Perched on the ledge of December, just before I fall over into 2018, I realize how long my list of restaurants to try has become. I have been guilty of ‘bookmarking’ places to try every day and then lazily resorting to a last-minute labneh sandwich instead.
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While most people are wisely resolving to eat less or healthier next year, my resolution is to explore more, research more and taste more. I resolve to no longer write all the things I am meant to taste in some secret forgotten corner of my phone – but rather, to use sticky notes all around my desk so that the clutter of yellow can nag me of my resolution every day.
2018 will be my Year of International City. This is one of the most neglected neighbourhoods when it comes to proactive marketing and restaurant awareness, and the element of ‘unknown’ is what I find so utterly thrilling. These are restaurants that are not trying hard to make you love them. In fact, they are not trying at all. It’s like walking into a new land and meeting a tribe that might feed you or eat you, but at least you’ll have something more for your culinary autobiography than another cocktail glass of dynamite shrimp.
The China Cluster is a galaxy of its own with eateries that are either astronomically good or astronomically bad, but they put more reality behind Chinese fare than two initials and a Chang’s can ever put in a mall. In the past, I have made a hobby of sniggering at clumsily translated Chinese menus—but in the new year, I volunteer to sample as many of these quirky dishes as I possibly can. Yes, this does include ‘saliva chicken,’ ‘toothpick meat’ and ‘hot and sour pills soup’ because sometimes the dishes we mock are the most memorable discoveries of all.
But beyond the sensational names, my more serious focus for 2018 will be on the hybrid Chinese and Turkic specialities of the Muslim Chinese province of Xinjiang. You simply cannot look away from a menu that lists kababs and naans next to noodles and tofu without feeling the urge to dig deep into the cultural connections along the Silk Road. I have found two restaurants specialising in this cuisine in one building of the China Cluster alone, which means that there are probably at least six more such restaurants lurking about in the labyrinth of clusters.
Another area ripe with discovery is the food of countries that have emerged from behind the Iron Curtain. We are suddenly seeing a smattering of Uzbek and Georgian restaurants across the city, my two favourites being Ishak on City Walk and UZB Avenue in Barsha. Extending the region’s appetite are two Azerbaijani restaurants (Baku and Jag) which recently opened in Jumeirah, joined a few days ago by a Balkan restaurant called 21 GRAMS. Looking back, I realize that 2017 was just the tip of the “khinkali”— the real meat and broth of this metaphoric dumpling will explode in 2018. I resolve to soaking up the flavours and stories behind these lesser known culinary cultures, and to hunt them down wherever they may be. A good starting point might be the eccentric hybrid restaurant in International City that serves both Yemeni mandi and Uzbek plov.
Burgers will most definitely ‘not’ make it to my hit list for 2018. It confounds me as to why we are still talking about burgers—fusion, sliders, gourmet or whatever the twist may be. Gulabo in Qusais and Truck Adda in Satwa have brought my attention to where the discussion needs to be shifted in 2018: Pakistani-style bun kababs. A good bun kabab offers minimal resistance to your jaws; it submits into a moist heap of well-buttered bun, spicy chutney, frilly omelette and squishy lentil-meat patty as soft as pâté.
Speciality Asian supermarkets are a whole other subject I would currently fail if quizzed, a pity because these are excellent places to learn about new ingredients. My study has been rather limited to one Chinese supermarket in Baniyas selling Dh5 vacuum-packed shiitake mushrooms, gochujang (Korean chilli paste) and roasted-squid-flavoured Lays. I resolve to draft my thesis on Thai, Indonesian, Japanese, Chinese and Filipino supermarkets across the city in 2018.