“The phrase ‘local food’ takes on its very own meaning in Dubai,” said Debra Greenwood, director of the annual Dubai Food Festival. “As a city whose residents comprise more than 200 nationalities, ‘local’ dishes are a smorgasbord of global flavours. From Peruvian to French, Korean to Vietnamese, you can dine around the world in this one small city.”
Make it at home
1 1/2 cup milk
1 cup flour
Pinch of salt
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp melted butter
Sift the flour and salt into a bowl. Make a well in the centre, and add the egg and egg yolk. Slowly pour in the half of the milk, stirring constantly, and then stir in the melted butter. Beat until smooth.
Add the remaining milk, cover, and let stand at room temperature for at least 30 minutes. The batter should be the consistency of cream. Pour a thin layer evenly over a flat frying pan. Cook until dry and turn over.
Recipe courtesy of Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding
But as marvellous as these multiple flavours are, one cuisine has been woefully underrepresented in the city’s dining diversity: that of the UAE itself. Tourists and expats had never shown much interest in the cuisine, and Emirati custom is to enjoy traditional fare at home.
“Although expats and tourists may not see much of it, traditional food is extremely important in private family homes and at celebrations,” said Nasif Kayed, managing director of the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU). “Our local dishes are passed down from generation to generation and, especially during Ramadan, you can see local kitchens busy preparing favourite foods.”
But today, thanks in part to a new wave of curious travellers hankering for a slice of tradition, there’s growing interest in Dubai’s native dishes. As a result, Emirati food is slowly emerging from private kitchens and entering the public dining domain.
Arva Ahmed, who leads restaurant-hopping tours around Old Dubai with her sister Farida, admitted that growing up in Dubai, her awareness of local food was “non-existent”. Her parents originally hailed from India.
“It's only over the last few years that there’s been a real movement to bring [it] into the public eye,” she explained.
At the SMCCU, this translates into welcoming visitors in for traditional meals, featuring everything from fresh and fluffy saffron pancakes at breakfast to tender roast lamb and rice dishes in the evening – all of which come with a healthy side of local insight from the Centre’s enthusiastic Emirati volunteers on hand to chat about all things UAE, from the food to the traditional dress.
And according to Greenwood, the city’s vibrant international restaurant scene is also starting to recognise the value of local flavour.
“Restaurants specialising in Emirati cuisine now include Seven Sands, local chain Al Fanar and numerous little cafés where you can pop in for a cup of camel milk coffee and khameer (puffed flatbreads sprinkled with sesame seeds) – such as Mama Tani, Bikers’ Café and Klayya Bakery,” Greenwood advised.
So the venues are there: but what exactly are they serving their curious customers?
Contrary to popular belief, Middle East cuisine is not one homogenous regional blur. Dubai has its own unique identity that has nothing to do with Lebanese hummus or Turkish kebabs.
“Since many restaurants advertise just Middle Eastern food, sometimes the real UAE dishes become difficult to distinguish,” said Khadar Puthabba, the sous chef at Barjeel Heritage Guest House.
In fact, traditional Emirati fare is healthy and hearty. It includes slow-cooked stews, subtly spiced and roasted meats and fish, fragrant rice dishes, artfully folded savoury pastries and zesty salads of vegetables and legumes.
Barjeel is one of the few hotels offering authentic Emirati fare, an element that chef Puthabba feels is key to conveying the nation’s rich culinary heritage.
For centuries before the seven emirates united, the region was home to various tribes. In the desert, the wandering Bedouins relied on hardy animals such as chickens and goats for their meat. Camels provided milk, and a smattering of herbs and vegetables acquired through trade rounded out their diet.
Along the coast, fishermen, pearl divers and traders lived on seafood, also supplemented by herbs and spices – such as saffron, cardamom, cinnamon and turmeric – plus rice and pulses imported from Asia.
Dried fish was another key component, explained Puthabba: “Due to the lack of refrigeration, fish was cleaned, salted and dried under the blazing sun to preserve it for a longer shelf life.”
On the sweet side, date palms abounded in the oases, providing plump, sticky fruits that were used in desserts and given as gifts. Honey was also commonly employed as a sweetener, while nuts – particularly pistachios – were another popular after-dinner treat.
The UAE was formed in 1971 and, thanks to the country’s deep oil and gas reserves, has grown rich – developing into a land of shiny towers, fast cars and luxury goods that’s almost unrecognisable as the desolate desert roamed by generations of Bedouins. But the memory of these nomadic roots lingers in the national consciousness. And the growing availability of the traditional dishes that nourished their wandering forefathers is proof of Dubai’s eagerness to preserve its unique flavours.
A taste of tradition
Look beyond the global goodies to the emirate’s own distinct culinary cornucopia.