The first Jew to write about his travels to the area that is today the United Arab Emirates was Benjamin of Tudela. In 1170, one hundred years before Marco Polo embarked on his voyage to the Silk Road, Benjamin of Tudela traveled to “Kis,” located in the north of the Arabian Peninsula. He wrote about this and many other adventures exploring Europe, Asia, and Africa in his book, The Travels of Benjamin. This year a peace treaty is being signed between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. It will finally be possible for Israeli citizens to follow in the footsteps of Benjamin of Tudela.
Kis was connected to the port city of Julfar, in present day Ras al-Khaimah. Ras al-Khaimah, which means “head of the tent,” is located on the coast of the Persian Gulf. It is famous for its lush date palms and fertile mountain valleys. It was active in trade with East Asia, importing spices, porcelain, silks, gems, and incense. Kis was inhabited by Bedouins, who excelled at trading and navigating.
Many of the foreign traders who sailed to Kis were Jews. A sea captain named Buzurg ibn Shariyar described one of these Jewish traders, named Ishaq bin Yahuda , in his Book of the Wonders of India, first published in 900. In the 1970s a group of Bedouins discovered a Jewish tombstone from the 1500s in Ras al-Khaimah. It was made for a man named David. He was presumably a trader who died in Julfar and had to be promptly buried, per Jewish law. No other archaeological signs of Jewish life have been found, indicating that there was never a significant permanent Jewish community in Ras al-Khaimah.
Benjamin of Tudela probably enjoyed Bedouin cuisine during his sojourn in Kis. The staples of the Bedouin diet consisted of flatbreads baked in an earth oven, goat’s milk yogurt and cheese, olives, fava beans, lentils, dates, pomegranates, grapes, almonds, and melons. For special occasions, grilled lamb or chicken may have been served. Everything was flavored with exotic spices imported from the East. The Bedouins of Kis also grilled the abundant fish they caught in the Persian Gulf.
In honor of the peace treaty between Israel and the UAE, add a special recipe from Ras al-Khaimah to your Rosh Hashanah feast. Like the ancient Jewish traders before you, try this delicious Bedouin recipe for fish flavored with dates and spices. It would be fitting for such an historic Rosh Hashanah!
Samak Mashwi: Charcoal Grilled Fish
Adapted from The Complete Middle Eastern Cookbook by Tess Mallos
2/3 cup dried pitted dates
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 onions, chopped
1 ½ tsp. Baharat spice mix
1 tsp. ground turmeric
Salt to taste
If grilling over charcoal, light the charcoal and wait until it glows.
If you are using an oven, preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit (232 degrees Celcius).
Soak the dates in cold water for 30 minutes.
Wash the fish.
Mix the onions, garlic, Baharat, turmeric, and salt in a bowl.
Fill the fish cavity with the spice mix.
Place the fish in a roasting pan.
Puree the dates.
Coat the fish with the date puree.
Grill the fish over charcoal until it flakes easily with a fork.
If using the oven, roast the fish in the oven for 18-20 minutes.