No matter what happens, travel gives you a story to tell.
∼ Jewish Proverb
The turquoise blue waters of the Arabian Gulf surrounds this island. 400 kms and almost a 4-hours drive away from Dubai, then a boat transfer from Jebel Dhanna Jetty to about 7 kms off the western coastline of the emirates of Abu Dhabi and finally another 20 minutes bus ride to the actual resort – we were already psychologically tuned into a holiday far, far away! Desert Island Resorts & Spa by Anantara is situated on Sir Ban Yas island, a protected natural reserve and the island itself is pretty alluring. While vacationing, we try to book ourselves into places which adhere to responsible tourism. Anantara ‘recognises the importance of sustainable business practices that consider the environment and the use of energy and resources’. We are proud that the list of the eco resorts that we’ve visited, is slowly but steadily growing longer. There’s an unparalleled excitement in eating Dates and drinking fresh juice squeezed from Oranges or tasting Olives which are grown (surprisingly Olives too!) locally on in the island. Arabian Oryx, Gazelles, Indian bucks roam around freely on the island, while the constant chirping of the birds provoke an unusual question from my mini urban dwellers, the Z-Sisters, unused to such a natural surrounding – ‘What’s that noise?’
Our stay in this beautiful island deserves to be documented, bit by bit. However, here I’m documenting from the last day of our stay with our culinary experience – the family cooking experience to be precise, at Samak, the sea-food restaurant in Desert Islands. Chef Mahmoud taught us how to cook Moutabel – the popular Arabic dip; the spicy Prawn Harra, cooked in the Lebanese style and Um Ali – my favourite Arabic desserts of all! Even Li’l Z who is just 3, accompanied us in the cooking class, helping Chef Mahmoud with the Um Ali as she crumbled the almonds with her messy hands. A beautiful cooking arrangement was set up exclusively for us. It was by the beach and overlooking the blue waters of the Arabian Gulf. 3 hours later, we were having a candle-light dinner in the Samak restaurant, eating the food that we had cooked for ourselves. Quite obviously, the invisible touch of Chef Mahmoud’s magic must have been responsible for the amazing dinner we had cooked!
Joining the bandwagon called Instagram
The Desert Islands trip was my first experiment as to whether I could do LIVE Instagram-ing and tweeting and still enjoy my life without disrupting family moments and transforming myself into a social media menace. I wouldn’t disclose my verdict on that but I loved the interaction with readers that these LIVE postings created. Do join me on my Instagram🙂
A cooking class by the beach
Our cooking class started with the Moutabel (below). Made with Eggplants, Olive Oil, Tahini paste (a paste made from ground, hulled Sesame seeds and is used extensively in North African, Greek, Turkish and Middle Eastern cuisine), minced Garlic, Lemon juice, Salt, Pepper, green Chili Peppers – the Moutabel is an easy-to-cook dip. Chef Mahmoud hails from Egypt and had many interesting stories to narrate. First, he would show us how to make a dish and then we would be making the same thing. Well, we turned out to be pretty good students – all the dishes tasted quite amazing. Or, did some secret ingredient go into them once they were taken back into the kitchen?
Big Z was given the creative freedom to go into the kitchen, bring out any dish or any other object from the kitchen and present the food that she cooked in a different manner altogether. She managed to cover the entire Prawn Harra with fresh green herbs and said – that was ‘her Prawns in the forest!’ Neither the Chef nor me were expecting such ‘think-differently’ and inedible presentation of the delicious prawns. I prefer my Prawns to remain either in water or on a plate – probably wouldn’t mind some shells thrown in but not an entire forest! Prawn Harra, was spicy and easy-to-cook. It can turn your dinner into something quite exotic. Hence, I am sharing the recipe in this post. By the time we had started to cook the Um Ali, it was already dark. I was surprised that even Lil Z, who’s the most unsocial member of our family, joined in with Chef Mahmoud in the making of the Um Ali. I love Um Ali, but this is also one dessert that I’m disappointed with most of the times while dining out. Either, I find the Um Ali too runny or too thick. Chef Mahmoud cooked the Um Ali in a slightly non-traditional way, using whipping cream and burnt the surface using a torch and let it set like the Crème brûlée. Keeping that recipe for some future post!
