I Want to Live in Walmart

“I want to live in Walmart,” I confessed to my husband, Bishara.  We had recently returned to the U.S. after a 17-year escapade in the Middle East prompted by my hankering for a cultural getaway.  Our former long term residence in Washington DC, had evolved from a rewarding life in the nation’s capital to a tedious and staid existence in a congested urban center.  In early November 2000, Bishara, our two pups, and I, along with 42 pieces of luggage found ourselves on a 20-hour voyage from Dulles Airport to Saudi Arabia.  Sand, sparkly skyscrapers, white thobes, black abayes, and burgeoning friendships awaited us as we descended onto the landing strip of Riyadh airport.

Our life before, and just after, arriving in Riyadh was fraught with irritating bureaucratic entanglements; filling out countless forms, medical testing, ensuring our pups had proper documentation, and such.  And my new boss, Abdullah, at distinguished King Faisal Specialist Hospital where I had been hired as a Financial Planning Specialist was none too fond of my presence in his finance group.  “I never wanted you here.  When they asked me I told them you were all wrong for the job,” were some of the first words tumbling out of Abdullah’s mouth.

My dream of an exotic undertaking in an enigmatic land was abruptly fading along with my formidable resolve.  I wondered if listening to my heart had led us astray.  My waning enthusiasm was eventually replaced, though, with the rhythm of everyday life in the Kingdom; part cultural education and part mundane routine, welded with unique expatriate “happenings,” and a transformational working relationship with my boss.  A typical workweek was infused with a frenzied schedule to complete a particular financial report and regular pauses centering around offerings of cardamom coffee, mint tea and genial banter with female colleagues.  These obligatory respites, common across the Arab world, disrupted my professional sensibilities, but informed me of the significance and effectiveness of “people time” fostering a spirit of teamwork and camaraderie in the office.

An emphasis on “people time” extended to our private lives, as well.  Many weekends were filled with forays into the desert with our pups, a tablah (Arabic drum), a yen for belly dancing and good food, and new friends of all nationalities.  Other weekends and weeknights found us communing with our western friends over grilled fresh fish and travel stories poolside, or our Saudi chums in a palatial, yet warm, home listening and dancing to popular Arabic music, and deliberating over regional politics.  Our ample “people time” away from home was sustained, in large part, by economical housekeeping services, typically provided by hardworking Southeast Asian workers.

And while our pups created administrative challenges before entering the country, and upset some societal norms once in the country, they provided both perilous and magical elements to our interactions with fellow expatriates and nationals, and our varied Mid-East exploits.  Everything from possible jail-time for Bishara for allowing our Callie pup to “talk to” Saudi girls during a stroll through a park to our sweet Callie tearing off the headscarf of a distressed 16 year-old girl at Kendi Square in Riyadh, only to develop a close familial relationship with the engaging  teenager and her family.

We were relieved and delighted to have our pup, Sara with us, when we arrived back in the U.S., however, we did experience “reentry syndrome” and a bit of “reverse culture shock.”  We missed the souks – the crush of white, black and color, kind and wrinkled men pushing wheelbarrows filled with patron’s purchases, and the sweet and fruity aroma of sheesha floating overhead.  We reminisced about our friendships with Saudis, Qataris and well-travelled expatriates, attendants filling our gas tank, amiable housecleaners attending to our home.  Our discretionary time while in Riyadh and Doha was truly our own; I was thankful to forgo tedious housekeeping chores and for having time to romp on the “doggie beach” with our pup and other dog-lovers outside of Doha, travel to uncommon destinations, and savor remarkable Arab hospitality.

Warm welcomes from family and friends, flowering of old and new friendships, and unsolicited waves from kindhearted strangers on the pastoral Eastern Shore muzzled some of our wistful remembrances, as did the startling abundance of activities and cultural events in the small town where we resettled.  Back alignment yoga, meditation, local theatre productions, pickle ball, and a Persian cultural event left us scrambling to pace ourselves in a new chapter of supposed retirement.

