Bedouin Cooking: Ahmed Al Marar’s Machboos
True to his Bedouin roots, Ahmed Al Marar loves to travel, explore the desert dunes, and hunt. He embraces his heritage by cooking traditional Bedouin meals while spending many weeks of the year camping with family and friends under the desert sky, passing on survival skills to his children. At this year’s Folklife Festival, he’s representing his home of the United Arab Emirates and sharing some of those cooking skills with visitors in the Festival Foodways tent.
A descendant of generations from the western regions of the UAE, Al Marar and his family have settled in Abu Dhabi, but he is committed to keeping his Bedouin heritage alive for future generations, even in the city. His daughter, who is also participating in the Festival, was born and raised in the city. His cooking and camping trips in the desert are both part of his mission to pass this important cultural heritage onto his family.
Al Marar’s take on machboos, an Arab mixed rice dish, reflects the life of a Bedouin in the desert. Because there are times when they might not have access to fresh ingredients, the fresh onion and tomato are optional. Al Marar emphasizes the importance of dried ingredients such as loomi (dried or black lime) and fried dried onions for desert cooking. Each person in the UAE makes their own masala spice blend with different spices, so no two masala mixes will be the same, just as no two machboos will be the same.
2 cups white basmati rice, rinsed twice and soaked*
½ chicken, skin on or off, cut into large pieces and rinsed
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium tomato, chopped
1 tablespoon salt, or to taste, divided
½ teaspoon black pepper, or to taste
1 teaspoon garlic powder, or to taste
3 bay leaves
2–3 loomi (“dried lime”), pierced and cracked open
1 spoonful turmeric
1 large spoonful masala spice mix
3–6 ounces tomato paste, to taste
Fried dried onions
Note: These amounts are approximate. Al Marar, like many others from the UAE, do not use precise measurements.
In a large pot, bring 5 cups of water to a boil. Add the chicken pieces (make sure they are submerged) and return to a boil. Remove any foam that forms on the surface of the water.
Once the water is boiling and the foam is removed, add the onion, tomato, 1 ½ teaspoons salt, pepper, garlic powder, bay leaves, and loomi.
When the chicken is about 80 percent cooked, add the turmeric, masala spice mix, and tomato paste.
Add remaining salt to season the rice, then add the rice to the pot. Stir gently to avoid breaking the rice grains.
To avoid burning the chicken, stir the mixture so that the rice falls to the bottom and the chicken rests on the top. Cover and simmer until the rice is tender and there is no water left.
Sprinkle ghee and fried dried onions on top. Serve hot.
*Soaking the rice ahead of time makes each grain fuller and longer.
Kathryn Casey is the 2022 Folklife Festival foodways assistant, and Katie Reuther is the Festival foodways intern.