The UAE has always had a passionate affair with food from the world over. Having been in the vanguard of cultures and trends, it has redefined the region’s culinary landscape with catchy flavours and unparalleled fine dining experiences. Michelin-starred chefs vie for a spot in one of its stellar star hotels, and evolution is a constant here, in keeping with residents’ and tourists’ discerning palates. Now, a fresh wind of change is blowing over the country, and it’s not just diverse ethnic cuisines taking centre stage.

What the UAE food scene is looking at is a new definition of healthy, say experts who congregated in Dubai from around the world for the 2016 edition of Gulfood, one of the world’s most prestigious food trade expo held from February 26-March 2.

They add that the culinary scene this year will see alterations in common perspectives, which will have a long-term impact on how we consume. For instance, foods that promised more vitamins and fewer calories might have been viewed as healthy earlier, but not any longer.

‘It’s interesting that traditional definitions of healthiness are changing,’ says Camille Sofia, head of marketing, Middle East, Africa and Asia at Hype Energy Drinks. ‘Not long ago nutrition was all about cutting out calories and adding salads to the diet. Now, transparency about ingredients as well as the production chain is of equal importance.’

This is why food trends this year are much more diverse and therefore more difficult to define.

Take, for instance, the upsurge in the demand for artisanal/craft foods such as pastas and sauces, which are essentially handmade as opposed to being high-volume, low-margin industrially manufactured products. According to latest reports from Gulfood, niche brands in the UAE have not only been able to successfully put the focus back on flavour and quality, but also proven that business is not all about producing massive volumes in factory-like environment. Gone are the days of global fast-food chains hogging all the limelight – and revenue. Hole-in-the-wall outlets too are now taking a bite of that pie.

Colin Campbell, corporate chef at Abela & Co, a leading food service management company in the UAE that operates several food outlets, agrees. ‘Significantly more people now accept local food producers as they want to establish a relatioship with those who put food on their table. So, the Ripe Food and Craft Market [at Zabeel Park every Friday], which had a humble beginning in 2011, has seen a meteoric rise in participants and attendees alike.’

With more people becoming mindful of what they and their families eat, local farmers who promote home-grown fresh produce and culinary craftsmanship, have kick-started a trend that is redefining the food industry, adds Colin.

Health and wellbeing will be the major concern of consumers that will set the trend for producers this year, agrees Michael Hussey, regional manager, Bord Bia. ‘To deal with their maxed-out lives, today’s consumer has fully embraced a more holistic approach to looking after their well-being, which increasingly focuses on mind as well as body,’ he says. ‘Food and drink remain key health and wellness strategies.’

Michael feels producers will have to keep it ‘real’ to succeed. ‘Real products, made from real ingredients, by real people are increasingly important anchors for consumers in our ever more digitalised, intangible and shifting world,’ he says. ‘Simple and traditional ingredients and production processes are playing an increasingly important role in reassuring and ‘grounding’ consumers, connecting them to the tangible and unchanging aspects of life. But to really stand out, brands need to do more than just talk about origins and tell stories about provenance; they need to find ways of allowing consumers to experience the joy and simplicity of products for themselves.’

It’s a thought that resounds with other experts.

‘Consumers are moving towards cleaner, healthier lifestyles,’ says Fiona Cummins, brand manager, BFree Foods, an Irish company that offers healthier alternatives to standard breads. This viewpoint is aligned to Nielsen’s latest Global Health & Wellness Survey, which says 83 per cent of UAE-based respondents were willing to pay a premium for foods with healthy attributes. It goes on to predict that the obesity crisis and consumer desire to become healthier could be a driver for manufacturers to better their offerings.

‘To deal with their maxed-out lives, today’s consumers have embraced a holistic approach towards their well-being, which increasingly focuses on the mind and body,’ says Michael Hussey, regional manager of Bord Bia, the Irish state agency.

‘Food and drink are key. Consumers continue to watch out for nasties and scrutinise what goes into their mouths; thus natural is an ever more important factor.’

He feels producers will have to keep it real to succeed. ‘Real products made of genuine ingredients are increasingly important anchors for consumers in our intangible and shifting world,’ he says.

This demand may spill over to give rise to a trend of plant-based dining experiences, Colin predicts. And what is a plant-based diet? 
‘One that is centred on whole, unrefined, or minimally refined plants,’ he says. It includes fruits, vegetables, tubers, wholegrains and legumes, and propagates minimal or no consumption of meat – including chicken and fish – dairy, eggs, and refined foods like flour, sugar and oil.

This change in perspective has had a drastic impact on sugar, traditonally a major staple.

‘Sugar is becoming a hot topic for 2016,’ says Fiona.

‘Over the past few years, there has been increasing awareness on sugar content in foods, and consumers have been moving away from low-fat products as, often, they contain more sugar. We recognise that adding sugar to replace fat is counterproductive; we want our food range to be as natural and good as possible.’

So, what are foodies adopting? ‘Healthy fats and superfoods,’ says Fiona. That explains the love coconut oil has been getting. And as far as superfoods are concerned, food outlets are fast adding ingredients such as quinoa and chia seeds, two gluten-free superfoods, to their menus – think quinoa biryani or green wraps sprinkled with chia. One could even say that the South American staples are spearheading healthy eating.

Apart from healthy and fresh foods, Colin believes 2016 will see the introduction of a variety of ethnic flavours in the UAE, as more and more people make it their home.

