Day 54: Bahrain
“There are no Bahraini restaurants in Bahrain,” says Abba, “just Lebanese restaurants. If you want to eat Bahraini food you have to go to someone’s house.” We aren’t in Bahrain, but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t going to find a Bahraini restaurant in Los Angeles either. In fact, I didn’t know much of anything about Bahrain before she invited my friends and me into her home in Venice, CA. She tells stories of her country’s history as well as her own, all while braising lamb shank, frying two fish and roasting chickens, among other things. “My family didn’t cook much growing up. I always had the food at friend’s houses. So I bought a cookbook when I was fourteen and started to teach myself. Now, I mostly just cook when I’m homesick.” Or when some guy like me shows up with a large group of hungry friends. When she offered to cook, she told me to bring as many as I could, since “It’s impossible to cook this food for a small number of people. Usually when I want to cook for myself I have to make so much food that I end up feeding the whole apartment building.” Luckily, folk hero Jason Bernstein, Mr. Meatball, Bosque, “Danielle” and GirlfriendBites are up for the task. Not that it took any convincing.
“This smells stupid,” says folk hero Jason Bernstein before he even makes it inside the door to Abba’s apartment. That, I assure you, is a very positive comment, stemming perhaps from the more cumbersome, “This smells stupidly good.” We crack bottles of wine and soak in the heavily spiced fumes while leaning back on the couch as Abba works her magic. The fish has been scored and spice rubbed and is frying to a beautifully crackling texture in the pan. Dried limes float on the top of the reddish/brown braising liquid and golden chickens are brought out of the oven. Yogurt dip, sweet rice, another rice infused with all of the fatty chicken juices, dried lime sauce and a cucumber and tomato salad fill out the serving table. “This is naan ,” she says, “which is only sort of similar to the bread they use in Bahrain, but it’s close enough for tonight.” Abba’s friend BurningMan joins us, a stack of plates is set down and people start getting to work. We’re instructed to eat the fish with the sweet rice, as I cut off a piece of the flaky, tender meat. “Pearls are a big export of Bahrain. So the divers, when they would return, would eat the fish with a sweet rice to have a balance of salty and sweet to normalize the body and replenish electrolytes.”
“How should I get the meat off the lamb shank?” someone asks. “It should be easy,” Abba replies, “It’s been braising for two days.” Did I mention yet that I love this woman? I squeeze the dried limes over my food and try the fish first. It’s cooked to absolute perfection and goes really well with the not-too-sweet rice. A little bit of the dried lime sauce goes a long way and adds a wonderfully powerful tartness to anything it grazes. Crispy skinned chicken over the rice made with the chicken’s own juices is delightful, especially when topped with yogurt sauce and the aforementioned lime, and scooped up with some bread. Before I turn my attention to the braised lamb, I hear her mention the word “school” and ask what she studied. It turns out that she has three degrees. First of all, I know very few people that have three degrees and I don’t think any of them are capable of making food this good, much less single-handedly. In case you can’t tell, I am blown away by this human, even though I’m still not totally sure that she actually is one.
I take a bite of the refreshing salad before digging into the lamb. Again, folk hero Jason Bernstein hits the nail on the head with his description of the lamb: stupid. The flavors are layered, but the long braise has smoothed the transitions between each one, creating a gradient color wheel, taking you gently between these powerful meaty flavors. But my favorite sub-creation of the night may be pouring the braising liquid from the lamb over the chicken rice and experiencing the unnatural union of two opposing creatures as they dance together under the secret cover of night. Folk hero Jason Bernstein breaks out one of his trademarked boutique beer pairings, blowing everyone away with his absurd accuracy.
Stuffed like I’m trying to dunk on Dikembe Mutombo, but in a totally blissful state, I lay my head on GirlfriendBites shoulder while the few smokers step outside for their fix. Bernstein pours a dry, fruity, lavender dessert beer and Abba steps back in to serve dates and a sweet tahini dessert filled with crunchy pistachios. “In Bahrain the sweet tahini isn’t this grainy. It’s more like the consistency of smooth peanut butter. But I didn’t make this myself. I bought it at the store.” I play with the sesame taffy-like substance on my tongue before slowly letting it work its way down my throat. It’s quite tasty as is, but I can imagine how much better the smooth version must be. “Bahrain is a vacation spot for a lot of people in Saudi Arabia. It’s the only place you can drink alcohol, it’s surrounded by water and it has become a little bit of a party destination.” If the parties are anything like my evening at Abba’s house, you can add Bahrain to my “Must visit in my lifetime” list. Once again, tremendous food and great people are proven to be one of the truly perfect combinations in the world. A kind person creates delicious food and the kindness transfers to everyone who consumes it. That, as Abba clearly knows, is what it’s all about.
Food Breakdown: Wine, beer, 2 whole fish, salad, 2 chickens, multiple pounds of rice, several pieces of naan, 2 sauces, braised lamb shanks and 2 desserts
Distance From My House: 5.2 miles