Warning, this post contains alcohol.
One of the dilemmas we have about cooking and baking in the UAE/Gulf Region is that vanilla extract, which, though commonplace elsewhere, is not available on store shelves due to restrictions on alcohol. Restaurants and bars must be issued a very expensive license to serve highly taxed alcohol and where it is included in a dish, it must be clearly labeled so. What would be stand alone restaurants in other countries are hotel restaurants here because hotels can easily expense blanket alcohol licenses for all of their outlets. The vast majority of restaurants in the country do not serve alcohol as a result of the municipal and religious implications. You see, alcohol is haram, which means it is against the tenets of Islam and with this being an Islamic country, we have to respect and honour the culture of our new home.
In fact, all extracts, including plant alcohols, are not available so things like pure liquid stevia extract are also not allowed in the country. You will not find the popular Trinidadian Angostura Bitters in supermarkets and neither will you find any alcoholic beverages in gas stations. Here, you must have a personal alcohol license to purchase and consume alcohol and it can only be purchased at two licensed dealears. Each Emirate has its own laws which vary from the least restrictive (Ajman) where you can buy alcohol without a license, to totally dry (Sharjah) where it is illegal to consume, transport or be in possession of alcohol. Dubai and Abu Dhabi fall somewhere in the middle. In Dubai, you are allowed to purchase, consume and travel with alcohol but with explicit restrictions.
Even though the shelves of the local alcohol dealers, MMI and AE are stocked with beverages from near and far, and you can even get a bottle of Appleton Rum,* you will never find vanilla extract there. Don’t even think to sneak in your own through customs because you risk jail time.
Vanilla beans are easily available in top supermarkets but are very expensive and are not practical for every recipe. So here is how you make your own in time for the intense baking of December. It takes two months to make vanilla so if you start now, you will definitely be able to impress your guests with your desserts that reek of authentic vanilla and not the imitation stuff we find in the local supermarkets.
So here is a recipe for homemade real vanilla extract, which believe it or not is simpler and cheaper than you think.
Ingredients: 3 medium-fat vanilla beans and 1 cup rum (you may substitute with vodka), a sterilized airtight canning jar/ mason jar or if you are a re-cyclist like The Steward, an old jam/or honey jar.
Method: Sterilize jar and lid by pouring boiling water over them covering them and letting them sit in the purifying, scalding bath for about 10 minutes.
Holding the tip of the vanilla that has the rough nodule where it was attached to the vanilla orchid, use a sharp paring or fillet knife to slit the vanilla in half, leaving from about one inch from the end you are holding. (Pretend that you see my index and middle fingers holding down the end to the left. I was busy shooting with my left hand and cutting with my right).
Pour the measured alcohol into the jar and add slit beans, making sure to fully immerse them. Get a production label or a piece of tape and a pen and label the date of production. Place in a dark cabinet for two months, shaking the bottle every Monday (or any day you wish). The aim is to shake it up once per week. If you have to place it in a cupboard that is opened frequently, simply wrap the bottle in a kitchen towel to keep it dark.
*The Appleton Rum sold in the UAE MMI stores is the Special, which is the cheapest grade sold in Jamaica. Even so, it is leap years ahead of Bacardi (Cuban) or Mount Gay (Barbados) or Meyers, which no self-respecting Jamaican drinks. Appleton sells the vast majority of their rum in the local domestic Jamaican market because it is so good, that we consume most of it. You may also have a shot of Appleton Reserve 21 Year Old at Burj Al Arab’s Al Muntaha. It’s not cheap, but most things worth splurging on are not.