You cannot simply crave ‘a’ kebab in the UAE. We talk specifics here. Do you want your kebabs grilled in the Turkish, Lebanese, Egyptian, Emirati, Bahraini, Iranian, Iraqi, Indian, Pakistani or Afghani way? I enjoy torturing myself with the compendium of kebab options available – it helps me build an appetite.
Have you ever wondered which culture in Dubai gets their kebab consistently right at a reasonable price, every skewer, every time? We should keep the answer ready for rabidly ravenous times when craving clouds clarity.
Kebab nomenclature is confusing across cultures. According to food historian Nawal Nasrallah, the word has roots in ancient Akkadian words: ‘kebabu’ or ‘to burn fire or wood, to grill’ and ‘kubbusu’ or ‘formed like a turban’ (referring to ground meat). Iraq’s kebab is kufta in the other Arab countries, while Iranian or Indian tikka is Lebanon’s sheesh tawook. To clarify, I am referring to kebab in its broadest culinary sense – ground meat or chunks of meat that are threaded on a skewer and grilled over coals or lowered into a tandoor. The European reference to kebab or doner kebab is what we call shawarma, which is best left off the discussion table because shawarma deserves its own separate thesis.
Back to the question of who does the best kebabs.
The Indian and Pakistani restaurants might win the kebab game in terms of sheer population and diversity of kebab options across their menus. Sind Punjab’s chicken tikka in Meena Bazaar is legendary across Old Dubai. Delhi Restaurant in Deira has perfected their kebab game since 1978, with spicy Bihari beef kebabs that would be pâté if they were any softer.
The spicing on Lebanese-style kebabs in the city is far more muted then their fiery desi brethren. The sheesh tawook and minced meat in tomato sauce at Al Hallab and Safadi are consistently moist and flavourful. But I have never fallen asleep dreaming of them.
I do wake up the next morning thinking of Iraqi and Turkish kebabs – only because they are shockingly expensive. The average Iraqi minced lamb kebab is fattier and juicier than its Lebanese cousin, but leaves your wallet leaner by about 30 dirhams per plate. Some Turkish restaurants have managed to hit the 90-dirham mark on plates of grilled adana (minced meat) kebab. Even baklava cannot console me when the bill arrives.
The Afghani kebabs in Dubai are often hit and miss, with only a few that serve a stellar ‘namkeen chicken’ (salted chicken) or ‘chopan kebab’ (lamb chops). I have not tried enough Khaleeji (Gulf region) kebabs to form an opinion, but the Bahraini chicken kebabs at the Hamriya Friday market offer a delicious invitation to try harder.
While every culture has its winners, the Iranian restaurants win my personal kebab league almost every time. Many of them have been fanning their coals in Dubai far longer than the other kebab cultures currently on the map.
Take for instance, the polite Shamsuddin who has been selling juicy logs of kebab koobideh (twice-minced meat) from his shop in Satwa for the past 37 years.
The family-run Special Ustad restaurant in Bur Dubai (formerly Special Ostadi) has a cult following for their kebab khaas (yogurt-marinated kebabs). I usually orchestrate an indulgent platter with their chicken khaas, chicken and goat koobideh, preserved lime goat kebabs and marinated chicken on the bone, all strewn over a bread that lazily collects the juicy drippings through the meal.
Al Fareej Restaurant in Mirdiff is another kebab heavyweight champion on the scene if you are comfortable with kebabs being clanked onto the table, skewers and all. Regulars use fresh bread as insulating gear to grasp the scorching skewers and swipe baby-soft koobideh or goat chunks with preserved lime onto their plates.
There are many more Iranian restaurants in the city that understand the art of marinating and grilling, be it a plain kebab or ones steeped in pomegranate juice (torsh), yogurt or dried lime.
This kabab conclusion might be over-simplifying, and even controversial for many. But I am not suggesting we start a culinary war. I advocate peace, as long as that involves succulent, bargain-priced kababs that stay true to the meat.