Dubai should start the Fermented Anchovy Juice Trend of 2017.
Originally an Iranian condiment, mehyawah or meshawa is already a staple in most Emirati homes across the country. Maybe this is why it has never been poured to prominence – a classic case of taking your home-grown pantry of ingredients for granted. Most expatriate residents and visitors have never tasted this mud-coloured, salted and spiced anchovy sauce. They rarely cross paths with it in a grocery aisle and its gritty appearance would likely never prompt the uninitiated into an impromptu purchase.
But mehyawah is not as foreign as one might think. It is the Gulf-region counterpart to the anchovy-based Worcestershire and Thai nam pla, which are imported to our shores from miles away, but that have a far higher likelihood of seasoning our plates than the home-brewed version. Similar to most present-day fermented fish sauces, mehyawah finds its roots in the ancient Mesopotamian siqqu, Greek garos and Roman garum sauces. The latter, according to food science author Harold McGee, was made by ‘salting the fish innards, letting the mixture ferment in the sun for several months until the flesh had mostly fallen apart, and then straining the brown liquid.’
This method is uncannily similar to how mehywah is made today, with the important exception that present-day fish sauces rely on de-headed and gutted fish rather than on innards. The anchovies are first preserved in salt until they release their internal moisture. Then the fillets are ground, salted and boiled with toasted spices like anise, coriander seeds and mustard seeds. The resulting mixture is poured into a tub, covered with a muslin cloth and left to bathe in the sun for a few days.
Often splashed over paper-thin whole wheat crêpes (regag), this potent sauce is salty, slightly bitter, and overwhelmingly savoury in a very persuasive, almost primal way. It is the region’s ultimate tribute to umami—that fifth powerful flavour first associated with glutamate in the Japanese seaweed kombu, and then later attributed to the deep guttural tones of mushrooms, meat and cheeses. When paired with butter, cheese, eggs, or ideally all of the above, mehyawah amplifies their rich savoury notes. Or in other words, it makes you go weak in the knees with pleasure.
Most people turn their noses up at the thought of putrefying fish. But through a series of chemical reactions that I can only describe as being divinely ordained (McGee explains them more scientifically using bacteria and Maillard reactions), the ‘fishy taste’ recedes into the background and ushers umami into the limelight. I once conducted a practical test of this flavour theory, wickedly describing mehyawah at a local restaurant as a ‘popular salty brown sauce’ to my unsuspecting father. He enthusiastically inhaled the entire dipping bowl with pungent rocket leaves and sliced radish snuggled into patches of warm tanoor bread. Incidentally, my father hates fish.
Locals often procure their mehyawah from mothers and grandmothers who make it in their homes, thereby adding to the mysterious undercover nature of an ingredient that should be in everyone’s pantry. Upon a friend’s recommendation, I sourced my first bottle from an Iranian home in Al Quoz where the nightie-clad mother perched herself on a low stool near the bread tawa, swearing by anchovies packed and shipped in from Iran. She sent me home with a styrofoam box of tissue-thin breads (falazeen) splodged with clarified butter and mehyawah. The stack vanished after two days of pairing the breads with fluffy egg scrambles, cups of sweet cardamom chai or with nothing at all but my over-eager spirit during mid-meal nibble times.
Before you write off the ingredient as one that is too challenging to procure, visit Malleh Gourmet on Jumeirah Beach Road. Started by two passionate Emirati sisters, the shop sells a range of dried and fermented fish products, including anchovy powder (sahnah), malleh (salt-cured fish) and mehyawah. According to Nazek Al Sabbagh, their goal is ‘introduce our traditional and national salted fish to the international market’ by coupling her sister’s food science background with hygienic fermentation processes, high-quality fish sourced mostly from the UAE and sleek packaging that is light years ahead of reused Vimto bottles. Their mehyawah boasts a hefty price tag (Dh50 for 250ml), but one that could be justified given the cost of packaging the sauce for commercial sale as well as of operating a storefront in Jumeirah.
Automation has not stamped its mass-produced seal on this gourmand’s grade of mehyawah – a fact that I observed one sunny afternoon in 2015 while visiting the Sabbagh sisters to deepen my understanding of this murky brown sauce. While hygiene and quality was paramount, Nazek explained that their manufacturing process was still a traditional one with ladies gathering together to prepare and spice the fish for fermentation. A small batch of mehyawah bottles were laid out in neat rows on the sun-washed terrace, each of them having been tipped over every few days. It reminded me of a prahok factory in Cambodia, a far more grizzly experience in comparison but one where a ‘factory’ meant nothing more than a shed of stained barrels with decomposing fish and straw-hat ladies crouched over pyramids of mudfish. As in Cambodia, spicing, salting, bottling and fermentation in the UAE are the purview of hands wrinkled with the wisdom of nature’s fascinating chemistry.
I drove home from my research mission, contemplating how the sisters would spread awareness for this product locally – let alone internationally. Even long-time expatriates in Dubai have never heard of mehyawah, I thought, in between bites of a mehyawah cookie that I snuck out of the generous farewell box that Nazek had left in my hands.
Had I not known the truth behind the cookie, I would have ignorantly bet my lifesavings on it being Parmesan shortbread. It was crumbly, buttery, salty, savoury, appetite-inducing – with the only missing piece being a cup of sugary chai that I sourced the minute I reached home.
The ‘fish cookie’ made me realize that ancient technique aside, the consumption of mehyawah need not be reined in by tradition. And this might be the key to spreading awareness – sneak a product that feels alien into dishes that feel familiar. This savoury strategy was reaffirmed when I visited the Sabbagh sisters a few weeks later with an American food and travel show. As soon as the cameras stopped rolling on the terrace of Nazek’s beachfront home, I found myself glued to the demo table, plunging crunchy shards of regag into an exquisite mehyawah fondue warmed with nothing more than drops of melted dihin (local ghee). At that moment, I wanted to run downstairs and serenade the people lining up for burgers on the beach with this profound discovery – but my gluttony got the better of me and I dipped back in for the twelfth time.
If I had to codify an innovation programme for mehyawah as a finishing sauce, it would involve any of three principles. Use a dash of it to enliven starchy dishes like rice or oatmeal porridges for breakfast, or over fries. You could even spoon it over white rice with pomegranate seeds, a delicious recommendation from the Iranian family from whom I procured my stash. I have seen a handful of adventurous bakers in the region also use mehyawah to add salty complexity to a dessert – cheese crêpes cake with a drizzle of mehywah, anyone?
A third option is to let the sauce play off of the savoury, meaty flavours in a dish like stir-fried mushrooms with garlic or tender white beans with vinegar, mustard, olive oil and chopped mint, parsley and rue. I cannot claim the latter idea as my own – it was lifted right out of Nawal Nasrallah’s translation of the first Arabic cookbook, discovered from the 10th Century. Thousands of years ago, fermented liquid sauces (murri) were hugely popular as a condiment and as a digestive aid in the enlightened palaces of Baghdad.
Like everything cyclical in life, fermented fish sauces might rise from household to hip again someday. Tragedy would be waiting for the rest of the world to do it first.