A fair is not the first place I would run to for good food. Fairs build their culinary reputation on buttered popcorn and fluorescent candy floss, or in our part for the world, on Nutella mini pancakes and crisp potato spirals. I am the worst sort of fussy companion at a fair, one who holds out till the last, vehemently opposing fast food, gimmicky food, suspiciously colourful food and overpriced food. Crippled with fatigue and crankiness by the end of the evening, you can find me on a lone bench, plunging pathetically into a tub of whatever the nearest stall could sell me.
This is why I took it on as a particular challenge, a suicidal mission of sorts, when the Friday team suggested I conduct a food scout at Global Village. I have strong positive childhood memories of Global Village, from the “especially for married” Yemeni honey to the cotton night gowns that conquer many pavilions with a renewed vengeance each year. But over the past few years, I stopped visiting altogether because I had seen enough night gowns and the novelty of the fair had worn off.
When I returned to Global Village this month after my five-year hiatus, my undertaking was to ferret out valuable nuggets of food that momentarily make me feel as though I have travelled to another country. Isn’t that the point of Global Village? Suppose that you are not willing to settle for burgers, mini pancakes, milkshakes (yes, even lotus milkshakes) or potato spirals. Imagine that you also disqualify chain restaurants across Dubai, unless they are serving special dishes at Global Village that they normally never serve at their restaurant.
Let’s also assume that free samples of creamy labneh are not sufficient to fill your belly—though the thought of freeriding on repeated samplings of “makdous” labneh (swirled with pickled eggplant, walnuts and chilli paste) had crossed my opportunistic mind more than once.
If you were Anthony Boudain at Global Village, what unusual treats would you venture out to try? Here are my nominations for the discerning eater:
Yahya Tom Yam Kung
A Global Village veteran since 2006, Yahya has built such a veritable pantheon of Emirati followers that he will soon open a second stall at the waterfront Deira fish and vegetable market. He is no ordinary stall owner; his signature shades and newsboy hat are so fiercely iconic that they could make Colonel Sanders wince through his spectacles. You can slurp your sour, sinus-clearing soup just the way you like it: spicy or mild, with permed Indomie noodles or silky straight rice vermicelli, wholly vegetarian or with pink prawns so tender and perfectly cooked, I get emotional just thinking about them.
Bosnian Kabab House has single-handedly raised the bar on kababs at Global Village. Their grilled beef kababs might seem miniature, but they double up on flavour within their tiny smoky frames. Savour them on a civilized platter or gorge on a drippy sandwich with the wrapping paper inconveniently tucked into the folds of the bun. Whichever route you choose, you will be rewarded with Bosnian cream (kajmak), sweet red pepper and eggplant relish (ajvar) and a “samoon” bun so soft, it can best be described as a chubby baby cheek. Also try their coiled pita filled with slightly tangy, soft cheese that is some delicious hybrid of cottage and feta.
Mom’s Chicken Madrouba
Sitting past the China pavilion is an inconspicuous stall called Mom’s Food. When I asked who had prepared the madrouba, the Emirati lady in the stall proudly replied: “I did.” This brown, sloppy combination of fragrant spices, oats, chicken and local butter might be highly un-Instagrammable, but is the ultimate nourishing winter dish. A recently retired school principal, Lamiya Abdul Karim is preparing recipes that have passed down through four generations of Emirati women. Her daughter Rania laughingly revealed that her mother is such a workaholic, she had to find something to do after 38 years of working or she would die! And thank goodness she decided to cook, because she makes a “chicken madrouba” that tastes of my childhood, and probably yours too.
Reallocate stomach space designated for samosas to Argentinian empanadas at Caminitos instead. Started by two Argentinian residents, Caminitos serves pockets of beef, chicken or cheese and tomato in a crunchy case quite similar to pie crust. The heavy dough risks strong-arming the filling, unless you opt for the juicy beef whose deep flavour holds its own and even renders the chimichurri sauce redundant.
Oishi’s Hot and Sour Crystal Noodle
Since Cafeteria Oishi is only in Abu Dhabi and not in any part of Dubai other than Global Village, it managed to scrape through my draconian selection criteria. Their best-selling dish in the capital is not on the menu but can be secretly ordered by those in-the-know: the hot and sour crystal noodle soup. The broth is powered with enough citrusy Sichuan pepper to stun your tongue into numb submission, only to be partially revived with crunchy peanuts, a partly wilted bok choy leaf, cartilaginous black fungus and slippery vermicelli. Let your mind wander to China where the food is as much about texture and sensation as it is about flavour, and suddenly this eccentric soup will make sense. Or more sense at least than Oishi’s jianbing pancake, which is best seen being prepared, but not consumed.
Tak-a-Tak (also known as kat-a-kat) is a street-side dish that hails from Pakistan. Its name refers to the rhythmic drumming of blades against the griddle as the cook chops up all manner of offal—brains, kidneys, liver and other ‘spare parts’—into one pulpy mash. Sadly the Tak-a-Tak stall in Global Village does nothing half as exciting; they simply slice up spiced chicken and serve it slider style in two mini-buns for an end result that is surprisingly flavourful. It’s worth a taste for the least adventurous food explorer who is too proud to tell his friends that he ate nothing more than a shawarma at Global Village.
Accordion layers of pasta glued together with creamy feta and parsley lazily rotate in big steel trays in the Turkish pavilion. While the borek itself is nothing more than greasy comfort food—one that you keep mindlessly eating in anticipation of an “a-ha” moment that never dawns—the energy and passion of the Turkish servers is unparalleled. A curious side glance at the tray is invitation enough; get ready to be yanked into a lesson on why the real name is “suborek” to the dramatic capitation of your borek slice into bite-sized chunks. The entertaining display (almost) makes up for where the pasta layers fall.