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Dispatch: A True Taste Of Bahrain

Last week I experienced the local flavor of old Bahrain, both from the hospitality of the people and from the actual flavors of a traditional meal.

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Last week I experienced the local flavor of old Bahrain, both from the hospitality of the people and from the actual flavors of a traditional meal. With some free time to explore before the official Challenge Bahrain festivities kicked off, I ventured to the old part of the city, Muharraq. Following the advice of my invaluable Streetsmart Bahrain guidebook, I set out with an end goal of reaching breakfast and lunch hotspot Saffron, meandering the streets and lanes of the Muharraq Souq en route. All sorts of goods are sold in the souq–household items, clothing, textiles, gold jewelry, spices and an endless array of sweets–and though much smaller than the main Bab Al Bahrain Souq, the streets of Muharraq were just as intriguing. I wasn’t tempted to buy anything (aside from the lavish gold jewelry, although I did resist) but I simply enjoyed wandering about, poking into a shop here and there and chatting to a few locals who stopped to kindly inquire whether they might help me find something in particular, and answering their questions as to what brought me to Bahrain

Toward the end of the shopping district I discovered one of several historic homes tucked into the streets of Muharraq and photographed its beautifully carved wooden doorway. As I was admiring the architecture a friendly looking man pulled up and, as he headed toward the house, asked whether I’d like to take some photos. I admitted that I’d already photographed his door, and asked if that was all right. “Of course! But inside as well–it’s my family home, you must come see it,” he insisted, his pride in the place obvious. With that he led me through the fabulous doorway and into his home, a central courtyard surrounded by several stunningly appointed rooms, including a huge salon where he explained that the family holds weekly parties for their community of neighbors and friends. He told me that the home once belonged to the royal family but had been in his own family (the Abdul Malik family) since the royals relocated to Riffa (further south) several decades earlier.

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In front of one door were several pair of sandals. “Come this way, you must meet my mother,” said my host, and in a matter of minutes I was kicking off my shoes as well, accepting an invitation from the matriarch and three of her friends to join them for Turkish coffee. I sat on on the floor in the circle of women, all dressed in traditional abayas and head scarves, sharing coffee and snacks and not a word of language in common, as I know nothing of Arabic and the son (the only English speaker of the bunch) had left to tend to business. But we passed around smiles and nods and laughter, and when one of the women looked at me optimistically, asking, “Bahrain?” and gesturing with a thumbs up, I answered in kind with an enthusiastic thumbs up that my opinion of their country was a good one. They refilled my coffee, offered the food tray around again and, after I helped myself to a second fresh date (one of my favorite sweet treats), made a quick call to the maid who arrived at the door and was given instructions that I did not understand. In a little while the son came to collect me, armed with a large bag of dates (the instructions now clear) plus a pottery incense burner as parting gifts, and an open invitation to return anytime.

Wired on coffee and kindness, and more than a little amazed by what I’d just experienced, I made my way to Saffron. The feast that ensued could easily count as my last meal–it was simply that good, as well as that large. From my trusty guidebook I knew to go for the traditional Bahraini breakfast–good advice as there was no actual menu, just a waiter ready to hear my order (I did specify vegetarian, an easily accommodated request in Bahrain). When a tray was delivered with four separate bowls of delicious looking fare (potatoes, two separate bean dishes and eggs cooked with tomato) and a basket full of freshly baked flatbread I thought: Wow, that’s a good amount of food! Then, to my surprise, another plate arrived–this one containing two roti stuffed with cheese and mango as well as a kebab sandwich (best described as a falafel slider). Then, a bowl of balaleet–a unique dish of sweetened vermicelli noodles topped with scrambled eggs. Despite my every effort–and believe me, I tried, as I didn’t want to sacrifice a single bite–I couldn’t make it past the halfway point in devouring the mountain of food in front of me. As I stood to pay my bill I was handed a shot glass of a clear yellow liquid and told to down it in one go. It was light and refreshing, a rose water and saffron digestif, the perfect way to end a perfect meal–and indeed, a perfect morning in Bahrain.

(Note: The accompanying photos are of the historic home’s interior and exterior, and of the extensive breakfast at Saffron–the sum total as well as the individual parts. I did not take any pictures of our coffee gathering, as many women in Bahrain prefer not to be photographed.)

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