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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Bahrain

Historic Diet

Bahraini Food - Dates
Dates

Since Bahrain is an island which is covered with desert, the number of foods they have available locally is limited primarily to animal life. The most commonly used land animal in the region is the camel; for centuries camels have been used for their milk, but also used for meat on special occasions. More prevalent in the historic diet is the sea life in the surrounding waters, which include grouper, mackerel, nagroor, shrimp, crab, and lobster among other sea life. Among the plant life the only true source of food is the date.

Culinary Influences

For most of history there were few alterations to the diet of Bahrain, but few people lived here permanently and it seems the Bedouin desert-dwellers who came and went dictated the diet in Bahrain's early history. This meant little was eaten other than the sea life, dates, and camel milk, plus whatever could be found. Later in history, as the land became a trading post the diet was substantially changed due to the influx of foreigners.

The most important influence on Bahrain's food came with the arrival of other Arab people as Levantine (also known as Lebanese) cuisine arrived. This brought hummus, tabbouleh, and spices that are now common in Bahrain and throughout much of the Middle East.

The region also changed its food due to the influence from others who came and went with the trade. The Persians, Indians, and even the Europeans arrived with new ingredients and ideas. This led to the greater prevalence of rice in the dishes and again new spices and ingredients arrived in greater numbers.

In the modern age foods from abroad have again changed the food of Bahrain, but not in the sense of changing the traditional foods, but rather in the addition of new "ethnic" foods. Most traditional dishes remain the same, but ethnic foods are now more common and available, including Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Italian, and American foods. These foods are growing in popularity partially due to the fact that people from these countries live and work in Bahrain and partially due to the fact that the locals also enjoy these foreign flavors.

Staple Foods

Bread: bread in Bahrain is fairly common, but it is generally more of a flat bread
Hummus: a dip consisting of mashed chickpeas (garbanzo beans), tahini, garlic, and lemon
Tabbouleh: a "salad" generally made of parsley, bulgur, tomatoes, garlic, and lemon

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Falafel: fried chickpeas (garbanzo beans) balls served with vegetables in bread
Machboos: the national dish is rice topped with meat or fish and sometimes also a tomato sauce
Muhammar: rice served with dates and/or sugar
Qoozi (or ghoozi): grilled lamb stuffed with rice, eggs, onions, and spices
Shawarma: lamb or chicken kebab seasoned and grilled, then served in pita bread

Dining Etiquette

When eating with the Bahrainis there are a few etiquette rules you must know and follow, the most important of which are related to the religion of the majority (of the citizens), Islam. If you follow these most important rules, the people will be rather forgiving of minor mistakes you make. If your dining hosts/guests are not Muslim, which is the case often times as the country is quite diverse, follow the dining rules of the host or just follow formal Western European dining customs.

First, dress on the conservatively side (see our Bahrain Culture Page for more details). Second, in conservative homes and even some restaurants, it is not acceptable to eat with a person of the opposite sex unless it is your child, sibling, or spouse. While this is very uncommon today, to some conservative Muslims this is important so observe the local restaurant's situation and follow their lead. Often times men dine only with men and women only with women so don't bring a guest of the opposite sex to any meal unless you are specifically invited to do so.

If you dress appropriately and bring, or don't bring as the case may be, the right guests you've already cleared two of the largest hurdles. Try to arrive on time for a meal and if eating in a local's home remove your shoes at the door if others have done so. Greet the elders first then follow your host's lead. You will likely be offered coffee or tea and you should accept one of these beverages; this may be in the dining room or elsewhere, but eventually you will make your way to the dining table. Let your host seat you and when sitting be sure to keep your feet flat on the floor or pointed behind you as pointing the soles of your feet at another can be offensive.

The next two important rules are two you probably won't have to worry about: conservative Muslims don't drink alcohol nor do they eat pork so avoid these foods. If in the home of a local they simply won't be served, but if eating out with locals, don't order them if they are available (pork most likely won't be found anywhere, although alcohol is in most hotel restaurants).

Once the food is served, again follow your host's lead as either you or the elders will likely be served first. Try a bit of everything offered as turning down food is rude, an unpleasant thought when you realize sheep's head is a delicacy often reserved for guests (although it is rarely served).

Eat as the locals eat; in most settings this means eating in the continental style (knife in the right hand, fork in the left), but on some occasions and with some foods you may eat with your hand, but only your right hand; don't touch any food with your left hand. As you finish your food, leave a bit on your plate to show there was more than enough and place your fork and knife together in the 5:00 position.

If dining in a restaurant be sure to check the bill for a service charge. Most restaurants include a service charge that will replace the tip, but if no service charge is included, leave a tip of 10-15%.

Celebrations & Events

There are two major food holidays in Bahrain, along with dozens of minor celebrations. The two major holidays are both Muslim holidays, including Eid al Fitr, which takes place after Ramadan, a religious holiday that requires fasting for 30 days. To celebrate the end of this fast, Eid al Fitr offers numerous foods, which differ from family to family, but generally consist of various meats and fish as a base with other grains and vegetables.

The second major food celebration is Eid al Adha, which is only celebrated after a pilgrim returns from haj, the mandatory journey for every able Muslim to go to Mecca. Again, this festival contains a large number of rice and meat dishes, including many of those served during Eid al Fitr.

Drinks

When welcomed by anyone in Bahrain you will likely be offered coffee, the country's favored beverage. However, this doesn't mean the drink options in the country are limited; in fact Bahrain has an incredible selection of drinks as the numerous foreigners living in the country demand drinks from their home countries. Due to this, all major international brands of soft drinks are available and there are also dozens of juices, tea, milk, and nearly any other non-alcoholic drink you can think of.

As a primarily Muslim country, Bahrain has very little alcohol available, but it can be purchased in many hotels catered to foreigners, although it is banned for Muslims to drink.

There is debate as to the cleanliness of the tap water in Bahrain. The most cautious course of action is to entirely avoid the tap water and items that could be made from or with the water, such as ice, fruits, and salads. If you do decide to drink the local tap water, first check with your local hotel or guesthouse to learn the cleanliness of the water in that area. If the water is safe, remember that many people may have trouble adjusting to the local tap water as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to if you are not from the region.

This page was last updated: March, 2013