Rising Nostalgia


Natasha Stallard


Amelia Johnson


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Since opening this year, Mama Tani has lured Dubai’s Emirati community (Al Shamsi says 95 percent of its customers are local Emiratis, a significant percentage in such an internationally infiltrated city) with its easy, breezy menu of khameer sandwiches, which are served with either sweet or savoury fillings. ‘Our customers thank us for giving them that feeling of the past, of being at home.’

The characteristics of khameer can also be traced in its etymology. The name is a variation of the word for yeast, and also ‘yit khammar’, meaning to rise. Al Shamsi refuses to give away her secret recipe for the bread, which was passed down to her by her grandmother. ‘My grandma has always been such a perfectionist with food – she’s known for her good cooking.’

It’s a hard bread to perfect. A regular dough of bread, flour and water serves as a backdrop for other flavours, such as aniseed, sesame seeds, saffron or other staples of the Emirati kitchen. But it’s the inclusion of date syrup that makes khameer stand out from its gluten competitors. The syrup is used as a replacement for sugar, and is added to the dough before it is left to rise. The dough is then rolled, flattened out and placed on a curved metal plate. Egg yolk is brushed across the top to give the dough its glossy sheen, then sprinkled with sesame seeds and cooked over a wood or charcoal fire. ‘Then they would cook it from the bottom and flip it over on the steel plate, so the bread would rise on one side and you’d have your beautiful khammer bread,’ says Al Shamsi, explaining how the whole process takes up to an hour at home, but three minutes in Mama Tani’s high-tech kitchen. ‘Anyone can make khameer, but it’s not easy to make good khameer. It’s hard to get the taste.’

Rigga is another well-loved Emirati bread which is much easier to perfect, says Al Shamsi, thanks to its crepe-like consistency. But it’s khameer that has that extra special ‘something’, especially once sliced and spread with white cheese, honey or one of Mama Tani’s more contemporary fillings. One of the café’s most popular orders is its khameer filled with saffron cream, accentuated by a layer of chopped dates and roughly sprinkled pistachios.

Saffron has a long history in Emirati cooking. A favourite import from India and Iran, its luxury status (and cost) means that it is used conscientiously and with care. Saffron threads are placed in lukewarm water, to bring out their distinctive bittersweet, honey taste and rusty colour, and then used to add depth to a recipe, such as Al Shamsi’s saffron cream. Added to some light whipping cream, the saffron provides a graceful base for other popular Middle Eastern fruits and spices, such as the handful of locally-sourced dates and pistachios used in Mama Tani’s recipe. The ingredients linger with the past. ‘It’s the texture of the bread. It has a little bit of a rustic texture – that’s where the nostalgia comes from, the hint of date. The aniseed gives it that nostalgic feeling.’ Like a Proustian madeleine, khameer has the ability to move the mind into a stream of memories and moments.

This article appears in the issue40Buy Now