Kuwaiti food writer, Sarah Al Hamad, grew up in Kuwait and has been residing in London for the last 15 years. The author of Cardamom and Lime: Recipes from the Arabian Gulf, her first cookbook, was recently in Kuwait to launch her new cookbook at Zeri Crafts, Salmiya, where the author succeeded in enthralling her visitors.
Released in May this year in London, Sun Bread and Sticky Toffee: Date Desserts from Everywhere (Interlink Pub Group) is not just a cookbook with date delicacies, but it is also part travelogue, tracing in the footsteps of dates and outlining a historical journey through world culture.
It took three years for Al Hamad to complete the book, during which she researched, travelled along the ‘date route’ and experimented with its contemporary presence. A self-proclaimed home cook and a skilled photographer, Al Hamad claims she has always been a foodie. Her first book, the highly praised Cardamom and Lime, published in 2008, is still quite in demand, currently going into its third reprint.
Introducing her book of desserts at the launch, Al Hamad said, “I didn’t realize I had dates in my DNA. I spent 3 years writing this book, during which I lived in a cave and ate only dates!”
She continued to explain how the whole adventure surprisingly started with a very English pudding she had in London called ‘sticky toffee’, whose origin she says is still considered "a mystery". It’s a typical English dessert, but contains dates, which sparked Al Hamad’s curiosity. Intrigued, she embarked on a mission to unearth how “dates, a staple of the Arabian culture and hospitality, made its way into an English recipe” in a region that had no association with the fruit.
She traveled to Andalusia in Spain, which is Europe’s largest date plantation and a UNESCO Heritage site; to Liwa Date Festival, which is an annual festival held in July in Liwa, a town three hours down from Abu Dhabi; to California, where she was bemused to learn that American cultivators use the same terminology of dates as Arabs; then finally to Cartmel in North of England, which is the home of the ‘sticky toffee’ pudding. Through it all, Sarah realized there was an unmistakable bridge between very different and faraway cultures linked through dates.
“It is believed there are 360 uses of the fruit, besides its nutritional and culinary qualities,” says Al Hamad, of this ancient and wholesome fruit.
Al Hamad has an MA in Middle Eastern Studies, and was previously the managing editor at Saqi Books, an experience that served her well when she decided to write her own book. She also holds regular talks on the food of her heritage in London. Shabana Shaikh met with the author during her brief visit to Kuwait.
Tell us how you first got into writing…
I worked in publishing for many years, before I took a leap of faith and became a full-time writer. I always had an idea to do a cookbook on traditional Khaleeji cooking and in 2007 I got the opportunity to do it. My first book did very well and I extremely enjoyed the process of writing about food and about cultures through it.
Why did you choose to become a food writer?
I am a foodie and food is an important element for me. I cannot rightly experience a new culture unless I have sampled their cuisine. There is something about food that makes people very open and warm. I am invited into peoples’ kitchens, which are very intimate spaces and you discover more than you expected.
By focusing on Khaleeji cuisine, did you plan on documenting this vastly verbal culinary tradition, which is little known outside the Gulf?
Absolutely. Khaleeji cuisine has many influences and each household has its own recipe for the same dish. I tried to compile these recipes that I grew up eating in my first book. Besides that, I wanted to introduce people in the West to our cuisine, and to our culture through it. Culture and food are so interlaced, that you can’t have one without the other.
Your latest book on date desserts took three years to complete. How was this experience, personally?
Yes, it took three years basically from concept to publication. I did a lot to travelling and location photography for the book. The relation between different cultures through food and how it impacts us is very interesting to me. In all, it has been an enriching experience.
What can readers expect from Sun Bread and Sticky Toffee?
Firstly, it’s all about dates! It contains 40 recipes from all over the world. Some recipes are quite ancient from Mesopotamia and Egypt, and I had to update some of these. Others are contemporary like cheesecakes (vanilla and date cheesecake); brownies; date, pear, and stem ginger jam; rose water, date, and cashew pudding; and so on. I have restricted the use of sugar as much as possible, because I wanted people to understand that dates can be healthy. All recipes have been tried, re-tried, tested and tasted by me and other experts. The introduction of the book details my three-year long journey and includes suggested readings.
In writing this book, what was the most unexpected discovery?
The most surprising thing was learning how ‘human’ the date palm is. It’s really a miraculous tree. Just the fact that there is a male and female, the female bears the fruit and you need to pollinate it –makes it similar to the human way of regeneration. Even their behavior is very tribal or social, i.e. they like to be in groups. I also discovered that dried dates and fresh dates are quite different from each other in terms of their nutritional value. For instance you get Vitamin C from fresh dates, but not from dry ones; while from dry ones you get fiber and potassium.
Will you continue to write cookbook or venture into other genres in future?
[Laughs] Honestly, I don’t know! I just go where I get ‘hooked’. All I know is that I enjoy writing and food is universal, like music. For now, it’s important to represent my Khaleeji roots and culture through our cuisine.
Sun Bread and Sticky Toffee: Date Desserts from Everywhere is available in Kuwait at dar.nur, Shuwaikh and Zeri Crafts, Salmiya; and at Words BookstoreCafe in Bahrain. You can order the book online through Amazon.com
– Shabana H. Sheikh
Food images by Kate Whitaker, location images and author photos courtesy of Sarah Al-Hamad