, topped with onions and served in bijou tacos. Or the creative use of mehyawa, a local fish fermented fish oil, in her version of a Caesar Salad dressing.
Apart from titillating the tastebuds of the most discerning diners, her innovative approach is inspiring a new generation of Bahrain chefs to take pride in their food heritage and perhaps ultimately to also take on the world.
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With thanks to Melissa van Maasdyk, who has been a supporter of my writing for many years and helped with editing this piece. And of course a big thank you to the wonderful 'culinary superstars' who took time from their busy schedules to speak with me.
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