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25 September 2017Last updated
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Food | Recipes

Discovering the UAE’s food: A strategy

What else is summer for than exploring the mixed platter that is our dining scene? Here’s how to go about it

Arva Ahmed
7 Jul 2017 | 10:00 am
  • What new foods will you discover this summer?

    Source:Aiza Castillo-Domingo

Summer is that gift of time, mental space and calm roads to discover uncommon foods in hidden corners of the city. But I am admittedly anxious that come September, I would have done nothing more than curled up with my cat and hibernated through the drowsy warm evenings. I fear that when the cool breeze of late October rustles up questions about what I discovered this summer, I will have nothing to offer but weeks of culinary compromise: the same mana’eesh, the same shawarma, the same home-delivered kababs. It is the sleepy ‘same same’ that seduces the best of us every summer.

This summer I am considering committing to a more engaged eating strategy. It might sound all too serious, but it should be, because we have a world of cuisines at our doorstep in Dubai and few of us fully savour it.

One strategy would involve being a Connoisseur of Culture. Choose a culture that you are not familiar with and dive deep into its signature dishes across restaurants in the city. Skip Friday brunches and Instagram-worthy smoothie bowls for foods that have an interesting cultural back story. Sailing down this strategic route requires not only eating, but also investing in literature – recipes, historical articles, cultural papers – that can give the food meaning beyond just ingredients on a plate.

For instance, you may have dabbled with Parsi food at Kebab Bistro and Café Funkitown, but have you fully explored their menus beyond the obvious mutton dhansak spooned over brown rice with caramelized onions? Have you read up about Parsi culinary culture, its ingredients and its speciality dishes used to mark festivals through the year? I certainly have not. The same can be said about Malaysian food, which sneaks into a half page on the menu at Noodle Bowl in Satwa, or reigns over the entire menus at Rasa Sayang in Oud Metha and the three Mamak restaurants across the city.

If you missed exploring flavours of the Caucasus with Armenian sour cherry kababs and triple-layered cheese soubeureg at the now-closed Mayrig in Downtown, you still have a chance to make amends at Eshak in City Walk or at Al Mayass in the Sofitel. My personal list has more low-key options like Little Georgia in JLT as well as another lesser-known eatery in Deira whose location I won’t disclose, because I trust that as a committed Connoisseur of Culture, you will find it.

Another strategy is to develop a relationship with restaurants in a neighbourhood other than your own, or to be a Diner of Distance. Dubai is not a melting pot, but more appetizingly, a platter of samosas – each area with its own unique filling. I once spent months focusing on the Egyptian and Moroccan eateries of Abu Hail, a time investment that was amply rewarded with tender lamb simmered for eight hours with preserved lemons, hearty Moroccan harira soup, crusty semolina-dusted breads, searing hot folds of fresh pastry dripping with honey and palm-sized Egyptian falafel or ‘taamiya’ filled with fava beans.

International City is another mixed bag of eclectic experiences that can easily serve as the sole savoury subject of an entire summer, while the inner lanes of Barsha or the homegrown restaurants of JLT might be starting points that feel less intimidating for novice explorers. On the other end of the spectrum, the most daredevil of diners should consider smuggling their stomachs into Sharjah to track down street-side kababs, squashed ‘sambusa bel samoon’ sandwiches, Kolkata-style chicken-and-egg kati rolls or for those with stomachs of steel, ‘brain with kidney fry,’ all for under fifteen dirhams.

There is nothing wrong in adopting an Equivocal Eater strategy, noncommittal yet open-minded to as many new experiences as one can possibly devour before the summer is out. That is usually my default option, one that involves either playing Russian roulette with restaurants listed online, recommended by others or spotted as you drive past. But beware, this strategy is the easiest to lose sight of unless you commit to a certain number of new restaurants to sample by the end of September. My only rule in this sort of laissez-faire approach is to not slavishly follow social media recommendations, especially since the trend of the day is ‘pretty food’ rather than real food.

With June already behind us and not much accomplished by way of new food discoveries during Ramadan, there are only three months left to go. I am contemplating a hybrid strategy, one that ambitiously blends uncovering Caucasian, Filipino and Malaysian cultures with navigating through Ghusais, Mamzar and Sharjah, along with checking off a list of unrelated restaurants that I failed to visit in summers past. There is an exciting array of meals to plan, friends to recruit and dishes to research for a full season of savoury experiences ahead. But first, a nap.

Arva Ahmed

Arva Ahmed