Small town life in America unveiled a new and natural mechanism for developing more intimate relationships and a comfortable and vital sense of community, and stateside life, in general, re-introduced us to the ubiquitous superstores – Lowe’s, Sam’s Club, Walmart.  Roaming the aisles of our nearby Walmart left me awestruck at the breadth and depth of product lines, particularly in contrast to the more commonplace neighborhood stores and souks in the Arab Peninsula where bargaining, bantering, and understocked items replace unadulterated consumerism.  Turning to Bishara on a recent trip to Walmart, momentarily conquered by the boundless shopping possibilities, I blurted, “I want to live in Walmart.  I could pitch a tent, cook food on a portable stove, play board games, and do all kinds of DIY projects.”

Excepting the mega stores in the U.S., life outside the chaos of urban metropolises is much like life in the Arab world with a focus on close-knit human connections and the promise of creating a rich tapestry of friendships, life lessons, and unfolding adventure.

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Our neighborhood Walmart.

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Sara pup in Walmart.

Snapshots of Qatar ~ 2013

A year filled with happiness, tragedy, and inspiration.

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Souk Al-Waqif

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Lunch-time at the souk!

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Horse races at the Equestrian Center.

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Fly Board World Championships at The Pearl-Qatar.

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Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra

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Graduation at American School of Doha

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Common sight in Qatar!

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Bounty from the Vegetable Souk!

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American Women’s Association Bazaar

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Ready for some belly dancing!

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We launched Desert Horizons Tutoring Services, a community-based outreach tutoring program.

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Doha’s nighttime skyline.

Me & Sherifa in Desert of Qatar

Me and Sherifa.  Sherifa passed away in a tragic car accident. Sherifa taught me more than most about the culture and lifestyle of Qatar. Rest in peace, dear friend.  I will miss you greatly.

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We also lost sweet “Callie girl,” our precious furry daughter.  You are forever in our hearts.

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Shopping, The Great Leveller

I originally published this article in Woman Today, January 2009.

Gatherings of women enveloped in black moved effortlessly along the corridors while children darted around their purposeful steps.  Men in white flowing robes and ghuttras clutched the handbags of their wives while they combed through the maze of ladies’ shops and shoe stores set in amongst Starbucks, Saks 5th Avenue, and Tiffany’s.  For me, images of life in the Middle East conjured up vast marketplaces and merchant stalls flush with clothes, jewelry, and artifacts; I hardly anticipated shopping at an upscale, western-style mall only two days after arriving in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, from Washington, DC in late 2000.  My husband, a Lebanese national, and I were barely acquainted with our new life abroad when a friendly work colleague offered to introduce us to the many mall shopping opportunities available in the capital.  I was initially skeptical; I had certainly seen my share of American malls, but this colleague assured me that mall shopping in Riyadh was a very unique experience.  The words “unique experience” piqued my interest.  As a naturally curious expatriate with a propensity towards indulging in new endeavors, I agreed, allowing our guide to lead us through a dizzying tour of some incredibly upscale, couture stores.

Villagio Mall (Doha, Qatar)

The ceaseless whirring of cash registers following us from store to store indicated that these shoppers could afford their extravagant acquisitions.  In the Kingdom, “mall shopping” takes its pattern from western models with endless square footage devoted to stores that offer a range of apparel, jewelry, shoes, housewares, and electronics or specialty products for the discriminating consumer.  In the U.S., the ubiquitous mall ranges from low cost to high-end stores or those that blend the two, providing offerings for nearly every socioeconomic group.

In 2004 we relocated to Doha where I was similarly astonished by the quantity of malls with their exquisite shops and recreational opportunities.  Young adults and children glided around the ice skating rink at City Center and families slid along in gondolas down the Venetian-style canal of Villagio Mall.  (Note: Villagio Mall was recently closed due to a tragic fire.)  An American expatriate, Katita, living in Doha shared her wonder at these spectacles:  “When my family and I first shopped at Landmark Mall, I was so surprised to see this beautiful mall with all of its western type stores with everything from Chanel perfume to Swatch watches.  My favorite was the supermarket at one end, which all the malls have. Talk about ‘One Stop Shopping.’

Katita Wilmot

On my assorted shopping jaunts, I myself have observed that mall expeditions in Qatar seem to offer socializing experiences similar to the U.S.  Young people frequent City Center, Villagio, and Landmark where they gather to fraternize and mingle much in the same way that American youths spend entire afternoons casually roaming the mall and meeting with friends.  However, in Doha local young men and women are segregated; likewise, only families are permitted in the malls of Riyadh, which curbs anxieties about loitering single men.

