Stomach rumbling, I rushed outside as the loud ‘Beep! Beep!’ sounded from the minibus parked outside my hotel apartment. I hopped on to the air-conditioned bus and, after saying a quick ‘hello’ to two women sitting quietly on the back seats, off we went. As the sun was sinking rapidly behind a skyscraper, I couldn’t wait for the culinary treat, or “food marathon” ahead. Soon enough we’d be eating our way through a four-course mystery menu, cherry-picked from a variety of Arabian restaurants in Dubai’s old town. I was ready to flex my stomach muscles in the best possible way.
The cherry picker we were yet to meet. A couple more pick-ups later though, “Hi everyone, I’m Arva,” our tour guide chirped as she hopped on to the bus.
Thirty-year-old Arva Ahmad (and her “ever-curious, actively chomping mouth”) is a food blogger and founder of food tour company Frying Pan Adventures, which she launched in January this year.
She was born in Hyderabad, India, and moved to Dubai with her family as a child, where they’ve stayed ever since. “For such a transient city, that’s really rare,” she told us.
Although Arva spent 10 years in the US, first studying at university before working as a management consultant in New York, she returned to Dubai in 2010. It’s clear though, her heart has always been here, and that gave her the drive to follow the passion she’s always harboured.
Delights in Deira
It’s no secret you can get pretty much any type of cuisine, any time of the day in Dubai. A week doesn’t go by without a new restaurant opening or a menu relaunch. And that’s before mentioning the city’s legendary every-cuisine-under-one-roof, all-you-can-eat brunches, or the fact that in this city McDonalds delivers.
But Arva was keen to show us her Dubai. “I can’t wait to take you to all my favourite places,” she said as we headed towards Deira. “There’s so much more to Dubai than skyscrapers.”
The menu is only revealed as the tour unfolds, but it clearly wouldn’t mimic any Pan-Asian menus curated by Norwegian chefs at zillion-star hotels. “If you don’t like Arabic mezze, cheesy blankets of fragrant Lebanese pizza, Iranian kebabs, crisp falafel and buttery Yemeni meats, you may as well turn around now,” she said. Luckily, all work for me!
Arva explained we’d be eating four courses at four restaurants. Was this to pack in as much variety into our four-hour tour as possible? No. “I ate like this all the time in New York. For me it’s totally normal to dart from place to place for each course,” she said. Sounds like high-maintenance dining to me, but perfect if you get fidgety eating a whole meal in one place. And it left us open to lots of variety.
Being new to Dubai from London, I decided to go on the tour as a way to see an area of the city off the beaten track. And as we sped down the highway the change of landscape was immediately apparent. The skyscrapers seemed to shrink and evaporate with every kilometre and the land visibly opened up – even exposing a tree or two.
The minibus dropped us outside a neon-lit takeaway joint on Muraqqabat Street, called Sultan Dubai Falafel (sister restaurant Qwaider Al Nabulsi is just next door). It’s apparently the go-to place for Egyptian falafel (it’s thought falafel originated in Egypt, but this topic has stirred up debate for centuries).
Egyptian falafel is made with fava beans, not chickpeas, and the ones we tried were stuffed with fresh chilli – the real Egyptian deal.
We braved the heat to sit outside and devour freshly made, piping hot falafel mahshi, hummus with a green tangy sauce and to finish, kunafa na’ama, which is a sweet Palestinian cheese pie. Arva talked us through the recipes for each dish, coaxing us to try more and listening to any questions we mumbled through hot, tasty mouthfuls.
Moments earlier she’d warned us this was a marathon not a sprint – that it was essential we paced ourselves. “You shouldn’t be more than 15 per cent full after our first stop,” she said. Well, after one mouthful, that theory went out the window for me. I’d never tasted falafel like it. Piping hot, moist and so tasty – with a kick to it too. Nothing like the crumbly, dry, dense falafel back in the UK. I could have eaten 10! But as we clambered back into the bus, I made a mental note to hold back from then on (this did not work).
Eating in the heat
I must say at this point, these are designed to be walking tours – so you can really soak up the neighbourhoods between restaurants and give your stomach a welcome rest, albeit for five minutes.
But during the intense heat of summer (I attended in August, I know we shouldn’t have been outside at all!) when it’s too hot to walk anywhere, we were ferried around in the cool minibus to save us from melting on to the pavement. Arva said it gave her the opportunity to take us to places further afield than she’d normally go on foot – like Al Ammor in Abu Hail, but more on that later.
