As we veered off the road to a nondescript Arabic restaurant in Hatta, I knew one thing for certain – that I wasn’t hungry at all.
Hunger had nothing to do with what happened at the table. I still don’t fully understand what happened, except that some primitive version of me roared to life when the server unveiled the shiny casserole of “tanoor lahm”. As he lifted the domed lid, a stout rack of lamb came into view, meditating over a tuft of beige fluffy rice, sauced chickpeas by its side. Its tender peacefulness jolted the slumbering savage in me awake.
Twenty minutes later, the deed was done. I rose from the chair, scrubbed my hands clean and rode away into the night – dazed, sated, grossly overindulged.
My mind resurfaced from its lusty fog the next morning, thirsty to learn about what I had ravaged the night before. Over the next two days, I hounded the owner – who finally succumbed to my broken Arabic and eloquent English text messages and rescued me from being gnawed alive by my own curiosity.
Mohammed Saeed Al Mutaiwei is a 43-year-old firefighter at the Civil Defense Department in Hatta. Two years ago, he opened Tanor Lahm just down the road from the JA Hatta Fort Hotel that my parents would frequently visit in the 80s. Mohammed rents out his farmhouse to eager guests, roasting full, farm-raised lambs for them on site if their hearts desire.
He will also deliver the full cooked lamb straight to a diner’s doorstep for Dh1,500 – no matter where the person lives in the country. Between firefighting, raising his animals, running a UAE-wide tanoor lahm network, renting his farmhouse and managing his restaurant, he is also working towards his PhD in firefighting in Malaysia. His love of life streams through my phone as he tells me everything I beg to know about Tanoor Lahm.
This is what he reveals: Tanoor lahm or roasted meat is the traditional food of the mountain-dwelling Emiratis, the same way that those living near the coast specialise in seafood. It is similar to “shuwa” made by the Omanis on the other side of the Hajjar mountains, but the communities of Hatta have their own special technique.
The dish is traditionally prepared once a year when fresh lamb is sacrificed for Eid Al Adha and is painstakingly cooked for hours. But generous Mohammed would make his reputed tanoor lahm throughout the year, at least once every week as a gift for friends and family. I selfishly want to become his friend.
The fresh meat is first rubbed with whole spices like black pepper, cinnamon and cardamom that are toasted and ground. The seasoned meat is then tossed into a sack woven from dried palm fronds, along with leaves from the tree called “Shas” whose English name I have placed a bounty on since our conversation. The combination of Shas leaves and the palm sack not only help to seal in the juices of the meat, but also give tanoor lahm its quintessential taste and aroma. The meat is then buried in a tanoor oven built vertically into the ground and left to roast over flickering embers for at least 12 hours.
Every family’s version of tanoor lahm will taste different even though the technique is almost identical. Mohammed proudly claims that his family has earned a reputation for unparalleled flavour. Those who had the privilege of tasting his tanoor lahm urged him to open a restaurant for the public, which is how Tanoor Lahm Restaurant came to be.
Mohammed is possibly the first person who has adapted Hatta’s tanoor technique to comply with local restaurant regulations. He must arrive at the same result without the luxury of his wood-burning farm ovens and over a clipped five-hour duration for smaller cuts of meat rather than the whole sheep. His restaurant improvisations have worked, producing a dish that arouses carnal desire over common etiquette.
All I remember was an urgent flurry of movement as I fell upon the lamb at the restaurant, slashing its blackened spice-rubbed skin, plundering its moist burgundy insides, ripping the fleshy tendrils as they slipped off the slender ribs, overly lubricated with molten fat that felt like whipped butter basting the meat. The ends of the bones were juicy lollipops, some so soft that I crunched right through them.
Half way through the meal, my husband rotated the platter so that we could exchange our sides – fatty juice-dripping ribs that slipped across my tongue for a rugged shank whose bulging pockets of meat I could sink my incisors into, firm and deep. It was only after the meal that I looked down to see my squeaky clean cutlery. In my delirious dazed frenzy, I had gone right into the dish with my naked fingers.
We ended the call on a note of time-tested Arab hospitality – Mohammed insisted that we meet in Hatta at his farm, with a promise of farm-cooked tanoor lahm. There is no question that I will take him up on the offer. But before I plan my road trip back into the mountains, there is something even more pressing I must do. Mohammed just opened the doors to his second restaurant 25 minutes away from Burj Khalifa – Tanoor Aldar in Abu Hail.
The savage in me might never sleep again.