Maleh salad is made with tuna and coriander leaves. Image Credit: Grace Paras/ANM

Emirati cuisine remains something of a mystery to many expats living in the UAE, as it's not commonly found in restaurants or recipe books.

According to Souad Serkal, spokesperson for the Shaikh Mohammad Centre for Cultural Understanding, "If we look into the history of the UAE, back when pearl diving and fishing was the way of life, people needed a lot of energy to get through their working days. Therefore, the food consisted of a lot of carbs/starch and protein. The main sources of food were fish, camel meat, camel milk, rice and bread, and a basic meal consisted of rice with fish, meat or chicken, depending on what was available - people relied on natural resources for their food."

Over the years, trade relations with different countries, such as Iran, India, some African nations and Portugal, led to aspects of their cuisine melding into the local food - for example, in the use of certain spices.

Since then, lifestyles may have changed - but the traditional diet, not so much. As a result, Emirati food can sometimes get a bad rap as being very unhealthy. But, according to Souad, a few tweaks - such as using vegetable oils instead of the heavier ghee, and reducing portion sizes which are traditionally very large - can help adapt the food to modern requirements.

"If you look closely at an Emirati dish, you will see that the ingredients used in a meal are very healthy and actually include the entire food pyramid," she says.

This a home-made spice mix, essential in most Emirati dishes. Here's how to make it:

500g cumin seeds
100g coriander seeds
100g whole cardamom
200g cinnamon sticks
100g turmeric
50g dry ginger
50g dry chilli
30g star anise
50g nutmeg
50g fennel seeds
100g whole black pepper
50g fenugreek seeds
20g cloves
20g nutmeg flower (japthri) 

How to
Dry-roast the cumin and coriander seeds on low heat, then add the cardamom and cinnamon sticks. Cook for 5 minutes, then add turmeric, dry ginger, dry chilli, star anise and cook for another5 minutes. Add remaining spices and roast for15 minutes. Keep aside to cool. When cool, grind into paste. This keeps for a month.

Maleh salad 

Ingredients (Serves 5)
500g fresh tuna
75g spring onion, chopped
200g fresh tomato, chopped
50g fresh coriander leaves
50ml lemon juice
1 green chilli
1/2 lemon 

How to 
 - Divide the fish into small pieces and discard the bones. Cook in boiling in water for 25-30 minutes.
 - Drain and refresh under cold running water. Drain again and spread out to dry on paper towels. Place in a bowl, cover and chill for 1 hour.
 - Toss the spring onions, fresh tomato and coriander in a salad bowl.
 - Add the fish, green chillies and lemon juice, mix together and serve with lemon wedges as garnish.

Aseeda bobar 

Ingredients (Serves 5)
1kg red pumpkin
2 litres water
400g roasted wholewheat flour
150g honey
1g saffron threads
1/2tsp ground cardamom
1 tbsp rose water 

How to 
 - Wash and peel the pumpkin and cut into large chunks, then place in a large pot and cover with water. Cook until soft (this should take about 25 minutes). Strain the pumpkin and let it drain.
 - Mash the pumpkin and blend with the roasted wholewheat flour. Add honey, saffron and cardamom until it becomes a smooth mixture.
 - Cook again slowly for 10 minutes, gently mashing the pumpkin from time to time until it becomes tender and fluffy.
 - Add the rose water. Continue cooking on low heat for a further 10 minutes.
 - Spoon it onto a serving plate, and smooth over with the back of a spoon, allowing the outside edges to form a border.
 - Garnish with a few saffron threads (optional) and serve warm.

Chicken Madroubah 

Ingredients (Serves 5)
900g skinless chicken breast
100g onions, sliced
3 pieces garlic cloves
100g ginger
5g green chilli
1/21tsp ground turmeric
1/2 tbsp bezar spice
200g fresh tomatoes
1tsp tomato paste
1 piece dried lemon
1g whole cardamom
25g fresh coriander
1/2kg oats
1.5 litres water 

How to 
 - Boil the chicken breast in water until it is tender (this should take approximately30 minutes). Keep aside.
 - Cook the onions in a large pan, over low heat with a little water so they cook in their own juices.
 - Add the garlic, ginger, chilli, turmeric and bezar and continue cooking. Then add tomatoes, tomato paste and dried lemon, and continue to stir for 2 to 3 minutes.
 - Add the chicken with the turmeric, cardamom and fresh coriander and continue to cook for five more minutes.
 - Add the chicken broth to the mixture and boil for 10 minutes.
 - Add the oats and simmer gently on low heat for 5 minutes, until it dries out a little, and the oats are well cooked. Sprinkle with dried lemon and serve.

Fish Saloona 

Ingredients (Serves 5)
1kg shari fish (cut into 100g pieces)
1.5tsp bezar spice
1tbsp ground turmeric
150g onions, sliced
25g crushed garlic
25g ginger
10g green chillies
5 pieces whole cloves
200g fresh tomatoes, chopped
1tsp tomato paste
25g curry leaves
25g fresh coriander
1/2tbsp ground cinnamon
2 pieces dried lemons
1 litre water
1 fresh lemon and steamed rice, for serving 

How to
 - Marinate the fish in a mixture of salt, turmeric, and 1tsp of the bezar.
 - Cover and cook the sliced onions over a low heat with a little water so they cook in their own juice. Then, add garlic, ginger, green chillies and cloves and continue until all ingredients are well cooked and infused.
 - Add the remaining bezar and turmeric and continue on low heat for 3 minutes. Add fresh tomatoes, tomato paste, curry leaves, fresh coriander, cinnamon and dried lemon, and continue cooking on low heat for 1 minute.
 - Add 1 litre of hot water and season the drawn gravy with salt to taste. Add the marinated fish and cook for 20 minutes.
 - Garnish with fresh coriander and lemon and serve with the rice.