Kuwait has put on weight. That was an obvious observation after a lengthy absence. So has the rest of the Arabian Gulf. Along with money, cars, air conditioning and other comforts has come a tidal wave of foreign foods flash-flooding the Gulf shores. The food is Persian, Indian, American, French, English—even Chinese. Some of these culinary influences have been around for a long time. Persian pilau was brought from across the Gulf by seafarers and settlers. Indian curries made their way aboard the merchantmen that plied the Arabian Sea. In fact the spices of India have crept into many of the dishes made by fishermen and sailors from Arabian Gulf ports. The cooking of other Arab countries has also been naturalized for some time, brought here by footloose Syrians, Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese, or brought back by equally footloose Saudi, Kuwaiti, Bahraini students, businessmen and vacationers.
But international cuisine—the kind now found in restaurants and hotels the world over—is something new to the Gulf. It is largely based on imported foodstuffs, frozen, canned or fresh. But more and more of the raw materials are being produced locally. Gulf fish and shrimp are as good as any in the world, and meat is raised locally—sheep, that is, for when an Arab talks about meat he normally means mutton and lamb. Saudi Arabia is also rapidly developing its agriculture and now exports products such as watermelons, tomatoes and cucumbers to other Gulf states. Dates, bananas and pomegranates are grown in the oases, and the desert itself produces a local delicacy, white and brown truffles, which are dug out of the ground, boiled and served with meat.
The "Barbecue" has become the trendy style in the international type restaurants and hotels in the Gulf these days. But "barbecue," locally has a special meaning, signifying, really, a buffet. Apparently the whole trend started with someone doing a real barbecue cook-out; then it came to mean any big feast served out of doors, which was usually a buffet prepared by one of the big hotels. And now the word is used for a buffet meal served indoors or out. Hugo Langer, Director of the Kuwait Hilton, explains how the popularity of the buffet came about. Gulf customers do not particularly like to be served individually. The food should all be on the table. This conforms to the local custom of putting everything down in front of the guests all at once. Besides, says Langer, "it eliminates a lot of menu, language and staff service problems."
While surveying a typical "barbecue" at the huge new Hotel al-Gosaibi at al-Khobar in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, I asked Richard Robinson, the impressively rotund, food-loving English manager, "What have we here?" "God knows! Let's start here," said Robinson, pointing to about a quarter of a mile of dishes artistically displayed by the Egyptian chef. "There's Gulf shrimp cocktail, smoked Scotch salmon, fresh Scotch salmon, cold hamur (a delicious Gulf grouper with meat like a sea bass) decorated with stuffed eggs. Here we have turkey, meat loaf, some cold lamb cuts, tomatoes stuffed with Russian salad, salami, sirloin of beef, saddle of lamb, artichoke hearts filled with cheese, supremes of chicken in aspic, legs of chicken"—Robinson drew a colossal breath and carried on—"There's any kind of salad you can think of, all the very Lebanese things like hummus, tabbouleh, baba ghannouj, and so on, loads of fruit and vegetables, delicious cream buns and about another dozen Arab and European desserts. In the hot foods, we have—WHOOPS!" He almost dropped the hot lid that covered kebab halla, a meat stew. Then there was chicken curry, kufta, kebab, etc., etc.
This is the style in all the international hotels throughout the Gulf. A few minutes flight away over shallow turquoise waters on the island of Bahrain, the menu of the Gulf Hotel promises foie gras truffe, Beluga caviar, shrimp cocktail, smoked Scotch salmon, terrine of duck . . . And that's just for starters in the cold hors d 'oeuvre section of the menu.
But when I asked Hugo Langer of the Kuwait Hilton which were the I best places to eat in Kuwait, he might have been speaking of the whole area. "There is no outstanding place. Our big hotels, the Sheraton and Hilton, are the best value for money. None of us is a gourmet restaurant. The raw materials are missing. We have to use a lot of frozen food. All the foodstuffs here are imported, except for fish and shrimp. But I like to think we have improved. What was acceptable only two years ago is no longer acceptable." Robinson of the al-Gosaibi Hotel agreed. "I don't think we can ever achieve any international standards for cuisine. We can establish a good standard for cooking and that's as far as we can go. Yet," he added hopefully, "the most extraordinary things can be achieved without some of the essential ingredients. Our pate, for instance, is very, very good."
The following is not meant to be a complete guide to eating out in the Gulf, but here are some places that I know personally or have had recommended by others, in addition to the big international hotels already mentioned.
In al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, the Kaimik Glass is a small Lebanese-run restaurant with Arabian Nights decor. In addition to the usual Lebanese specialties, you can dine there on pizza, onion soup, sambousak (spicy, triangular meat-filled pastries). For desert there is crème caramel, chocolate mousse, and "pyjama" ice cream (a French version of a banana split). At al-Khobar's Sunset Beach the fare is appropriately fishy—fried shrimp, crayfish, and hamur baked and grilled. In nearby Dammam, the Oasis Restaurant serves a mixture of Lebanese and European food in a mixture of American and Chinese decor.
In Bahrain, Keith's restaurant has the most personal flair of any in the Gulf area. Into an old Arab house and garden, Keith, an Englishman long resident on the island, has fitted three separate restaurants, each with its own menu and ambiance—the Red Room, the Fondue Room and the Bistrot. An intimate, Bohemian atmosphere is created by a profusion of plants, copper ware, local antiques, wood carvings, watercolors tapestries, samovars—and Keith himself. The fare is truly international—a cold yogurt-based soup and salade nicoise were two I tried—and Keith swears that nothing he serves is precooked or frozen.
Also in Bahrain you will find good food attractively served at the Dilmun Hotel, the Lebanese-run Pearl Restaurant, and the Omar Khayyam, which specializes in Indian and Chinese dishes.
In Kuwait another Pearl Restaurant on top of the Kuwait Airways Tower spices its food with a spectacular view. The al-Marzouq has oriental decor and food to match. The Universal Hotel goes a long way to justify its name by serving Chinese food. At the Sheraton Hotel's Coffee Shop and its attached Strawberry Hut we are back in the land of hamburgers, cole slaw and strawberry shortcake.
Tor Eigland, a photographer long acquainted with the Middle East, now works in and out of Spain.