Our next stop was Iraqi restaurant Bait Al Baghdadi on Al Muteena Street, Deira. It’s one of the only places in Dubai that specialises in Masgouf – a traditional Iraqi method of barbecuing fish (always carp), which had been cooking for us while we scoffed the falafel. Arva explained a great deal of time and effort goes into this dish. The carp is killed fresh for cooking, marinated in olive oil, rock salt, tamarind and ground tumeric and then cooked for up to three hours depending on its size.
Customers must call ahead to order it, and must arrive at a set time as cooking starts before they arrive. Our fish was a massive 2.5kg (the smallest option) and we arrived to see the end of the cooking. It was impaled with wood and piled up on top of a massive cauldron of burning coals called a ‘fire altar’, which is like a big open oven/bonfire set in a closed-off corner of the restaurant.
Typically a group of diners will pick at mezze or slurp bowls of shorbat adas (a simple lentil soup) during cooking time. We didn’t have to wait that long, but when the Masgouf made its grand entrance we ooh and ahh’d with childlike glee. The fish tasted smokey, with delicious crispy skin. We ate chunks of it layered with amba (mango pickle) and rayhaan (basil leaves) and cradled in warm tanour bread.
Given more time, this would be a lovely, slow and relaxed way to dine. Sure, the canteen-style interiors aren’t seven-star standard, but the basic surroundings and open kitchen allow the food to take centre stage. We left a platter covered in a scattering of tiny, bare fish bones and scraps behind us, which can only scream compliments to the chef.
Just getting started
Usually this would be the point when one would waddle home in need of a lie down. But oh no, we were barely halfway through. And Arva had another surprise treat in store. “Here’s Samadi Sweets for our baklava pit stop,” she said as the minibus stopped suddenly. The Lebanese bakery dates back to the mid-1800s and all sweets are handmade on site.
Arva deliberately keeps the groups small, normally a maximum of seven or eight people, and attracts a mix of residents and tourists to maintain an intimate feel. “There’s no point eating dinner with 20 people, you’ll never talk to everyone,” she reasoned. “It’s great when residents of Dubai come on my tours, they’ve lived here for years but discover new things or rediscover the magic of Middle Eastern food.”
At every chance she gets she’s “obsessively scouring” local markets, unassuming eateries, attending tastings, meeting chefs and restaurant owners and constantly thinking of interesting ways for her customers to experience authentic Dubai. Right now she’s hoping to coax Bedouin women in to the city to give cooking classes; is testing a guided trip around Dubai’s bustling fish markets (with tips on how to identify frozen seafood from fresh produce); and wants to extend her tours to farms and local homes where people can learn recipes that have been passed down through generations. You certainly can’t fault her enthusiasm.
“These little places deserve to be given a chance, they deserve some recognition too,” she said.
Before even starting Frying Pan Adventures, she emailed journalists a list of all the small, independent, often family-run restaurants she knows and loves in Dubai. Her aim was to secure the underdogs some column inches alongside the hotel juggernauts powered by PR machines. Her nostalgia for Dubai is endearing.
“I want to hit ‘rewind’ on Dubai to a time before it embarked on its glamorous seven-star journey,” she said. And her tours are the perfect time machine, working as a vehicle to show tourists and residents there are interesting alternatives to brunches and 24-hour outlets.
Now back to the tour. With our stomachs already groaning, we pulled up outside Al Tawasol, located right by Deira Clock Tower. It’s a Bedouin restaurant with a men-only section at the front and curtained off private tents towards the rear. After taking our shoes off, we shuffled into a tent and Arva got busy with the ordering – mandi (roasted chicken) and mathbi (chicken grilled over stones) with mixed rice and thareed (meat and gravy over crumbled bread).
We ate the traditional way, sitting on the floor using our hands. I skilfully scattered hot rice all over myself and the carpet too. The food was so delicious (and hot) I was tempted to ask for a spoon, but I resisted in a bid to keep things authentic.
By the time we stopped at Al Ammor, in Abu Hail (our final destination) for our planned dessert, I was ready to yell, “Arva, no more!” But she quickly reminded us of our “pudding stomachs”, which got quickly filled up with feteer (an Egyptian layered pastry dessert) with cream, honey and nuts. Amazing, but I could only manage two mouthfuls before I gave up and vowed not to eat again for days.
The great thing is I know if I went on another of Avra’s tours, it would be a different experience entirely. New people, new gems to uncover and lots more authentic and delicious food.
However, I think I’ll give myself a breather before my next culinary journey through Dubai.
If you want to discover secret Dubai, this is the experience for you – just make sure you pace yourself.