If you ask anyone in any Arab household how they would define comfort food, many would name some combination of meat, rice, onions and spices, garnished with toasted nuts like almonds and pine nuts. These foundational ingredients morph into different dishes depending on the region, from Maqlouba in Palestine, Sayadiyeh in Lebanon, to Mansaf in Jordan. The dishes are usually served on a communal platter, meant to be shared by large families. The countries of the Arabian Peninsula are no exception to this tradition, and the one comfort food popular In Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen is the classic dish called Kabsa, also known as Machboos.
Now I didn’t want to try any Machboos, I wanted to try the one prepared on Emirates Airlines, as that is on my bucket list of travel in the future. Emirates takes great pride in its food, featuring cuisine from the Middle East, Asia and Europe. Machboos is the quintessential dish from the Emirates region, and the thought of making shrimp in a dramatically different way was enticing. When I looked up the chef’s recipe, I noticed he actually cooked the shrimp with the rice for 20 minutes. As shrimp doesn’t need that long to cook (otherwise the seafood would get tough) I changed the method so that you cook the shrimp only a couple of minutes. The original recipe also had cinnamon and chile, but I removed those two because I do not like those 2 spices in savory dishes. But of course, feel free to add them if you wish!
The name Kabsa comes from the word kabasa (Arabic: كبس), which literally means to press or squeeze, referring to the technique used in the cooking where the ingredients are all cooked in (or “squeezed into”) one pot. There are numerous variations of spices, but to get acquainted with the flavor, you can buy pre-mixed kabsa spices in the market. The spices used in kabsa or machboos generally include black pepper, cardamom, turmeric, allspice, dried lime, cinnamon, coriander and nutmeg. The main proteins used in this dish can range from chicken, goat, lamb, camel, beef, fish or shrimp. Garnishes include almonds, pine nuts, peanuts, and sultanas.
The recipe below uses prawns as the main protein for easy preparation, however you can use chicken or lamb if you prefer. The loomi spice, which is made with ground dried limes that have been brined and dried, is what really differentiates this dish. Loomi has a more complex flavor profile, which is tart and mildly sweet with a hint of vinegar. For this reason loomi is an excellent accompaniment to seafood. The majority of limes used in loomi originate from Iran, hence why loomi is popular in Persian cuisine as well. The bonus is loomi is rich in antioxidants, minerals like potassium, and folic acid.
For a video tutorial of this dish, click on the video below:
*1 tsp allspice