The Search for Kuwaiti Cuisine … in Kuwait

People don’t come to Kuwait to drink alcohol. Nor do they come to eat pork. They also don’t arrive expecting to see pitbulls, to smoke marijuana, to watch Michael’s Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, or to look at any sort of pornography. It’s all banned in Kuwait (with harsh penalties for lawbreakers).

For tourists who hate being around other tourists, this desert country is an oasis: there are no tourists traps because, well, there really are no tourists here. Every place is an off-the-radar local spot.

It’s not surprise, then, that another aspect that’s not pulling people to Kuwait is the food. That’s because if you ask a local, as I did during a recent visit to this conservative and diminutive Middle Eastern state on the Gulf of Arabia, your question about the local cuisine will be greeted with a shrug. That is, until a Lebanese friend who lives in Kuwait City (one of the initial shruggers) called her boyfriend who called another friend who recommended one of the small handful of Kuwaiti restaurants in town.

In most countries, there are ethnic restaurants and then there are restaurants serving the default local cuisine. Here in Kuwait, however, it’s the other way around. One has to seek out a Kuwaiti restaurant; otherwise, you end up at a Lebanese place (which is the best of the best when it comes to eating in the Middle East), as I did at the excellent at Burj Al Hamam or Italian or Spanish (I had very good versions of both at the in-house restaurants in the new Hotel Missoni). Or perhaps one of the many unfortunate American chain restaurants (Applbee’s, TGI Friday’s, Ruby Tuesday) that have set up shop here.
The entrance to Freej Swaileh is around the back from bustling Salem al Mubarak Street. Descend the broken escalator to the darkened basement to find a dining room separated by private booths. Dining privacy is important, especially if you’re a burqa-clad woman, so you can eat without the hassle of the burqa getting in the way.

The servers knock on the door before each visit. And when my waiter came to take my order, I just pointed to various items, not sure what any of it was. About 15 minutes later, my juice mocktail almost drained, the server knocked and entered with several plates. There was chicken majboos (see photo), a biryani-like recipe with a tender half chicken set atop rice and a tomato-based sauce on the side; markookh, a stewy lamb-laden dish with eggplant; and jireesh, a mash of spelt with lamb mixed in.

It turns out, Kuwaiti cuisine is really just an amalgamation of other cuisines: Persian, Indian, Lebanese, for example. According to Abdul Fatah Marafie, who comes from one of the richest families in the country, Kuwaiti cuisine began with the date trade. “The dates came from Iraq,” he said when I somewhat randomly met him and expressed my bewilderment with the lack of local cuisine. “Then they came here to Kuwait where we transported them to places like India and Iran and Arabia. We came back with spices and added them to our cuisine.”

Which is why these dishes all tasted familiar. And why it wasn’t a surprise when the waiter knocked one last time and brought in a try full of gulab jamun, fried syrup-laden dough balls from India….er I mean…legaimat, as they’re called in Kuwait.