Coffee & dates
Coffee has been intrinsic to Arab culture for centuries, with associated traditions deeply rooted in the region’s heritage. A symbolic act of generosity, serving Arabic coffee to guests is an important part of Arabian hospitality, with the preparation and serving of coffee (pronounced gahwa in the Emirati Arabic dialect) marked by elaborate traditions and social rituals.
In the past, Bedouins (nomadic Arab people) brewed their coffee — which comes blended with cardamom and saffron and is usually served in tiny handleless cups — over a fireplace dug into the ground. Over time, this was replaced by the kuwar, a clay pit with a stove made from pebbles and stone plates. In houses or tents, the kuwar is found in the majlis (sitting place to host guests), with a firewood container and a place for the person preparing the coffee beside it. Transforming the richly aromatic beans into coffee comprises several steps, from sorting to washing, drying to roasting the beans until they turn red or brown. Roasted beans are ground and brewed to produce an intensely flavoured, aromatic coffee.
The serving of Arabic coffee is guided by elaborate etiquette for the server, the guest and the host. The server must hold the dallah (coffee pot) with the left hand, with the thumb pointing to the top, while the cup is held with the right hand. Guests should use the right hand to receive and return the cup to the server. The most important or oldest guest is served first, and the cup is only one-quarter filled and can then be refilled. The common practice is to drink at least one cup but not exceed three. Arabic coffee is made and enjoyed by men and women from all parts of society, particularly in the home.
Reflecting the cultural importance of this beverage, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, the Sultanate of Oman and Qatar had Arabic coffee inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2015.
Dates form another important element of Arab culture. Perhaps the most classic edible souvenir, this distinctive fruit holds an important place in Arabian heritage as a vital source of nutrition. Today, dates are available in many modern varieties, with each having its own distinctive colour and flavour. They are even available dipped in chocolate or stuffed with almonds or candied orange peel. Bateel, the renowned dates delicatessen, has an amazing selection of luxury dates as well as other date produce, from sparkling date juice to date jams and preserves, and even date-infused balsamic vinegar. These make great gifts to take back home.
The Liwa Date Festival promotes and celebrates the symbolic and historic role that the date palm plays in Emirati culture. Held each July in Al Dhafra, the festival revolves around date competitions in which Emirati farms vie for the title of best date grower. Travellers from out of town are welcome to attend too, with this fun, family-friendly event being an incredible way to experience authentic Emirati culture up close. Prizes are offered for the top dates in each category and there is a live date auction where some dates sell for over AED 6,000 per kilo.