Dubai through the Food of the People – a food tour of the city
Published in Sunday Times Extra 2 March 2014. Images in article by Rob Cumming
There is far more to Dubai than high-rise buildings, shopping malls and desert safaris. Arva Ahmed, a food guide, helps guests to piece together the cultural fabric of the city, through food exploration tours.
The buildings are drab in this neighbourhood of old Dubai close to Dubai Creek, especially if you’ve spent the day in the glittering company of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, and lunched at the swanky Address Hotel, nearby. Bland concrete apartment blocks dwarf the sky and neon signs flicker over restaurants. We are here to meet food guide Arva Ahmed who runs Frying Pan Adventures, the only dedicated food tour in the United Arab Emirates.
To define the cuisine of Dubai, or the Emirates, means we need to understand who the people are that make up the region. Emiratis comprise just 19% of the population, with an overwhelming majority being foreigners. A mere 20 years ago Dubai was nothing more than a trading port surrounded by the Arabian Desert. Today, it is a cosmopolitan metropolis.
“The original cuisine of the Emirati people is one of the desert – it’s rich in camel milk, dates and fish for those living near the coast,” says Ahmed. Apart from dates, citrus and mangoes, around 70% of produce is imported into Dubai. Along with influences due to trade, with India and Iran, and the influx of immigrants, there is evidence of cultural crossover in dishes such as salona (currries) and machboos (a type of breyani).
Traditional dishes such as balaleet, a sweetened vermicelli made with egg that is popular for breakfast, thareed, a meat stew made with layers of flat bread and luqaimat, small drop dumplings drizzled with date molasses, are typical Emirati food, but not as easy to find as you’d imagine. At Al Farnar restaurant in Festival City, you can taste these original dishes that claim to celebrate Dubai of old.
On her tour, Ahmed says that people are surprised to discover that Arabic, or Middle Eastern food represents a very small portion of what Dubai and the Emirates has to offer. “I try to step out of the comfort zone of hummus and falafels and talk about specific cultures and their specialty foods, rather than an blanket notion of what Arabic food must be,” explains Ahmed.
So, what foods can visitors expect to discover? Dishes range from Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Iran and Turkey. While Lebanese and Indian food dominate the culinary landscape, every dish or element chosen for the tour has a story.
“Ghiath is an ice-cream maker who moved here from Syria, bringing a delicate, chewy pistachio-studded ‘booza’ to my street,” says Ahmed. I was lucky enough to witness Ghaith in action and to taste the fruits of his patient labour, and can attest to its greatness.
During the tour Ahmed provides an endless supply of well-researched facts, as she unpacks culinary Dubai. She is humourous and entertaining, giving ‘pop quizzes’ whenever the group lulls into silence, a natural consequence of five hours of feasting.
To enjoy this dinner party, as Ahmed aptly calls it, guests are required to be well rested, hungry and open-minded.
Book a tour: www.fryingpanadventures.com
I highly recommend a visit to the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Centre for Cultural Understanding, for a session with a local Emirati (usually woman), a meal and a frank Q&A where guests are invited to ask all sorts of questions pertaining to traditional dress obligations, to adultery consequences, polygamy and women’s education. It’s a must-do on a visit to Dubai. Open doors, open minds is their motto.
Disclaimer: DTCM SA & Definitely Dubai 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.