I quickly noticed that Qatar malls were more than spaces of commerce or places to enjoy leisure activities; they were locations where  women could revel in displaying their fine apparel and carefully styled hair and makeup.  Throngs of Arab women, a portion in beautifully adorned abayes, embroidered with fine, gold thread, meander in the corridors between stores, punctuating groups of western women wearing the latest couture styles.  It amused me to think of these women as living models, competing with the array of clothes and high fashion on display.

“The Pearl” in Doha provides abundant upscale shopping opportunities.

In America, the trek to the mall is treated less as a prized social outing or special occasion and more as a utilitarian activity; men and women hardly dress with formal intent, preferring instead to don comfortable jeans, shorts, or baseball caps and tennis shoes.   For U.S. citizens, mall outings are first and foremost consumer excursions: Americans are bombarded with an array of discount opportunities and urged to take advantage of these savings by using their credit cards or opening new charge accounts at any given store.  When my husband and I first arrived in Riyadh, I was stupefied at the reliance on cold, hard cash.  The credit cards we eagerly acquired through our employer remained unused in my purse and my husband’s wallet.  In America we had become conditioned to witnessing consumers using their VISA card to pay for a two dollar McDonald’s food order.  In Doha, the credit card we obtained upon arrival debited expenditures immediately from our bank account leaving us free from the financial shackles that unbridled reliance on credit can create.  What a novel concept for an American; buy only what you can afford!

Souk Al-Waqif (Doha, Qatar)

Souk-time!

The grandeur of many of the malls in the Arabian Peninsula initially left me nonplussed, incredulous over the seemingly unending supply of designer goods.  Shopping in western culture is closely associated with the woman as consumer, perpetuating the perception that all women love to wander the aisles, voraciously spending as they shuttle from shop to shop.  While I never fell into this stereotypical role, I did become particularly intrigued with the opportunity to expand my shopping experience and visit a traditional Arab souk.  Arab souks, I would find, were veritable hodgepodges of intricate alleys and pathways housing shops sitting shoulder to shoulder bursting with exotic wares.  Riyadh, known for its lavish malls, luxurious chandelier shops, and abundant fresh fish markets (due to the proximity of the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf), is also noted for its teeming souks such as Bat-Ha, the Kuwaiti souk, and Dira, one of the oldest traditional souks in the city.

Tablahs (Arabic drums) at Souk ~ Doha, Qatar

Ouds (Arabic Guitars)

The tapestry of souk shopping is tightly interwoven with the art of bargaining, which is not only accepted, but widely expected.  On my inaugural visit to Dira, two venerable and wrinkled men bartered for ancient daggers and swords in a remote corner of the souk, leaving me rooted to the spot, unable to turn away for fear of missing a moment of these charged and fascinating negotiations. Similar scenes are common across the patchwork of shops, laden with fierce exchanges of fluttering arms and pitched voices between customer and vender who haggle over the cost of a pair of sandals or a sheesha pipe.  Bargaining is not purely a male prerogative; women regularly practice their gamesmanship at reducing the ante for several meters of silk fabric or intricately adorned handbags.  While I am commonly taken aback by the swift and heated dickering, my husband is quite proficient at the craft of bargaining; it must be either “in the blood” or honed by years of practice growing up in Lebanon and Jordan.  Bargaining is not typically an accepted practice in typical U.S. stores with their set inventories, fixed prices, and company budget constraints.  However, after living in the Middle East for the last eight years, we have found some success with bargaining in the U.S.  Just two summers ago, my husband and I visited Lowe’s home department store where we practiced our haggling skills to secure lower prices on garden furniture for our new home.  Surprisingly, I even recently found myself successfully bargaining at Hamad hospital in Doha for a lower price to acquire medical records.

Vegetable souk in Qatar.

