Move over Dubai, Bahrain is the Middle East’s new food hub | brunch | feature | Hindustan Times
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Move over Dubai, Bahrain is the Middle East’s new food hub

This tiny island country has so much going in terms of world flavours

brunch Updated: Aug 12, 2017 23:46 IST
Kalyani Prasher
Kalyani Prasher
Hindustan Times
Cantina Kahlo, the stylish fine-dining restaurant at Manama, serves excellent modern Mexican food
Cantina Kahlo, the stylish fine-dining restaurant at Manama, serves excellent modern Mexican food

South American cuisine is the hottest trending food worldwide, with its flavours and accents on the top menus of 2017. Within 24 hours of being in Bahrain, I’d been to two restaurants that specialise in them: Classy gourmet Mexican at Cantina Kahlo and laidback chic Cuban Fusion at Asia de Cuba.

You might say I was surprised and you’d be damn right. I always judge how traditional a city is by what its citizens have for breakfast. When I ask this question, mostly nowadays I get a raised eyebrow and “eggs and bread, just like everyone else”, in response. Not so in Bahrain. Even in Manama, its capital and biggest city, people still eat a traditional Arabic breakfast at home, and even at restaurants. “It’s usually balaleet (vermicelli mixed with sugar and eggs) or shakshuka (eggs poached in a tomato gravy),” says young Ayat Nasser, whom I met in Manama at Haji’s Cafe, one of the oldest and best for traditional Bahraini cuisine.

It was quite intriguing that this tiny island country has so much going on in terms of trendy world flavours and yet, even with a large expat population, manages to retain its traditional food culture.

Home is best

So what is traditional Bahraini food? In simple terms: any combination of rice and meat or fish. Rice is a must for lunch in Bahrain – if you are not having rice, you are not having lunch. I tried machboos, a traditional dish of fragrant rice (cooked in stock) topped with caramelised onions served with roasted chicken, eggplant and potatoes, at Haji’s Café. The chicken was so well cooked that it fell off the bone at the lightest prod. It was served with a saluna: gravy with beans and potatoes. Haji’s Café doesn’t have a menu, they just have a few dishes each for breakfast, lunch and dinner and you never return disappointed.

A popular food on the go is fried chicken liver with kuboos, the Arabic pita bread, often as a sandwich. Bahrain was a major trade centre, so its food has been influenced heavily by flavours from the world over, including India. You will find biryani in every traditional restaurant, and another common dish is the humble yellow dal! Seafood is as common, of course, fresh and delicious wherever you go – fine dining, or a small kuboos and fish shop. If you like fish, you should try sheri or safi, the two most popular local fish types, usually served whole and fried in traditional restaurants.

Bahrain has long been the party zone of the Persian Gulf with the Saudis coming over to eat, drink and make merry every chance they get

What I found surprising was that Haji’s Café was full of local people, not just travellers wanting to get a little taste of local food. More surprisingly, eating breakfast out seems pretty common, and Haji’s Café is more popular for its breakfast than anything else.

All the world’s a plate

Old and new sit easy together in Bahrain. If chicken was falling off the bone at Haji’s Café, Wagyu beef was slicing off like butter at Cantina Kahlo. The newest Mexican restaurant to open in Manama, it introduced me to food from Mexico beyond the Tex-Mex that we are used to and has a large menu that covers north, middle and south Mexico. Its ‘Journey of Mexico’ set menu has dishes from all three regions and is a good way of sampling the food as you can choose your three dishes (I recommend the grilled beef highly), and while there are all these new flavours and roasted, grilled and fried meats, I was glad to get a great guac and chips to start my meal, and crispy churros to end it. There is horchata, the traditional rice drink available on the streets of Mexico, to wash all this down with, and, of course, there are margaritas.

Haji’s Cafe is famous for its traditional Bahraini fare that is a combination of rice and meat or fish (KalyaniI Prasher)

Bahrain has long been the party zone of the Persian Gulf, with the Saudis coming over to eat, drink and make merry every chance they get. (On any weekend, you can see more Saudis than locals at any restaurant.) A liberal state, shopkeepers and restaurants don’t need a liquor or pork license in Bahrain, so you are assured of getting whatever food or drink you like anywhere you go, including the department stores. (Which is more than you can say about India at the moment!)

Soft-shell tacos served at Cantina Kahlo, at the Ritz-Carlton Bahrain

If you’ve gotten hooked onto the fad of eating ceviche, Asia de Cuba is the place to go in Manama. Marinated cold slivers of beef or fish with lime and olive oil, this cold starter is served along with several innovative, funky-looking dishes (fried potato rocks; banana and shrimp salad) at this lovely airy café that serves Cuban food with Asian accents. Part of the arty complex, Gallery 21, a space with a café, fine dining, a shisha lounge, exhibition spaces (and a gourmet florist!), you should visit Asia de Cuba even if just for a coffee so that you can enjoy the quirky décor and a million little curios and collectibles that dress up its spaces.

South American may be the edgy option, but there is no shortage of good restaurants serving popular cuisines such as Italian, Japanese, Lebanese and, of course, Indian, in Bahrain. Most of the action is between the two main islands in the north, Manama and Muharraq, and you literally cannot take a few steps before you find a place you’d like to stop and try something new. Traditional Bahraini or the latest flavours in vogue the world over, this little island’s got it all covered.

The Brunch insider’s view
  • Visit Kingdom of Perfumes at Manama Souq. Sample locally mixed perfumes that use raw materials from India. (Source: Lonely Planet)
  • For racing enthusiasts, the Bahrain International Circuit in Manama is worth visiting. (Source: TripAdvisor)
  • Check out Qal’at al-Bahrain, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Northern Coast of Bahrain. (Source: Conde Nast Traveller )

Off the beaten path

Not many people go to Bahrain for the wildlife and yet, the Al Areen Wildlife Park here is a great place to explore if you are travelling with your family. Both a nature reserve and an animal shelter, this is a small park where you can introduce your children to plants and trees native to the Middle East and Africa, as well as spot the exotic Arabian oryx, Persian gazelle, Nubian ibex, apart from several rare bird species. It is located in Sakhir, in central Bahrain, about 40 km from Manama.

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From HT Brunch, August 13, 2017

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