‘New restaurants are bound to open in hoards, offering a diverse range of foods not seen before,’ he says. ‘This will strengthen the image of the UAE as a multicultural hub offering interesting food experiences – it will make for a bohemian and maturing social atmosphere.’

The rapid rise of Peruvian cuisine across the culinary world, and also Dubai, over the past few years is one such example. Several restaurants, such as Coya at Four Seasons and Tesoro at Taj Dubai set up shop last year, while others like the iconic Lima restaurant Mayta, which served up modern Peruvian dishes, opened its doors in January at DIFC.

In fact, Peru’s agricultural exports to the GCC grew by 700 per cent between 2011 and 2014, says Alvaro Silva-Santisteban, director of the Trade and Investment Office of Peru in the UAE. ‘Over the past five years, our cuisine has established a firm presence in Dubai. The growing awareness of the country’s cosmopolitan flavours and rich range of ingredients is contributing to demand for our products across the region.’

Another cuisine that is fast becoming a rage is Jamaican. Restaurants such as Miss Lily’s at the Sheraton Grand and Ting Irie in Downtown are slated to open this year, although Bluefields at Lamcy Plaza had already made a mark before it was shut down. In fact, they’ve made an appearance as pop-ups at various events to fantastic responses.

This means self-sufficient places have a real shot at success. ‘Stand-alone restaurants and independent food operators will keep popping up, which means people can enjoy a huge array of dining experiences, including casual, fast food, smart casual, fine dining and so on,’ Colin says.

‘This will represent excellent value for money for users without having to visit high-end hotels. Almost every mall offers a range of dining experiences for the most discerning diner. There’s no need to pay Dh500 per head when you can enjoy the same and often better for Dh200!’

Naturally, an extension of such broadening of minds would be sharing experiences, says Michael.

‘Enjoyable and novel experiences continue to fuel moments of escapism in consumers’ lives, and these are increasingly geared towards sharing. An experience isn’t meaningful until it is shared, so brands that facilitate it in innovative ways will gain traction.’

One new trend in this larger genre is progressive dining, a marketing tool used by hotels with several restaurants under one roof, which allows guests to tuck into a different course at each restaurant, thus allowing them to dine progressively, as it were. This ensures more business for their restaurants, which may have otherwise suffered competition among themselves.

Unique drink pairings are making the cut too. ‘Non-alcoholic beverages will always play a pivotal part in boosting revenue,’ says Colin.

Additionally, a greater number of niche food outlets will see the light of day, he predicts. ‘Food trucks, stalls, kiosks – you’ll see them all, although they are perhaps less common here than, for example, in the US.

‘This presents an excellent opportunities for start-up operators or stores looking to expand their brand through heightened visibility without needing to invest heavily in terms of renting property, or initial capital and so on. There is a significant increase in such operators, especially along beachfronts, boardwalks and corniche areas.’

For example, the Dubai Food Festival hosted a Beach Canteen at Kite Beach last month, where 10 home-grown restaurant brands put up pop-ups and received great responses from visitors.

And there’s no doubt that the food truck scene is rolling into the UAE. Last month, the first-ever three-day Eat the World DXB event featured food trucks from around the world. Plus, an organisation called Roundup pioneers the food truck business here, helping launch them in the region through a weekend Roundup Market with food – surprise, surprise! – and family-friendly fun at Zabeel Park on Fridays and Creek Park on Saturdays.

Small joints have also positively impacted the environment with a significantly lower carbon footprint. Abela & Co, for instance, joined hands with the UAE Ministry of Environment and Water’s I’mPerfect campaign last year to reduce food waste and promote local produce by encouraging restaurants and the public to buy items that may be imperfect in appearance but are of good quality.

Providing impetus to the campaign are numerous local producers and distributors such as The Farmhouse, Greenheart Organic Farms, Go Organic, Bio Organic, 
Al Shuwib Organic Farms, Blue Planet Green People (also the organiser) and Organic Foods and Café, which have established a regular supply network of organic foods across the UAE.

Foodies do believe that more production could also mean more wastage. ‘Food waste is going to weigh heavily on everybody’s mind,’ says Michael. ‘It is a particularly hot topic for consumers, who are increasingly aware of the environmental and financial implications of what they throw away. Brands should do all they can to minimise waste within their supply chains, as well as help consumers reduce wastage at home.’

Sustainability too will be on the frontburner this year, and a few hotels are already implementing such practices. For instance, Manzil and Vida Downtown Dubai are minimising food wastage and saving up to 50kg a day via methods like sharing menus when catering large events, among others.

Meanwhile, Ramada Hotel and Suites Ajman was the first UAE property to launch its Zero Landfill Project. All the food waste, which averages 800-1,000kg a day, goes to a designated room. Out of this, 60 per cent is organic waste, so it’s tipped into a composter, and later used as fertiliser for hotel’s 430-square-metre Urban Farm, which supplies vegetables and fruits. The hotel says it now diverts more that 90 per cent waste from going into landfill.

According to a KPMG food and beverage survey published earlier this year, the sector in the UAE is expected to grow to Dh48.5 billion by 2018 at an annual rate of nearly 
4 per cent. And that’s not all. As per market research firm Euromonitor International, about 19,000 new food and beverage outlets are expected to set up shop here by 2019, making the country a hotbed for such start-ups.

‘If we listen to our heart and follow the rules we can reap the benefits,’ concludes Camille.And our body will thank us for it. Bon appétit!