Like Riyadh, Doha has a multitude of souks. Some contain a wide assortment of goods and others cater to a specific clientele, such as the gold souk, livestock souk, fish market, or computer souk.  The Al-Shabrah market, with its immeasurable quantities of vegetables, fruits, and eclectic mix of people, takes the concept of a U.S. “farmer’s market” to another level. Al-Najmah is devoted primarily to household goods and hardware; it is informally reserved for men, making me feel a little like an intruder when my husband and I visit.  As a newcomer to Doha, I was excited to experience Souk Al-Waqif, “the new, old souk,” a mass of shops brimming with nearly every good imaginable.  The scent of incense infiltrates the winding alleyways, and the crush of women and their children in tow makes for a frenetic and spirited atmosphere.  Older men in turbans expertly propel wheelbarrows in the narrow channels of the souk, and the doughy smell of cardboard thin saj bread wafts around you as it sizzles on large flat half-dome heating elements suspended over wood blocks.  Scattered amongst the hearty chaos are Arab men of all ages sitting on plastic chairs in small alleys; plumes of smoke rising from their sheesha pipes as they sip aromatic cardamom coffee and mint tea, conversing with one another about the day’s events.

Ros Cutts

“I eagerly looked forward to my first experience of souk shopping, and it did not disappoint me,” remarked a British expatriate friend, Ros, of her first souk experience. “Wandering around the slender passageways of Souq Al-Waqif I was introduced to the blended smell of spices, and stalls filled with rolls of colorful fabric waiting to be tailored into dresses and other garments. I was fascinated by the collection of falcons and falcon paraphernalia available in a small courtyard area.”  Ros continued, “Leaving with visions of Lawrence of Arabia I was somewhat startled to find western-style restaurants and coffee chains dotted in between the traditional craft stalls and Arabic-style restaurants.  It seems a shame to have not preserved the original architecture and to have allowed western food outlets to open in the souk.” She paused in retelling this and asked with a laugh, “Perhaps I’m just old fashioned?  In any case, I enjoyed my shopping experience at the souk and look forward to using my spices and returning to sample some of the delicious looking food from a traditional Arabic restaurant.”

On one of our initial trips to the Souk Al-Waqif I had been taking my time to saunter along the streets, exploring the varied vendors and their wares when I heard a throaty voice at my shoulder. “Marhaba, bedak chai aw qahwa?”  Realizing the voice did not belong to my husband, I turned to find a smiling old man, nodding his head vigorously and offering something in his map-creased hand.  I realized he was offering my husband and me mint tea.  I thought it odd at first, even mildly invasive, and I hesitated thinking that he was trying to get me to buy something I didn’t want. However, I learned that this was customary and realized that this type of tradition made the souk experience unique, much more than simply an excursion.  Souks by nature, rhythm, and flow encourage its patrons to slow down and immerse themselves in a kind of cultural shopping rather than simply surrendering to the shopping culture as many do in U.S. malls and stores.

Pam Weissen

My Scottish expatriate friend, Pam, also expressed how she favored souk shopping:  “My children love and look forward to visiting the souks. They save up their pocket money and love to spend on Arabic souvenirs and have bought everything from camel ornaments, to perfume pots, to musical instruments!  The Arab shopkeepers are so warm and friendly especially to the children and whether they buy or just look, I find them patient and kind.  The boys also love a bit of a barter which is always in good spirit.  I also feel that my children are safe and we can walk around and truly relax without the worries of the West, i.e., uptight shopkeepers and the concern that someone will snatch our children.  In contrast, if  I look round and can’t find my youngest, no doubt some shopkeeper will be chatting with him, or as happened the other day, an old lady in a veil, seeing my anxiety, smiled and pointed to another shop to let me know that he was there – a really nice gesture.”

Living in the Middle East has afforded me the freedom and singular opportunity to not only shop for the practical new dress at the mall, but to also “shop” for new experiences at the souk.  Happily, I am never a disappointed consumer in either place.

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Souks of Qatar (Omani, Vegetable, and Fish)

A couple of months ago an American expatriate friend invited me to join her along with a women’s group that would be visiting several souks in Doha.  A souk is an Arab marketplace, often open-air, selling everything imaginable, from spices, to kitchenware, children’s toys, electrical appliances, computers, colorful silk cloth, jewelry, camels and livestock, and so much more.  Some souks sell a variety of different items and others a specific type of item like jewelry, vegetables, or computers and related equipment.  Souks have been around for thousands of years in the Arab world, and historically caravans with goods and materials bought and sold from one another and the nearby townspeople, and even bartered for goods.  Souks were also a place where festivals and various social and cultural functions were held, including poetry readings and general storytelling sessions.

