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Bedouin Food

Desert Diet

Bedouin Food

Fran Gillespie

Vanishing Lifestyle | Snacking with the Bedouin | A Hard Life | Bedouin Hunting | Lizards and Locusts | Other Foods

Cooking unleavened bread.

For thousands of years, the Bedouin, the nomadic people of Arabia, travelled the desert, moving on every few weeks in search of fresh pasture for their camels, sheep and goats.

Living on the simple products of their livestock: dairy products and meat, supplemented by dates and commodities such as rice, sugar, tea, coffee and flour for which they traded with the settled people of the coastal villages, these incredibly hardy people managed somehow to survive even in the scorching heat of summer.

Vanishing Lifestyle

In the Arabian Gulf, the fixing of national borders coincided with the oil wealth that changed the lifestyle of entire peoples and rendered the harsh life of the bedouin unsustainable, once people began to want the luxuries that go with a settled lifestyle. More and more men found employment in oil-related work. For a while their wives and children and the old people continued the lifestyle of tent dwellers, with the oilfield workers returning to their families at weekends.

During the 1960s the practice gradually died away, as the government encouraged families to settle so that the children could attend school. In Qatar, within two decades of the first oil-derived cash which flowed into the country at the end of the 1950s, almost no families were following the old way of life. A lifestyle which had continued without a break for at least three thousand years had disappeared without a trace.

Snacking with the Bedouin

Bedouin women sit on the sand by their tent, eating from a communal bowl.
Bedouin women eating together in the desert.

In 1959 Danish ethnographers, armed with notebooks, tape-recorders, cameras and film cameras, arrived in Qatar just in time to make a record of the old way of life before it vanished. They describe a typical late afternoon snack at a tented encampment near Al Khuwair, north of Umm Slal Mohammed:

' Spiced coffee and tea were served...and afterwards we got curdled buttermilk to eat...the procedure was to press dates together to form a spoon-bowl and take up the curds with it... while this was going on preparations for the party were begun by three sheep being dragged out in front of the tent and slaughtered.'

Later that evening they were invited to the feast, which they enjoyed despite being frozen to the marrow!

' While we drank interminable quantities of tea and coffee the sun set, darkness fell, the stars came forth and we froze with dignity...People arrived with baskets full of newly-dug truffles as big as well-grown potatoes...The truffles were roasted in the embers, superficially cleaned of gravel and soot, and flavoured with large grains of salt...Eight men carried the large metal dish, where the three sheep were placed, roasted whole, upon a mountain of rice...We made a circle around the round mat on which the dish was placed, and began to tear into the sheep's flesh all at the same time. Salted roasted truffles were spread over the rice, and it was delicious.'

A Hard Life

The Danes' host was a wealthy man, but such feasts were an exception. Entertaining frequently would have deprived a host's dependants of their meagre rations or seriously depleted his flock.

Travellers like Doughty, Thomas and Thesiger who travelled extensively with bedouin, record a far more monotonous diet. Bread was a staple, prepared simply by mixing flour with a little precious water from the waterskin; the unleavened dough was then baked in the embers of the fire. Thin circles of unleavened bread were sometimes cooked on a convex metal plate over the fire. A preserve of flour, dried dates and clarified butter, called ba-theeth, heated together and kneaded into a solid mass, was carried on journeys; it kept well and did not require any further cooking.

Bedouin Hunting

Hunting of Bustards [houbara] and Stone Curlew [kerouan] with falcons, and of gazelle and hares using saluki hounds, provided a welcome addition to the diet. Gazelle were also trapped by constructing converging dry stone walls with a ditch behind into which the game was driven. Desert hares can run faster than the most fleet-footed dog and the only way to catch them, until the advent of firearms, was to take them by surprise. On spotting a hare the hunter would take his dog up in his arms, ride his camel in circles round and round the bush in which the hare was skulking, getting closer each time, and then throw the dog down.

Small game was simply thrown on the fire to cook in its fur and eaten whole. Sometimes a butchered animal would be cooked in a large stewpot to be served on wheat or rice with clarified butter. Wheat was more commonly eaten than rice in the nineteenth century but gradually rice replaced wheat.

Lizards and Locusts

Agamid stands, its beady eyes scanning for danger.
A tasty snack

The Spiny-tailed Agamids, dhubs, which live in colonies in open sandy regions in Qatar, were considered particularly tasty eating and until the 1990s were occasionally on sale in the Salwa Road markets. Squeamish European travellers describe the enthusiastic consumption of locusts, roasted, shelled and eaten in much the same way as a prawn. The dried insects could be ground up into meal to be added to stews. Locusts were a menace to date farmers at the oases but at least supplied a source of instant food.

Other Foods

When food was scarce, people survived on one meal a day, perhaps a few dates and some camel milk. It is remarkable that despite this sparse diet there are no accounts of bedouin suffering from scurvy, whereas the Turkish garrison stationed in Doha at the end of the 19th and the early years of the 20th century lost large numbers of men from this terrible disease, until one commander thought to plant a vegetable garden in what is now the Musheirib area. The nomads must, therefore, have made use of what desert plants they could find, which also yielded a range of natural medicines. The small orange berries of the common thorny shrub Lycium shawii, which occur all year round, are rich in Vitamin C.

Dates were an ideal food for nomads, readily obtainable as they grew in the oases, non-perishable and nutritious. During the date harvest fresh dates provided a welcome change from the dried dates eaten the rest of the year.

Wheat was cooked in a variety of ways including harees, a kind of greasy porridge with mutton added which is still eaten today as a special traditional Ramadan dish.

Clarified butter [samn], which was widely used in cooking, was prepared by churning goats' or sheep's milk in inflated goatskin bags. Once the samn had been poured off the remaining curds could be eaten. Samn was one of the products used for trading.

Yoghourt [leban] was prepared and sometimes drained and salted to make a sun-dried food for storage. Eventually it became rock hard but could be reconstituted by pounding in a mortar and mixing with hot water. Water itself was a most precious commodity and even when available was often of poor quality, the wells being sometimes polluted with camel droppings and full of vermin. In the hottest months some tribes relied entirely upon camel's milk when water was unavailable.

Coffee made from freshly pounded and roasted beans was the preferred drink of the desert people from time immemorial, but from the nineteenth century onwards tea, served with plenty of sugar, became popular. It may even have been introduced by European travellers.

A bedouin man and women stand in front of their tent.
Bedouin couple.