In a 2003 Chevrolet convertible, I find wholeness for the first time in months. It is really late on a Sunday night as my grandfather and I cruise through the empty neighborhoods of Abu Dhabi looking for a specific snack. Loud classical music blasts on the radio. Not by choice — the old stereo has been stuck on this station for years. Instead of repairing it, we have chosen to accept it. But it does not really matter because the cold breeze pierces through our ears before any musical waves dare enter.
We skid by lines and lines of flickering neon cafeteria and baqala signs and park at our favorite one: Rashid Ali Cafeteria. We beep the car horn thrice. A tall lanky figure, of the kindest person you know, emerges from the wooden chair by the shop’s door and gives us a thumbs up. My grandfather and I nod in synchrony. He knows who we are and why we are here — especially at this hour. Past the glass windows, I can see our order being prepared. Two hot and flaky parathas are being smothered in cheese under the harsh fluorescent lights. My eyes, gleaming with joy, trace the chips as they are sprinkled on the bread. I already know what my grandfather is about to say.
“See, New York isn’t perfect… they do not have Chips Oman Parathas!”
It is true. They do not. I looked very hard. Ahmad the waiter approaches our car and hands us two steaming hot karaks and two Chips Oman Parathas. He welcomes me back and asks me about “Amreeka.” I tell him it was great. We pay exactly 22 dirhams and drive away. Rashid Ali Cafeteria, Tea Break, and House of Tea are just some of the corner stores that sell this infamous sandwich. Not only that, but these stores are also an integral feature of the retail landscape of the city’s residential and commercial areas. They characterize the visual aesthetic of both rural and urban Abu Dhabi.
I can not really remember the first time I tried the Chips Oman Paratha. It has just always been a part of my world. This is something I struggled to admit to my New York roommates when they asked me about my favorite Emirati dish. I did not hesitate to tell them about the fluffy luqaimat dumplings, or the* harees* porridge, or the spicy machboos rice, or even the plain rice and yogurt combo. When really, I just wanted to let them in on this secret unofficial national snack. Only I did not feel like it belonged to me.
On the ride home, I asked my grandfather about my favorite local food’s origin.
Something I have not wondered about until three white girls asked me questions I could not answer. Having grown up most of his life in Bahrain, my grandfather struggled to answer too. We take a roundabout as he begins screaming, through Mozart and the wind, all the things he remembers hearing from his friends. He says that the Chips Oman Paratha was originally a schoolboy creation from the 1970s, just a few years after the country’s independence. Or perhaps long before that. No one really knows. But he notes that it quickly transformed into something beyond a schoolboy’s desk and began selling in a small corner store in Bain Al Jessrain.
Now, of course you could always make it yourself. In fact anyone could make it with the simple jumble of three components from your neighborhood baqala. The ingredients are an amalgamation of multiple geographical locations. The paratha is native to South Asia, prevalent throughout India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Nepal. The chips are a product of a Sohar based company in Oman. And the cheese… well, it could be anything you like — as long as it is spreadable. I personally prefer Kraft cheese. But for some reason the Chips Oman Paratha always tastes better when ordered as takeout (never dine-in) and from the comfort of your car. It also tastes better when paired with a cup of Karak, a creamy hot cup of tea introduced to the UAE by the Indian diaspora in the 1960s when oil was discovered in the region. The local people tenderly embraced this beverage, mixed in saffron and cardamom and made it their own.
We arrive home, stomachs not even half full. I think I should have ordered two Chips Oman Parathas. Or three. One is definitely not enough. I throw the sandwich’s wrapper and think of the history and nostalgia tucked tightly in my tummy. The Chips Oman Paratha, with all its scattered ingredients, is an homage to the people who were already here and to the people that found their way to this land. Two bites in, it is an invitation into the culture and a lens in which we can begin to understand our roots. Maybe I can finally claim it as my own. Maybe it can finally belong to me.
Al Reem Al Beshr is a Contributing Writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org