On this particular occasion, against the backdrop of a spring-like sunny Doha day, we would be visiting the Omani, Vegetable, and Fish Souks, all within walking distance of each other and located in the southwest of the city off of Salwa Road and Wholesale Market Street.  The Omani souk, reportedly so-called because many of its goods are imported from nearby Oman, sells quite a hodgepodge of items such as desert truffles, dates, plant pots, watermelon, pomegranate, lemongrass, bamboo, flowers, bushes, palm trees, coconut, baskets, garden materials, and a small assortment of dried fish.  Since it was Tuesday (a weekday), the Omani souk was not overly crowded, just a spattering of Qatari and other Arab men, and a couple of women from northern Africa in intricately designed cotton cloth body wraps.  This, in contrast to early morning Fridays, a weekend and religious day, when the specialty souks, in particular, are abuzz with customers on the lookout for the freshest vegetables, fruit, and fish, and negotiating the best deals with vendors.

Omani Souk (General)

Our first stop at the Omani souk was a desert truffles stand; the vendors were of Southeast Asian origin (from India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Pakistan), which is typical of souks in the Arabian Gulf region.  Not being one who is terribly interested in cooking (or anything that has to do with the kitchen, for that matter), I had always thought truffles were chocolates; I had no idea they were a form of funghi!

Several of the women were interested in purchasing a box of truffles and splitting the cost and contents amongst themselves.  Although this was a group comprised largely of western women, they were only too aware of the obligatory art of bargaining that accompanies any purchase in a souk.  Several of the women held their ground, as did the vendor, who ultimately left the women empty-handed as the vendor was clearly more interested in haggling over the truffles at individual rates rather than selling them at a reduced bulk rate.

Truffles (or mushrooms) found in the forests of Europe are superior in aroma, taste, and texture to desert truffles, however, according to a Saudi friend, the reason desert truffles are expensive in the Arab Gulf these days is mostly nostalgia based.  My friend divulged that people in the Arabian Peninsula used to cook desert truffles as a substitute for meat, which was prohibitively expensive 50 plus years ago.  At the time, most people of the Arab Gulf had red meat (mutton or camel) no more than a dozen times a year, hence the popularity of desert truffles found under the sand for free, which reminded Gulf Arabs of the texture of meat, (along with some imagination).

Truffles at Omani Souk

The women and I shuffled on to a nearby stand, which included a variety of dates.  Having lived in the Arabian Peninsula since late 2000, I’ve become acutely aware of the significance of dates in this region and the different ways they can be prepared.  Dates are grown in four stages, including kimri (unripe), khalal (crunchy and fully grown), rutab (ripe and soft), and tamr (ripe and sun-dried).  The tamr dates may even be compressed in a container made of the palm tree “leaves” and left to age for some time.  I cannot count the times I’ve been served dates along with cardamom coffee in Arab friends’ homes, (a common form of Arab hospitality), usually in rutab or tamr form, sometimes with the pit replaced with an almond or sprinkled with bits of sesame seed.  While important, culturally, to the larger Arab population, date palms are actually a critical part of the desert Bedouin’s diet, who could survive harsh desert conditions for months consuming dates and water alone.  During Ramadan the fast is broken by eating dates, which are rich in vitamins and minerals.  Dates are also used for medicinal purposes, as a Qatari friend told me that when she was a child her mother used a mixture of heated tamr dates with olive oil as a compress for a twisted ankle.

Dates in the Omani Souk

The Omani Souk is contained in an open warehouse, and besides truffles and dates includes an assortment of ceramic and clay pots in a variety of hues with some lovely engravings; straw hats and colorful woven baskets; plastic bags of dried sardines; and a small collection of fruits including watermelon, coconut, pomegranate (a favorite of mine), sweet potatoes, and what my Lebanese husband, Bishara, calls “green cherries” (otherwise known as “janarik,” which are unripened plums).  As a child in Jordan and Lebanon, Bishara used to eat “green cherries,” which look like miniature green apples and are sour-tasting, with a dousing of salt.  The predominant items in the Omani Souk seem to be flowers and other leafy plants, ranging from daisies, to hydrangeas, sunflowers, chrysanthemums, pansies, and the odd bonsai tree.

Bonsai Tree & Plant Pots in Omani Souk

Baskets in Omani Souk

Dried Fish in Omani Souk

Fruit & Vegetables in Omani Souk

Flowers in Omani Souk # 3

The Vegetable Souk, right next door to the Omani souk, sports a large array of vegetables and some fruit, (mostly imported from Lebanon and Syria), such as tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, cucumbers, squash, garlic, red and yellow peppers, red and green grapes, bananas, oranges, kiwi, pears, plums, apricots, squash, robbi (turnip), pineapple, strawberries, and purple and white eggplant (which I had never heard of before).  A young Egyptian woman in our group said she wanted to buy some eggplant, as she would be making Mahshee, stuffed eggplant with rice and onion, for dinner.  Although my newfound Egyptian friend disclosed that white eggplant is actually more tender and tastier than the purple version, she would be using the purple eggplant, which is the traditional ingredient in Mahshee.  The Vegetable Souk is heavily populated with men, usually of Southeast Asian origin like the vendors, who will assist you with your purchases by placing them in a wheelbarrow or rolling platform and follow you around, even taking your haul to the car and unloading your purchases for you.  Of course, a small tip is appreciated.

Vegetable Souk # 1

White Eggplant & Turnips at Vegetable Souk

Me at Vegetable Souk

Man w/Red Beard at Vegetable Souk

We eventually moved on to the Fish Market, a mix of sights, sounds, and smells (many not so pleasant), and quite a variety of fish with a convenient cleaning/gutting service.  Qatar shares a short border with Saudi Arabia to its south and its remaining three sides are surrounded by the Arabian Gulf waters, hence the abundance of fresh fish.  Fish available in Qatar includes, but is not limited to, Hammour (Grouper), Sherri, Prawns, Blue Crabs, Kanad (or Kingfish), Squid, and White Pomfret, and Sultan Ibrahim (Red Mullet).  The mention of Sultan Ibrahim later that evening brought back sentimental memories for my husband, Bishara, of the wonderful occasions during his childhood in southern Lebanon when his mother fried this special fish enjoyed by the entire family while Bishara’s father smoked sheesha and drank arak on the back patio of their home in the mountains.  I found the blue crabs dazzling, and knew they were indigenous to the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia having had many of these delectable delights in soft shell form (another favorite) when we were living in the Washington, DC area, but was surprised to find out they were also caught in the Arabian Gulf.  The Fish Market was a real treat and is now a favorite destination where we regularly purchase fresh Hammour and Sherri, which we love to grill on weekend evenings.

Blue Crabs at Fish Market

Fish at Fish Market # 2

King Fish at Fish Market

View of Fish Souk

Grilled Hammour (Grouper) Recipe:

Ingredients

  1. 250 g hamour fillet
  2. 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  3. 2 tablespoons olive oil
  4. 1 tablespoon ginger-garlic paste
  5. ½ teaspoon dried tarragon
  6. salt and pepper
  7. 200 g potatoes, boiled
  8. 150 g green peas, boiled
  9. 20 g fresh mint leaves, chopped
  10. 50 ml milk
  11. 3 tablespoons butter
  12. 1 teaspoonfresh parsley, chopped
  13. 1 pinch nutmeg

Directions

  1. Mix lemon juice, olive oil, ginger-garlic paste, tarragon herb, salt and pepper to make a marinade.
  2. Marinate the hammour fillet in this for a few hours or overnight for best results.
  3. Grill it over the charcoal griller.
  4. Saute garlic in butter.
  5. Toss mint and greenpeas in it.
  6. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  7. Mash grated potatoes in a pan.
  8. Add milk, butter, salt, pepper and nutmeg gradually until creamy in texture.
  9. Finish off with cream and parsley.
  10. Arrange the grilled hammour in the centre of your serving plate.
  11. Serve hot with salad and other accompaniments such as lemon butter sauce.

From: http://www.plaincook.com/grilled-hammour-Recipe-2007-06-23/