Samak, the sea-food restaurant
This is a sea-food restaurant right there on the beach and prepares all it’s fresh seafood on an open grill. The restaurant advocates sustainable fishing (if you are still not aware that many of the fish in the UAE waters are over-fished, then do read this post on sustainable fishing in the UAE) and the fish on display (below) is bought from the local fish markets – either from Ruwais or Abu Dhabi. Guilty of ordering the basic Fish & Chips on the first day after being pressurised by the little ones, the next few meals were spent trying out different signature dishes from the restaurant. We tried a Starter platter with Crab cakes, Prawn tempura and Hamour – all cooked with Thai flavours and served on Ginger-Papaya salad; the Tagliatti Prawn Pasta, of-course the Prawn Harra that we cooked and grilled Salmon – have written about that in great detail below. The other thing that is really impressive and which FooDiva, known for her impartial and intelligent restaurant reviews, so rightly points out is about the restaurant’s wine list – ‘the wine sommelier and his list impress with a staggering selection of rosé vinos, quite unusual for this country, let alone an island way off the beaten track.’
The Salt-Guru in Samak and Gourmet Salts
The tagline of Samak is ‘Sea. Fire. Salt.’ The third element is probably the most interesting element here. There is a Salt Guru – a term that I came across for the first time. Different types of natural and unrefined salt from different parts of the world fill up a Salt-trolley. Until recently, Sea Salt was considered just like an ordinary salt but now they are being defined as Gourmet Salts and restaurants and gourmands worldwide are increasingly learning to appreciate the distinctive qualities of the many varieties of gourmet Sea Salts and the different ways these Salts enhance the flavors and the finish of foods. There are many different varieties of Salt – Coarse Salt, Finishing Salt, Flake Salt, Grinder Salt, Sea Salt, Smoked Sea Salt and of-course our known culprit of all salts – the Table Salt!
The most popularly demanded Salts in Samak are the Peruvian Pink Salt, the Durango Hickory Smoked Sea Salt and the Fumee De Sel. The Peruvian Pink Salt comes from a natural spring located at an altitude of 10,000 ft in the Peruvian mountains. The warm water seeps into terraced salt ponds and this salt has been hand-harvested for over 2,000 years! This salt is used for seasoning. The Durango Hickory Smoked Sea Salt (created when delicate Pacific Sea Salt flakes are naturally smoked in Hickory hard wood) is used as a Finishing Salt or as spice blends on salads, meats, seafood, sauces/soups, salt cures and brines. The Fumee De Sel (the salt has been slowly smoked with Chardonnay oak wine barrels) is used as a Finishing Salt or during roasting or goes into spice blends in salads, meats, seafood, sauces/soups. Our Tagliatti Prawn Pasta was sprinkled with the Fumee De Sel which lent the dish a smoky flavor with a hint of wine!
A little note here on Finishing Salts… These Salts are considered to be the premier varieties in the world of specialty salts. They are harvested— generally by hand, in special areas around the world and are known for their unique textures. The various finishing salt textures—usually either moist crystals or delicate flakes, provide a strong crunch and dissolve quickly, giving you a burst of clean, mild salty flavor with each bite. These salts bring out the depth of natural flavors of any dish and also add to a beautiful table-side presentation. The various colors and flakes of finishing salts make gorgeous garnishes for every meal. Read more on this amazing subject in this Guide to Sea Salts and Gourmet Salts.
7 different types of salt is served in Samak and the Salt Guru, Damynfu Dao-On (below right) advises the diners on the perfect paring of each salt depending upon the technique of cooking of the particular dish. Different Salts not only enhance the ingredients that go into the cooking of each dish but also renders a strong aroma once they are sprinkled on the dish, post-cooking. I have to mention the grilled Salmon we tasted. Salmon fillet, marinated with Lime and Garlic was first char-grilled and then put into the oven by placing the fillet on a circular brick of Himalayan Pink Salt. The Salmon was all infused with the salt and we were struck by it’s enhanced flavour. I was told that the Himalayan Salt slab could be heated on the stove top and thinly sliced meats, fish, seafood and vegetables seared on it. It could also be chilled for serving Sushi, appetizers, cold meats and cheeses, fresh fruit and vegetables. These salt slabs are harvested from deep within the ancient Himalayan mountain range of Pakistan and have remained protected from pollution and impurities for centuries, making this what many consider the purest, cleanest salt in the world. (Read more here. Please note that I’m in no way advocating/endorsing the product. The link is just useful for you to know more on Himalayan Salt)
A Kid’s Menu with Vegetables served in delicious disguise
A slight detour from the salted conversation to the Kid’s Menu. I find that most restaurants underestimate the young diners. The Kids’ Menu is so typical. Why does a Restaurant which otherwise takes so much care in preparing the adult menu, take such little interest while preparing their Kids’ menu? Why do they have to resort to the standard Nuggets and French Fries – that too frozen? This pertinent issue has been taken up brilliantly by Sarah – The Hedonista. There are 7 items in the Kid’s Menu with cute names and some dishes manage to trick the young ones into eating vegetables in delicious disguises. For example, Ginger & Rocky serves Grilled Chicken breast with steamed vegetables and creamy mushroom soup. Or the Nemo served with the steamed Hamour fillet with buttered potatoes and creamy Leek soup. Then there is the Scooby Doo with grilled Chicken sausages and garden greens in Cocktail Sauce. Li’l Z unused to such choices ended up ordering a Bambi (after seeing the illustration of Bambi on the Menu card!) on her first meal which happened to be 2 mini burgers served with French Fries – quite a big portion for a small tummy and in the subsequent meals, a lot of vegetables did go in unknowingly!
