Bahrain, the 33-island archipelago nestled between Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the Arabian Gulf, effortlessly juggles the modern and the medieval. Exquisite mosques and Unesco Heritage sites jostle for space with spiffy malls and vibrant cafés, skyscrapers with souks and stony forts with amusement parks.

A similar eclecticism runs through its food, the kingdom’s dietary habits shaped by an influx of immigrants over centuries. Lebanese, English, Sri Lankan, Indian, Arabic, Palestinian and African cuisines all find creative expression in this culinary melting pot.

In Manama, Bahrain’s capital, there’s a frisson of excitement about the city’s burgeoning dining scene. Stand-alone eateries, cafés, salad bars and coffee houses are mushrooming. There is an increase in the number of five-star hotels, and investments by Michelin-star chefs in cafés and restaurants. For instance, fêted Austrian chef Wolfgang Puck has launched not one but three concept restaurants at the Four Seasons Hotel Bahrain Bay, including a steakhouse, an Asian fusion restaurant and a Moroccan lounge.

The Ritz-Carlton, smack dab in the heart of downtown Manama, offers gourmet dining at its 11 restaurants and lounges. Each dish at the hotel’s acclaimed Primavera restaurant, crafted by Michelin-star chef Oliver Glowig, is a reinterpretation of traditional Italian classics fused with local ingredients, such as a pasta seasoned with sumac.

Breakfast staples

Despite their newfound enthusiasm for international cuisine, however, the Bahrainis’ love for robust, local fare remains undiminished. They seem obsessed with bread, for one. At every meal, breads emerged as a stellar support cast. Unleavened or yeasted, sweet or salty, brown or orange, local chefs excel at baking it. I tried an Indian-inspired avatar of the vada pav-meets-dabeli called pau, which can be plain or stuffed with cheese. Mihyawa, a roomali roti-like folded bread sprinkled with fish sauce, also piqued my interest.

“The soul of Bahraini cuisine is indeed its breads," explains Froosh Nur, executive sous chef at Downtown Rotana hotel as I stuff my khubooz with akkawi, a soft briny cheese with a nutty flavour, to create a wrap. “We can’t get enough of it," he adds as I reach out for another piece to mop up the gravy of nasheef, a stewed lamb and potatoes dish, washing it all down with laban, a yogurt-based drink.

The Bahraini breakfast is a heavy-duty meal comprising gems such as shakshuka, mihyawa, balaleet and that Gulf Cooperation Council staple drink, karak tea. Balaleet, another breakfast staple, is a uniquely Bahraini dish with sweet cardamom-infused vermicelli noodles topped with a salty omelette. With its unusual twinning of salty with sweet, I had reservations about trying this one. Unexpectedly, I loved it.

Of late, local chefs told me, quintessentially Bahraini dishes are back in vogue. Part of the reason, they reckon, could be the upsurge in tourist numbers that is spurring the interest in authentic and local dining experiences. This has led F&B establishments to add dishes like harees (wheat cooked with meat, then mashed and topped with cinnamon sugar), jireesh (spicy lamb stew), firgaa (rice cooked with a triple layering of aubergines, tomatoes and potatoes), gabout (stuffed dumplings in a meat broth), ouzi (lamb stuffed with rice, meat, eggs) and gaimat (saffron syrup-soaked dumplings) on their menus. Fish too is a big favourite, especially hammour, typically served grilled, fried or steamed, safi (rabbit fish), chanad (mackerel) and sobaity (sea bream).

A street café in Manama city, Bahrain. Photo: Alamy
A street café in Manama city, Bahrain. Photo: Alamy

The local spice trail

Bahraini home meals usually centre around a wholesome plate of rice with fish or meat. Pilaf-like machboos—usually studded with seafood—is the national dish. I tried fish machboos with a saluna: gravy with beans and potatoes. The exquisitely cooked long-grained rice, redolent with the flavour of melting fish and crispy caramelized onions imparting a hint of sweetness to all that umami, was hearty fare, unblemished by modernity.

Bahrainis also love their meats, and, if they’re skewered and grilled, even better. Grilled chicken and lamb are favourites, with the bone of course, as well as minced meat, which is usually a kebab or seekh. Most meats are napped in the traditional eight-spice Bahraini masala (cloves, peppercorns, nutmeg, cinnamon, paprika, coriander, cardamom and cumin). Meat curries usually involve prolific use of preserved black lemon, traditionally used as a souring agent. The kebabs, more compact in size than, say, the Indian or Arabic versions, are marinated in the Bahraini spice rub mix before being seared on stone or coal.

Meats on the street

Street food is a delight in Bahrain. In Manama’s atmospheric souks, I saw vendors briskly selling falafel, fried balls of chickpeas so light they could float. Falafel mahshi (chickpea falafels stuffed with a chilli paste called shatta, sumac spice and onion) is hugely popular. It is accompanied by hummus, or a green pepper, garlic and lemon sauce called tatbeela. Shawarma (lamb or chicken) is carved straight from a rotating spit and wrapped in pita bread.

Coffee shops pepper Bahrain’s streets like confetti. Coffee (gahwa) is intrinsic to the traditional welcome across the kingdom. Flavoured with saffron and cardamom, it is poured into a coffee pot called dallah and served in a tiny cup called finjan. There’s a sizeable number of tea drinkers as well, with Sulaimani chai and karak chai topping the charts.

A special love for sugar

Bahrainis joke that they don’t have one sweet tooth but several. Their love for halwa is legendary. Though the dessert’s roots can be traced to Zanzibar and Tanzania, locals say it was the Omanis who
introduced this Middle-Eastern dessert in Bahrain.

“The halwa found its way into Bahrain probably 150 years ago," explains Ahmed Feroze, the owner of Manama Sweets—a tiny, cavernous shop in a local souk—as I eye his stunning smorgasbord of baklava (sweet flour pastry), kunafa (syrupy cheese pastry) and khabees, a gooey, pistachio-studded date nougat. In a nod to the city’s sizeable Indian expat population, there’s a line-up of barfi, rasgullas, gulab jamuns and jalebis too.

Unable to spot the halwa, I ask Feroze if I can buy some. “Oh, no," he exclaims. “Lady, we don’t sell halwa all day long. It’s available only in the evening, when we make it fresh. It’s sold out in no time. Could you come back then?" he requests.

I did. No sooner did the sky turn lavender than I landed at the shop to sample the famed sweet crafted from semolina, sugar, dried fruits and cardamom. The wait was well worth it.

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