One of the best reasons to visit Dubai in the Land of the Arabian Nights is the food. Large established restaurants jostle with family kitchens serving superb dishes. Tucked in between, small hole-in-the-walls turn out tasty snacks and exotically named sweets.
Immigrants from all over the world have come here to work bringing their food with them. They’ve turned the city into a cultural melting pot, serving up a spontaneous fusion of textures, spices, and flavors. Frying Pan Food Adventures run by Arva Ahmed is a local company of experts who will take you on a food crawl through a dozen cultures within a few square miles in the heart of the city.
The surprise for me was the variety to be found in just Middle Eastern cuisine alone. Arva is voluble, knowledgeable, and has a deep love of Dubai’s food culture. “We don’t want you to think of this as a tour,” she told our small international group at the outset. “Think of it as a dinner party.”
Gold and Spice
The party began in a quarter of the city called Deira. This is one of the oldest areas of Dubai where the gold and spice souks are located.
Our first stop, Qwaider Al Nabulsi, is a Palestinian restaurant with an Egyptian chef. Sitting around an outdoor table the dishes came quickly. First there was a hot-out-of-the-fryer, Egyptian style falafel mahshi, stuffed with fava beans, chickpeas, cilantro, parsley, chili and onion paste. Crisp on the outside, emerald green and meltingly delicious on the inside, it was served with a thin yoghurt sauce.
Great chunks of tender lamb marinated in yoghurt followed. Served on a platter of rice, this was a recipe of the Jordanian Bedouin. “The Bedouin,” Arva explained, “only had lamb but they learned to cook it very flavorfully.”
Dessert was a Nabulsi cheese pie, the Middle Eastern equivalent of cheesecake. Thin angel hair vermicelli formed a rich crust over layers of different melted cheeses. Then the pie was doused with sugar syrup and sprinkled with pistachios. Arva told us that we should now be only 17 percent full as there were a lot of other stops ahead but it was very difficult to pull back from the table.
Our next visit was to Al Samadi Sweets Shop where a bewildering array of pastries were on display featuring fillings of dates, walnuts, and pistachios, each encased in delicate leaves of filo dough.
In the Bedouin culture these are served with freshly prepared coffee, which the headman grinds in a wooden handmill, tapping out a rhythmic beat. The sound can be heard for miles in the desert and acts as a invitation to all to come and share the family’s hospitality.
My favorite sweet was a pistachio-stuffed maamoul pastry served with a fluffy “cream.” The cream is the product of the roots of the soapwart tree, which are boiled and beaten with sugar syrup-like meringue, a recipe so old it was eaten by the men who built the Pyramids.
Syrian Ice Cream
was flavorful, a little chewy, and not quite as sweet as Western ice cream. Then it was on to Soarikh, an Egyptian pizza parlor where a pizza cook twirled a flying saucer of dough above his head and popped it into the oven.
Stuffed with olives, tomatoes, and peppers, and served with hot sauce, it was wonderful and I was having trouble staying with my percentages. Each stop could have easily filled me 100 percent.
different dishes of rice were served. Originally brought to Dubai by Indian traders, each rice dish was flavored with different spices—cinnamon, turmeric, cardamom, bay leaf, and paprika. Small plates of leafy rocket and cucumbers were offered to cool our palettes after tasting tiny bowls of dakkous, a spicy sauce made from tomatoes, garlic, and chili.
Our last stop was to sample the queen of Middle Eastern cuisines, Persian. At Abshar Persian Restaurant all the usual suspects from chelo kabab to biryani goosht were available but we finished our thousand and one courses with freshly baked sangak, a Persian bread served with a spread of feta-like cheese, mint, basil, and that Persian staple, walnuts.
“What we have eaten,” Arva told us, “was a feast, an unknown luxury a few years ago in a place where people have moved from Bedouin tents to the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world) in one generation.” Dubai may wear its futuristic skyline proudly but at its heart it still offers a traditional feast fit for Scheherazade.
Frying Pan Adventures
Susan James is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has lived in India, the U.K., and Hawaii, and writes about travel, art, and culture.