Marquee magic from Middle East

The roses are being tended, outfits are being selected, invitations are (hopefully) landing, and construction of the marquees has begun. Each year the stakes at Flemington are raised, on and off the track. Marquees hosts continually strive to better their previous efforts – and trump the competition with their fitout, service and food.
Nanjing Night Net

For the past few years Emirates has hosted one of the Birdcage’s biggest marquees. This year, the theme is Dubai, the airline’s home. It’s a city that inspires superlatives – the world’s tallest building, biggest aquarium, largest designer shoe store – so expect the marquee to wow.

Modelled on an ancient citadel, it will cover 600 square metres and include a separate dining room, a large terrace and internal walls four metres high. As a contingency against Melbourne’s inclement weather, the terrace will be covered by two Bedouin-style canvas tents. Designed by Katrina Regan from event management agency CI Events, the marquee will take about 30 days to build and involve a team of 10 carpenters, painters, plumbers, electricians and labourers.

The marquee will offer a three-metre-high deck so guests can see the track from inside and out, traditional Arabic dancing and a host of celebs in their racing finest. And the Mumm will flow freely.

Dubai-based Nasser Iskeirjah, who has just celebrated his first year as Emirates’ executive chef, will oversee the menu. He spent two days in Melbourne last month working with Epicure Catering to perfect authentic Middle Eastern flavours. Even familiar dishes such as hummus can be tricky to get right, Iskeirjah says, ”as it’s all about how you put it together”.

But he left delighted with the resulting canapes, such as marinated watermelon with pomegranate, labneh, rose and pistachio, and yellowfin tuna kibbe nayeh, cracked wheat, crushed avocado, preserved lemon and dukkah. ”I know I give the chefs there a headache but they realise it’s worth it,” he says, laughing.

Prawn machbous, one of the United Arab Emirates’ best-known dishes, will be served as a main during the spring racing carnival.

The pilaf-style dish includes prawns marinated in a distinctive spice blend and basmati rice. Variations might replace the prawns with another type of seafood, chicken or lamb, or tweak the spices, but they usually include turmeric, white pepper, cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, chilli powder, coriander, allspice, cardamom and dried lime.

Prawn machbous

600g green prawns, peeled and deveined

400g basmati rice

20g machbous spice mix (see recipe below)

10g coriander leaves, finely chopped

75ml corn or vegetable oil

50g chopped onion

10g chopped garlic

1 loomi (dried lime, available at specialty stores)

15g butter

40g tomato paste

150g tomato, chopped, peeled and deseeded

700ml water

Salt to taste


250g ground turmeric

10g ground white pepper

45g ground cinnamon

62g ground cumin

10g ground nutmeg

6g chilli powder

45g ground coriander

25g ground allspice

20g cardamom

10g dried lemon powder (available at specialty stores)

1. Wash the basmati rice three times and soak for one hour.

2. Marinate the prawns with half the machbous spices and half of the freshly chopped coriander leaves.

3. Roast marinated prawns in the oven at 180C for 4 minutes or until half cooked.

4. Heat the oil in a large, heavy-based saucepan over medium high heat and gently fry the onion until soft, then add chopped garlic, crushed loomi and butter.

5. Add remaining machbous spice, cook for 15 seconds, then add tomato paste and cook for 2 minutes.

6. Add the rest of the coriander and chopped tomato. Stir and continue cooking for 3 minutes, add salt to taste.

7. Add water, bring to boil, then add strained rice, fold in prawns, bring to boil again, and check seasoning.

8. Cover with a tight lid and cook over low heat for 20 minutes, or until most of the liquid has been absorbed.

For the spice mix Mix all the ingredients together. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.

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