Archives for posts with tag: desert

As we begin the 90-90 season in Washington (90 degrees, 90 percent humidity), it’s an appropriate time to introduce a refreshing drink from the Middle East.

When I visited Sam in UAE, we toured an ancient neighborhood of Dubai. After several hours we were hot and sweaty and parched. He suggested a local drink, mint lemonade, as a sure pick-me-up. I wasn’t so sure, but readily agreed. Getting out of the sun was my priority.

We sat silently in the late afternoon shade while the waitress slowly made her rounds and eventually produced our drinks. The mint lemonades in tall icy-cold glasses were curiously green. Herbaceously green.

Mint Lemonade

Mint Lemonade

I took a sip. Mmm. It was so refreshing. The mint, the lemon, the ice all combined to create a drink that washed away the heat. After a few sips, we were alive again, talking, enthusiastic about our evening plans.

Since we have an abundance of mint (ie, the worst winter in half a century didn’t make a dent in it), I decided to figure out why this drink was so restorative.

A quick Google search brought these qualities to the fore:

Mint: astringent, antiseptic, antibacterial, antimicrobial, decongestant, expectorant, antiviral.

Lemon: antibacterial, antiviral, immune-boosting, digestive aid, liver cleanser.

I decided to give a home version of mint lemonade a try. I chose a warm Sunday when Chris and Jeff were visiting, after a walking tour of the super-cool Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria.

A purist would make the lemonade from scratch. I took a shortcut and bought a no-bad-stuff lemonade, Newman’s Own Virgin Lemonade, which is made of filtered water, organic sugar and lemon juice/pulp. I harvested a bunch of mint, plucked the leaves and chucked the rest. Here’s the basic recipe:

Mint Lemonade

Pack a blender container with a handful or two of mint leaves. Add enough lemonade to cover. Whirl for a minute or two until the mint is pulverized. (This is no muddled julep!). Spoon a teaspoon or two of the mint pulp into the bottom of a tall glass, add ice, fill with lemonade. Top with a twist of lemon. Serve with a straw, which you use to stir and sip.

Ratio is the tricky part. CRR likes less mint puree; I like more. It’s a personal thing. You’ll have to find your bliss.

The four of us sat on the patio, slowly sipped and felt the antibodies (see above) take effect. Jeffrey declared himself relaxed. You had to be there to believe it.

If you troll Mideast foodie websites, some make the lemonade from scratch, others add a teaspoon of orange blossom water (which has a heavenly smell) or perhaps top it off with sparkling soda. Others whirl it into a frozen drink, and the racy ones suggest a splash of rum or vodka.

After experimenting for several weeks, I think I’ll freeze some mint puree in ice cube trays. Then I’ll plop a mint cube into a glass of lemonade at the end of the languid summer nights to come. And dream of Arabian nights.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.


The legend goes like this: After God finished molding Man from earth, he took the remaining material, shaped it into a date palm, and placed it in the Garden of Eden. Dates are mentioned more than 50 times in the Bible and 20 times in the Qur’an.

There were dates everywhere in Abu Dhabi. The Arabian native fruit is an ancient sign of hospitality.

Dates were essential to the survival of Arab tribes. The fruit was an essential part of their diet; they consumed several pounds of dates a day, washed down with camel milk. And the date palm tree was used for everything from fabric to lumber.

There are more than 100 varieties of dates, mostly grown in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. I saw a dizzying array of them at an Arab version of a farmer’s market on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi. You could get everything at this market: fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, fish. There was an entire row of date vendors. At one shop, I asked the vendor to make up a sampler of every variety he sold. They were different colors, and some were drier than others — but honestly, to me, one pretty much tasted like another. I assume a native palate would be able to discern the differences.

Date Market

Date Market

We also saw a date palm orchard at the oasis of Al Ain.  Our guide told us the Emiratis take great pride in serving dates harvested from their own plot of land.

Dates are a heart-healthy food, low in cholesterol and rich in potassium and iron. The average date has about 25 calories.

That is, until you turn them into an incredible appetizer, Devils on Horseback. My friend Paula turned us on to them years ago – she stuffed them with goat cheese, wrapped them in thin-cut bacon, and broiled them until the bacon was done. (Obviously a Muslim wouldn’t wrap a date in pork!) The contrast of salty, sweet and creamy is amazing.

I brought home a box of chocolate-covered dates, which my colleagues gobbled up. Now I’m dreaming of that appetizer…

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening

Imagine the countryside dotted with cattle. Replace the image of cattle with camels. Now picture herds of camels loping across the desert sands, trailed by a white-robed shepherd.

This is the enduring vision I will keep of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Not the skyscrapers that soar high above the Persian Gulf, nor the Emiratis shrouded mysteriously in abayas and kanduras, but this majestic animal icon of their history.

1941590_10201667805282346_1661266698_oFor centuries the Arab tribes roamed the desert, bedouins whose simple life revolved around the camel. The camels carried them across the vast windswept sands, provided milk and yogurt and meat, and eventually gave up their skins and hair and even their bones for tents, clothing and other necessities. A man’s worth was measured in part by the number of camels he owned.

The camels have long since given way to Ferraris and palaces and other lifestyle choices of the rich. But the Emiratis still keep herds of camels, perhaps to remind them of the humble roots that preceded their oil wealth. Even today, they race their camels and take great pride in winning. There is even a camel beauty contest.

I had a brief immersion course in ‘camel’ on my trip to UAE. We stopped by the race track at Al Wathba and watched the camels train. Then on to Al Ain, an oasis surrounded by 3,000 farms and the highest concentration of camels in the world.

As we drove to Al Ain, herds of camels appeared now and then against the beige and rust-colored sand. When we pulled over to the side of the road, the inquisitive animals would come right up to the fence line to ponder us.

They are handsome – white (primarily from Sudan), brown and black (Saudi Arabia). These are one-hump camels, known as dromedary. They can go two weeks without water and they can live for 50 years. Their small heads are dominated by doe-like eyes and comically ridiculous lips and teeth, offset by narrow mid-sections. Their giraffe-like legs taper to plate-sized padded feet.  They make the craziest sounds (audio/video here).

Al Ain still houses a camel souk in the plains below Jebel Hafeet, the brutish limestone mountains that separate Dubai from Oman. The market is divided into more than 100 neat pens, where a thousand camels (and goats, sheep and cattle) are corralled for potential buyers to ogle.

Expensive white SUVs slowly circle the paddocks, often filled with parents and children, selecting the camels or other animals they want to buy. A camel destined for slaughter goes for 3,000 dirham, or about $850. (At the market, camel meat is cheap – less than $3 a pound.) A cow, which will provide milk and birth calves for years, sells for 10,000. And a fortunate leggy animal chosen to work with the highly-prized racing camels can fetch 24,000 dirham.

camel souk

camel souk

We lingered at the camel souk, enthralled by the beautiful beasts, from week-old babies to full-grown animals that top 7 feet high.

On the drive back to the city lights, it was easy to dream of the centuries when man and camel roamed the endless desert, before oil rigs rendered the camel obsolete.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening