There is a very healthy and popular Indian dish — the avial, which is common to most South Indian states. Healthy, because it is a no-oil, no-fry recipe with just vegetables. Popular, because what’s not to like about this gravy-based dish which can be a main course with white rice or a side with rotis or kaboos!
To make this power-packed one-pot meal, a variety of vegetables are cut into bite-sized chunks and then tossed into a vessel, with the tough-to-cook veggies going in first and the softer ones joining them a tad later. The whole thing is then simmered in a thick coconut gravy, seasoned with mustard seeds and red chilies with a dash of coconut oil drizzled over it towards the end, for that magic flavour.
To me the UAE is almost like one big dish of Avial, with its multicultural ambience. Ever since we got here almost 20 years ago and made the city of Abu Dhabi our home, we’ve been living amid a potpourri of cultures from different nations.
We come across them every day in the lift, on the roads, in the groceries, in the malls, at our place of work … they’re all around us; making their presence felt through a snatch of a conversation in a different language or a garment worn in a different style.
A melting pot
In the initial years, the building we lived in was the perfect example of a Global Village. Just a ride in the lift would open up almost the whole world to us. Each time the lift pinged to let us know there would be a halt on some floor, we would begin playing the guessing game — who would get in? Would it be someone from Pakistan? Or from Sudan? Sri Lanka? Malaysia? Egypt? Oman? Russia?
There was a couple on a floor above ours. From the time we learnt they were from France, my husband would look at me expectantly, waiting for me to try out the French that I had learnt in school. When I did and barely understood maybe one word out of the twenty that flowed off their tongue, I just nodded and smiled, feeling silly!
Or the bachelor on our floor who lived here week days and went home to his village near Ras Al Khaimah during weekends. The sweet man that he was, he made it a point to address my little boys in Arabic whenever we met and invariably, they would reply with the numbers from 1 to 10, in Arabic of course.
The name is Bond, James Bond
Or that dishy British guy who always smiled at us when getting in or out of the lift. I imagined various scenarios where I would ask him his name and he would look at me and reply, the name is Bond, James Bond!
It was like a jigsaw puzzle — trying to fit the people into their rightful nooks and corners of the world, based on their features, dress and language. As the months and years rolled by, we got quite adept at guessing their origins and felt happy about it.
I had my share of hits and misses, of course. Like the time I met a group of petite and vivacious girls in the bus to Marina Mall. I asked them where they were from and they threw the question back at me with a mischievous, “Why don’t you guess?” I looked a guess. China? Japan? But it turned out they were from S. Korea!
Just like the different vegetables in the avial add to the whole flavour while still retaining their individual taste, so do all the expatriates who come here from various parts of the world and blend in with the locals, yet exuding their distinctive charm.
Radhika Acharya is a freelancer based in the UAE