It's been 14 long years in the UAE for me and there's no doubt about the fact that I enjoy the exotic flavors of Middle Eastern cuisine, especially during the Holy month of Ramadan, when there is a staggering variety on offer. Most of you might think that food in an typical Arab household is primarily meat based, but you'll be surprised to know that they eat plenty of soups, salads and Mezze (all of which are 90% vegetarian). No meal is served without a platter of fresh veggies, sometimes they are not even cut, but kept whole in a rustic manner, so folks can help themselves freely. Alongside the meat, they also serve rice and yogurt based sides, which are not only gluten free, but light on the tummy too.
I love exploring the spice souks of old Dubai. You feel like you have entered another era altogether. There are many exotic spices up for grabs and the vendors love a good haggle. These guys are old timers, they love to chat about the spice journeys of yore and can even give you valuable tips on how to store your spices. For this simple Saloona/salona (gravy based dish), you just need Loumi (dry whole lemons) and Bezar ( the Arabic version of Garam Masala). If you have no time to explore the souks, this stuff is easily available in supermarket too. There is no set recipe for Bezar, it varies in each and every middle eastern household with the same key ingredients, but different measurements.
My recipe is totally unlike the traditional middle eastern kitchen, where the veggies and spices are set to boil together. Mine is a slight variation as I prefer to pre-roast the masala. Do give this recipe a try, especially since Ramadan is just around the corner. Try it combined with cooked couscous, bulgur or Millet Pilaf which is perfectly safe for those on a gluten-free diet. Don't forget to tag your Saffron Bowl creations on social media as #saffronbowl.
1-2 tbsp Olive oil
3 cloves garlic minced
1 Loumi (dry whole lemon)
2 tbsps Bezar (arabic garam masala)
4 tbsps tomato paste
1 onion cubed into large pieces
2 cups water or veg broth
1 carrot diced
3 diced Baby Marrow
1 cubed Green Bell pepper
Sea salt to taste
a few sprigs of Parsley
1/4 cup roasted chickpeas (garnish)
Bring your pan to a medium heat and dry roast the Bezar. Once your kitchen is filled with the natural aroma of the roasting spices, you can add the olive oil to the same pan and heat it gently but make sure you stir it around well with the roasted masala and then add the minced garlic. Once the garlic attains a golden brown colour, add the onions, carrots with tomato paste, salt and stir these around until the raw smell goes off the tomato paste and it darkens in colour. Now add 2 cups of water or vegetable broth, the Loumi and cubed baby marrow and let this come to a boil after which it needs to simmer for a minimum of 15-20 minutes on a low flame.
Once the veggies look tender, add the green bell pepper and stir it well. In another 5 minutes, you can turn off the flame (I love the slight crunch of bell peppers, but if you don't prefer it, just cook it longer) . Don't forget to extract the Loumi before serving the curry and you can add more water to the gravy if the consistency is too thick. Garnish this with parsley and serve this delicious Vegetable Saloona along with Couscous, plain rice or Arabic flat breads.
Here I have served the Saloona with Foxtail Millet Pilaf (click here for recipe), topped with roasted chickpeas and chopped parsley . Millet looks just like Couscous, (click here for the basic Couscous recipe) but unlike Couscous, it's naturally gluten free.
Tip- Incase you don't have baby marrow, you can use Zucchini. Another way to cook this gravy is with whole baby Okra, the small dwarf like variety that is available in the supermarkets, I have usually seen the frozen kind. Feel free to use cooked chickpeas to the above Saloona and add this towards the end of the cooking process.