10 Tiger Prawns, cleaned, deveined with head and tails and intact, but slit (shown in the video below)
Tomatoes – 3 big, finely chopped
Green Bell Pepper – 1 big, finely chopped
Red or Yellow Bell Pepper – 1 big, finely chopped
Garlic – 6 pods, crushed coarsely
Onions – 3 big, finely chopped
Coriander Leaves – 2 tbsp, finely chopped
2 Green Chillies – finely chopped (Note: the quantity depends upon individual preference)
Bay Leaves – 3 small
Black Pepper – 2 tsp
Cumin – 4 tsp, Slightly roasted, partly grinded and partly whole
Red Chilli Powder – 1 tsp (Note: Again, the quantity depends upon individual preference)
Olives – 1/2 cup, chopped into small pieces
Tomato Paste or Purée – 1 cup
Chicken Stock (for example – Maggi or Knorr) – 1 Cube Salt – as per taste White Oil – 2tbsp
Cashew Nuts – Salted, crumbled into small pieces
Rosemary – 1 sprig
Lemon – 1/2
- Heat the White Oil in a flat bottomed pan
- Stir in the Tiger Prawns till they become slightly fried and take them off the pan
- Fry the Onions and Garlic till they are brown
- Add the Bay leaves, Pepper, Tomatoes, Tomato Purée, the Roasted Cumin, Chili Powder, Black Pepper, Green Chilies and the chicken Stock
- Add the Tomato Paste, Salt, Olives and the Coriander leaves
- Add 3 cups of water and let the gravy boil in low flame for 5 minutes
- Add the Prawns and cover the pan and let the Prawns cook for 10 minutes
- Serve the spicy Prawn Harra with Cashew Nuts, sprig of Rosemary and a dash of Lemon.
Desert Islands Resort & Spa by Anantara
The Arabian Wildlife Park on Sir Ban Yas Island Sir Bani Yas is the largest natural island in the UAE and one of the collection of eight islands that comprise Abu Dhabi’s Desert Islands. This island was originally home to Arabia’s largest wildlife reserve, much of which was getting extinct over time. The Arabian Wildlife Park, a reserve was established in 1971 by the late ruler and founder of the UAE, HH Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, spanning over 87 sq km to carry on planned conservation projects on this island. This means that the reserve is now home to thousands of free-roaming animals, birds and several million trees and plants. The Desert Islands Resort organises various excursions like guided safaris, guided game walks into the conservation park and also kayaking, mountain biking, archery, hiking and snorkeling in different areas of the island. The resort also supports the WWF Marine Turtle Conservation Project which focuses on the conservation of the critically endangered Hawksbill turtles.
The Sign off
It took nearly 2 hours to cook up our exotic dinner – something that’s unimaginable at home. An unimaginable situation too for a busy kitchen in a resort like Desert Islands. But they did create such an unforgettable experience for us. Dining by Design is another interesting concept where the Chefs cook whatever you desire in unique and intimate settings or exotic locations by the sea or high up in the mountains or by the Wadi waters – perfect for some couple on their Valentine’s Day. Unfortunately, an option not for me – with the two kids in tow. I’ll have to find a way where a romantic candle-lit Valentine’s Day Dinner comes home and I’m sure I’ll find that out too and keep you all posted!
Unblogging it all… Ishita
Disclaimer: I was offered a media discount for our stay and meals. The family cooking class was complimentary. Please note that the subject, story, opinions and views stated here are my own and are independent. While you enjoy reading the posts with lot of visuals, please do not use any material from these posts. You can catch my daily food and travel journey on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.