One of the highlights of last week was meeting Riath, the Yemeni Balqees raw honey importer at the International Fine Foods Festival. Riath, mum and I instantly connected over a string of honey and Yemen-related thoughts: the medicinal value of raw honey; the importance of honey in Ancient Egypt; the meaning of propolis and how it can mummify flies who intrude a bee hive (congealed flies. ewww.); how Riath painstakingly transports honey from Yemen, ensuring that it escapes both the heat and light of a typical desert day to retain its quality; raw honey from dark caves in Malaysia; my stupidity in cooing over honey that was actually cheap-grade in the past—and for lack of better knowledge, my likely continuing stupidity for years to come; how slicing open a fresh English muffin from the neighbouring Baker & Spice stall at the Festival + slopping it over with baked ricotta cheese from the Italian Dairy Products sampler plate + drizzling it with Riath’s ancient Sidr honey from Hadramaout, Yemen + sprinkling the open-faced ricotta bun with salt = an INCREDIBLE breakfast combination; how Dubai’s beloved Mandi also hails from Hadramaout (no. Mandi is not an Emirati dish.); why nothing in Dubai could ever parallel the real Mandi taste in Yemen [weep.], and,
Riath: Have you ever tried Zurbain? It really should be more popular here in Dubai!
Mum: Oh yes, I think I tasted it once when I visited Yemen.
Me [*imaginary dunce cap*]: Eh? What’s Zurbian? I haven’t seen it at Al Tawasol […the only Mandi restaurant I have gone to because they’ve cast a magic spell on me with their buttery mandi and if I eat it anywhere else, I fear that I will be zapped into a wart-covered toad.]
Our 30 minutes of buzzing about like happy queen bees suddenly ended on a sobering note. I was the only one of the three who hadn’t tried Yemeni Zurbian, a dish that was highly regarded by a Yemeni native who clearly knew his food.
Who’s even heard of Zurbian? Have you? Tell me you haven’t so I feel like less of an ignoramus.
Anyhoo, that mound of rice up there is Zurbian. I was so impatient to figure out what this dish really was that I read through as many mandi menus as I could, and finally zoomed in on the first place that seemed to have it: Noor Al Mandi in Ghusais.
Now here's a little Zurbian historical snippet for you. The Indian ambassador to Sana’a, Dr. Ausaf Sayeed, claims that Zurbian is a descendant of biryani:
“There was a steady interaction between Hadramout and other places in Yemen and the Deccan during the reign of the Bahmani and the Golconda rulers.Several prominent members of the Sayyid families of Hadramout immigrated to India and established hospices and institutions of Arabic learning in India…Hadramout had a great impact on the culture, music and cuisine of Hyderabad. Likewise, the impact of Hyderabad on the southern Arabia was significant. A number of land reforms that were introduced in Hyderabad were applied in Hadramout with suitable modifications. The Hyderabadi cuisine, particularly its Biryani, is popular in many parts of southern Yemen as ‘Zurbian’”
[India-Yemen Relations: Rich History & Bright Prospects]
The relationship between biryani and Zurbian was right there in every grain of perfectly spiced rice on the Zurbian platter. There were caramelized onions, cardamom pods, planks of cinnamon, and other whole garam masalas flecked across the entire rice landscape. It's the sort of rice dune that makes me want to burrow into the fragrant mound like a mole and eat from the inside out. This, mind you, comes from a girl who doesn’t even fancy rice to begin with.
The lamb looked like it had been tenderized in yogurt, with pink juicy insides and a dark brown fatty-chewy skin that had me nibbling greedily on every bone. A chubby skinned potato sat on the edge, helping to add the token tender veggie in this predominantly meat and rice dish. I ate it all—rice, meat, potato, each element on its own, then mixed in together, then with a splash of salsa-like zhug, then with zhug and yogurt, then each element on its own all over again. If this Zurbian came even 20% close to the real deal from Yemen, then…I’m booking a flight to Yemen.
The other dish that made it to the table, Thareed Madfoon, didn’t quite distract me away from the Zurbian. Sheban, who'd been dragged out on this Zurbian exploration, thoroughly enjoyed the BBQ’ed chicken over gravy-soaked shards of bread...but in my Zurbian-zapped mind, the Madfoon paled in comparison to the dusky biryani descendant plated right next to it.
Credit also goes to Noor Al Mandi for serving us a complementary soup, Maraq, that instantly brought a smile to our lost, hungry, WHERETHECRAPISTHISRESTAURANT, faces.
It was the perfect remedy for two throbbing heads that hadn’t had a chance to eat lunch until 4pm, had consulted multiple GPS options, snapped angrily at each other in the car, switched driver and shotgun roles at least twice on the journey, and had lost their way multiple times before finally finding the restaurant. Ghusais, I will figure you out someday, but till then, let there always be Maraq to dissolve my angst in a well-seasoned combination of chicken and meat stock.
Everything about Noor Al Mandi—their Zurbian, their traditional spacey décor which they have proudly pimped across the first two pages of their menu, their friendly servers who thoughtfully rang a (false) alarm when they suspected a cop of writing us a parking ticket—warrants a return visit. I’ll be back. Maybe the next time I might be compelled to betray Al Tawasol and give their mandi a try.
Noor Al Mandi
Phone: +971 (4) 2390700 / 2390600
Directions: Drive towards NMC Specialty Hospital in Ghusais. Stay on Amman Street, with the Hospital on your right. Drive down until you see an Emarat petrol pump on your right, and immediately take the next service lane exit into a row of restaurants. You should spot a red-signed Noor Al Mandi to your right.
A more detailed map is available on the restaurant’s facebook page.