Dining in Dubai – the Real Food of Dubai
This article appears in Good Taste SA, June 2014
Packing your bags with the appropriate attire for dining in Dubai can be a nerve-wracking experience. It isn’t about knowing when it’s appropriate to show a little skin, and how much, in this the largest of the Emirati cities most of the fine dining establishments are swarming with women wearing mid-thigh bandage dresses. It’s about understanding when the tan trousers and navy blazer are considered formal enough for the doorman to let you in for a coveted dinner at Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire. Who knows if His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum or any of the world’s fabulously rich and famous will be seated next to you? Is the polka dot dress too grandmotherly for fun Friday brunch (a Dubai institution) at Traiteur at the Park Hyatt when the crowd is dressed in elegant dark denims and floaty Chloé blouses?
“Oh, but you can buy all your clothes when you’re there. I had so much fun at the Dubai Mall,” my chic lives-for-fashion friend says. Later, I will tell her how the only item I went on a hunt for at that behemoth of a mall was a bottle of elusive camel’s milk.
In the end, I decide, if I just stick to neutral colours and maybe flashes of colour from my silk scarves I’ll survive judgement and snooty looks. As it turns out, while Dubai is spilling over with top international restaurants housed in architecturally wondrous skyscraper hotels and some of the finest chains, the exquisite French and Mediterranean food served gives you no inkling of what Emirati food really is about. To discover this, you must cross over to the neighbourhoods far less sparkly.
Even before I see anything of the city, I visit the Sheikh Mohammed Cultural Centre for Understanding (SMCCU) in what turns out to be an excellent afternoon of learning and engaging with locals. It is built in a traditional tower house in the heart of the historic Al Fahidi district in Bur Dubai, an initiative backed by forward-thinking Sheikh Mohammed, the current ruler and Prime Minister of Dubai.
The aim here is to host expatriates and visiting foreigners and to bring them in close proximity with the culture and customs of the Emiratis, homologising differences. After removing our shoes, we sit on cushions at the centre of the house, sipping small cups of Arabic coffee called gahuwa, stained yellow with saffron and fragrant with cardamom, and eating plump dates stuffed with almonds. Our hosts, two young local women are engaging and witty. We tackle controversial topics such as dress codes, women’s rights, education, adultery and public alcohol consumption. It is here at the SMCCU that I try, for the first time, the Emirati dishes of thareed, a stew made of meat and vegetables that is poured over layers of bread, chabab, a cardamom-spiced pancake as well as local fried fish.
Over this spread of traditional Bedouin food (the Emiratis were originally nomads), our hosts conduct the cultural session. After all, it is that much easier to accept and understand one another when breaking bread together. Syrupy-sweet doughnut drops, called ligamaat are served drizzled with date honey. These doughnuts remind me of the similarity of cuisines across the Middle East, including Turkey and Cyprus.
In total, Emiratis make up 19 percent of the population of Dubai; the overwhelming majority are foreigners who arrive for the vast work opportunities in Dubai and the Emirates. It would make sense then that to a newcomer, finding a plate of thareed is far trickier than a pasta, entrecote or curry.
Having tasted a few of the true Emirati classics, I am determined to find out more about the cultural composition that defines modern day Dubai. I join Arva Ahmed who runs Frying Pan Tours, the only food tour company in the region one evening in the less glamourous part of old Dubai close to the Creek. Here, the fairly low-rise buildings are beige and ordinary, with a neon light flickering here and there above a storefront.
Arva explains that the original diet of the Emiratis could be found in the desert – camel’s milk, dates and fish for those living close to the coast. As a trading port, the city was introduced to rice and spices from the East.
“Trade with India and Iran, for example, has influenced Emirati cuisine. You will find several curries called salona, as well as biryani descendants called machboos,” says Arva.
Today, the region is shaped greatly by the immigrants that have arrived over the last 20 years. From Lebanese to South Indian and Pilipino, it’s possible to eat authentic dishes in Dubai, at bargain prices if you know where to look.
“I try to step outside the comfort zone of hummus, falafels and kebabs and talk about specific cultures and their specialty foods. We taste Jordanian, Emirati, Syrian and Egyptian food, rather than the blanket notion of what ‘Arabic’ food must be,” she explains.
We sit on plush red cushions in a Bedouin-style tent in a restaurant run by an Emirati woman and her sons. Here we sample platters of fragrant Emirati-style lamb, and the spicier baked chicken and rice originating from the Yemen. Arva teaches our group how to eat elegantly with our right hands from the communal plates, without dropping a grain.
We ask to end the meal with gahuwa. Sitting on the floor of the tent, I am reminded of the carpets laid out in the Arabian Desert earlier that week for a falconry course I attended – cups of saffron-infused coffee are served by a smiling Emirati man and visions of thousands of Bedouins performing the same ritual float through my head.
I discover very quickly that if you’re after any number of classics – excellent French baguette from Eric Kayser, a burger and fries from Shake Shack, contemporary Italian at Jamie’s Italian, lobster bisque in a floor-to-ceiling aquarium at the 7-star Burj al Arab hotel, you’ll find it all in Dubai. From the malls to restaurants designed by the likes of the Armani group and the world’s most sought-after architects, Dubai is where the fantasy meal of your dreams is waiting to unfold. All that stands between you and it is a tiny plastic card, and the right outfit.
Of all the flash and magnificence that money can buy that I have experienced in the city, the stand-out dining experience is one that is utterly uncomfortable for me. At the aptly named Noire at the Fairmont Hotel, diners are blindfolded and escorted to a room that is pitch-dark. I strain my eyes, waiting to adjust and hoping to see a glimmer of light.
“Excuse me, Madame,” says a waitress wearing U.S army-issue night vision goggles. She guides my hands to my cutlery and to the plastic tumbler filled with a beverage I can’t identify.
Well versed in ingredients, I am convinced that I will be able to suss out all the courses presented. This is part of the fun, you see. The waiters reveal nothing and the chef presents textures and flavours to tax and tease the taste buds. The meal is served at room temperature for obvious reasons.
I notice that the noise levels are particularly high. In fact, we are all speaking a little louder than usual. Is this to compensate for sight, I wonder. At one point it appears that we are shouting, laughing hysterically – is this a carrot, a beetroot, a turnip?
Finally, we are escorted out, our eyes blinking rapidly. The chef presents the meal to us. Gobsmacked, I learn that the main was in fact chicken in a beefy sauce, not lamb.
I don on the night vision goggles and am startled by the weight of the contraption. I glance at the lithe, young waitress and marvel at the night she and her colleagues have created for us.
“I wish someone would take me here on a first date,” someone quips.
There you have it, I think to myself. Dubai truly has a taste for everyone.
1. Sheikh Mohammed Cultural Centre for Understanding
House 26, Al Mussallah Road, Al Fahidi District, Bur Dubai
Phone: +971 4 353 6666
2. Frying Pan Tours
3. Platinum Heritage – Falconry and Wildlife Safari
4. Noire at Spectrum on One the Fairmont Dubai
Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai
Disclaimer: With thanks to DTCM SA & Definitely Dubai who hosted me on a Tastes of Dubai tour. As always, all views expressed here are my own and Food and the Fabulous retains full editorial control.