Bahrain has a rich and varied culinary history; Arabic, Persian and Indian influences have shaped the island’s palate and the national dishes are known to be some of the most delicious in the region. While specialties such as machboos and saloona are commonplace in the homes, Bahraini food is undergoing a renaissance among the country’s restaurateurs as well.
Zaafaran Café has led the way in developing the local culinary scene over the past year. Located in the heart of Souq Muharraq (Zaafaran is just after Souq Al Qaiseriya a right hand turn after all of the sweet shops on the main road for those who know Muharraq) the café’s décor is traditional, and the staff is also dressed to match in traditional Bahraini attire. The setting is almost as impressive as the food, with wooden benches and an ambience of how Bahrain used to be.
Zaafaran, which translates into English as saffron, is known for its set breakfast menu. There’s a selection of small dishes that include balaleet or sweetened vermicelli with egg, nakhi which is a Bahraini twist on chick peas, mahiawa bread or bread cooked in fish sauce, fuul, spicy tomato beans, and Bahraini kebab sandwiches (which are vegetarian for anyone who’s interested). Visitors often find themselves eating with their hands and enjoying the fresh Bahraini bread which comes as standard.
Speaking to the English-language daily newspaper Gulf Daily News, Zaafaran’s founder and owner Narise Kambar spoke of the café’s success and the resurgence in discovering Bahrain’s cuisine.
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"In the beginning, there was no menu and we had a tapas-style sample of Bahraini food," said the 37-year-old. “There were about eight different things, a mixture of traditional food with modern elements.”
Following the opening of the first Zaafaran café this time last year, Kambar has already branched out and expanded to two other locations including one placed in the center of the island at Riffa Fort. The menu at the new cafés include seasonal dishes and the new locations are open for longer hours.
Zaafaran isn’t the only new place where local dishes are proving popular. Despite its name and setting, Villa Mamas in the suburb of Saar also has a menu that offers a wide range of Bahraini dishes, including mathrooba, which is a chicken and rice blend and emawash or brown rice with beans. Visitors can also order chai kerak or chai haleeb – tea with cardamom and milk or tea with sweet milk.
"I felt that there was a gap in the market for gourmet Bahraini food with a nice, elegant relaxed atmosphere. I want the young generation to know the real Bahraini food like machboos, mathrooba, and emawash. So many of them come up to me and tell me they don't know what those dishes are," the owner Roaya Saleh told Gulf Daily News.
"I would love to export Bahraini food abroad, so that people in London or New York are able to go eat Bahraini food. I know it's a big ambition, but everything begins with a dream."