From traditional Bedouin breakfast to amazing dessert Umm Ali, embarking on a food trail in Dubai 

From traditional Bedouin breakfast to amazing dessert Umm Ali, embarking on a food trail in Dubai 

The country is a haven for food lovers with offerings ranging from world class immersive dining to cheap yet tasty street food

Neeta LalUpdated: Saturday, April 29, 2023, 09:16 PM IST
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Away from anodyne malls and gargantuan five-star buffets, Dubai also offers immersive dining experiences that beautifully showcase the authentic Emirati gastronomic culture.

On a recent trip to the Emirati city, I explored three hidden gems to sample delicious local treats. My food trail began with the Al Fahidi heritage district, earlier called Al Bastakhiya, a charming area peppered with cafes and shops selling traditional merchandise and souvenirs. Far removed from Dubai’s whirligig and vertiginous skyscrapers, this is a slice of life from the mid-19th century.

Creative art spaces, museums and cafés housed in traditional homes crafted from gypsum, coral and limestone are a visual treat. I’m booked for dinner at the Arabian Tea House, an atmospheric eatery dotted with a secret garden, a leafy courtyard, turquoise benches, white rattan chairs and lace curtains. I begin by savoring a piping hot cup of the famed Sulaimani chai under a gargantuan tree while soaking up the sounds of rustling trees and birds. The highly Instagrammable restaurant once belonged to a tawash, or pearl merchant, I’m informed, and offers 150 types of tea and drinks, including a house blend of black tea with herbs and fruit.

The Arabic menu is expansive and soon my table is creaking under a flood of platters. There’s sambusa (crispy mince samosa) and mutabal (roasted eggplant marinated in curd, olive oil and herbs) paired with plump Arabic bread. The signature mezze encompasses a constellation of lip smacking dips and salads along with zaatar-infused breads. Dessert is Balaleet, a fine sweet vermicelli flecked with cinnamon, cardamom and nuts. Regag bread, bursting with eggy and cheesy goodness and drizzled with honey, effectively twins the sweet with savory. All is washed down with limonana, the refreshing Middle Eastern lemony beverage.

Next day, more food. For lunch, I head to Al Shindagha to dine at Bait Al Jeyran Restaurant. Overlooking the Creek, this is Dubai’s traditional quarter and has recently undergone a multi-billion dollar makeover. Every corner looks like a picture postcard and I find it tough to put my Nikon down. I opt for a Middle Eastern Mixed grill, a decision I don’t regret. The succulent kebabs and chunks of meat are moist and yummy while the bread is soft and plump. Up next is a flavor-charged crab curry with rice served on plantain leaves. it is so delicious I can’t stop eating. Fed to bursting, I still dig into dessert – Umm Ali,  an Egyptian dish akin to the bread pudding. Served warm with a scoop of French vanilla ice cream, it’s a party in my mouth!

Post meal I saunter around the Creek to burn some calories. Few know but in the early 20th century, the Creek was the pivot around which Dubai flowed. A vibrant trading hub, it hosted the city’s only port that helped develop the local pearl diving industry powering the city’s economy. Nestling between the Persian Gulf and the Ras Al Khor bird sanctuary, it draws millions of footfalls from around the world for its cultural festivals.

My last meal – a traditional Bedouin breakfast -- is on Al Musallah Road at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Located in a beautifully restored wind tower house, the center was established in 1998 to break down barriers between people of different nationalities and to raise awareness of the local culture, cuisine and traditions.

The ‘culture meal’ I’d signed up for requires me to squat – with about 20 other people – on colorfully laid out dhurries accessorized with plump cushions. We begin with an introduction to our host while quaffing a hot cup of Arabic coffee known as “Gahuwa Arabia”, a blend of lightly roasted Arabic beans, cardamon and saffron which are ground and boiled. The coffee is then strained and served hot in small cups with no handles (fenjan). I enjoy it with the local juicy Mejdool dates.

The food arrives langar-style with costumed servers serving each guest quickly from metallic platters and containers. We tuck into traditional noodles, pancakes known as chabab slathered in cream cheese and chickpeas cooked in a traditional manner paired with the local bread (khamir).  The scrambled eggs, their flavor amplified with middle eastern spices, are delicious. Ligamat the Emirati version of doughnuts are drizzled in sweet date and decadent to the core.

Even as we sup, we’re invited to ask questions about Arabic culture. Camaraderie permeates the gathering as we freely quiz our witty presenter on everything from abayas to Dubai’s economy, the local dating culture and Arabic food. I leave with a full stomach and an enlightened mind.

(Neeta Lal is an international awards-nominated editor and journalist)

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