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Dubai skyline from Zabeel Park. Photo: Wikimedia Commons (Wikimedia Commons)
Dubai skyline from Zabeel Park. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
(Wikimedia Commons)

The Foodie Trail In Dubai

Food blogger Arva Ahmed goes on a one-day food tour of Old Dubai

With a mindboggling spread of lavish buffets, Michelin-starred chefs, international chains and record-breaking cupcakes and cocktails, your day in Dubai could be a feast through a range of incredibly gourmet, stomach-stretching and wallet-wrecking experiences befitting this city. But the dining table that few visitors pull up a chair at is the one peppered with ethnic foods dished out by immigrants who have made Dubai their home over decades of rapid-fire development. A discerning visitor who is willing to trawl the streets of Old Dubai will find that this city plays a unique role in preserving and showcasing culinary traditions from across the Middle East, North Africa and the Indian subcontinent. If you seek an experience that feels authentic, flavourful, and intriguingly eye-opening, leave the skyscrapers behind, carry some sunblock and a shady umbrella, and hit the more humble parts of town for a day of down-to-earth food exploration.

9.00am EGYPTIAN FOUL MEDAMES

Being an early bird will get your more than worms—you get to skip the heat and gain a head start on the flavoursome Old Dubai tasting trail. Grab the red-line Metro or a taxi to Al Rigga Road, Deira, and seat yourself at a small Egyptian eatery called Soarikh, just steps away from the mosque at the end of the road. Order Alexandrian Foul Medames, a soupy Egyptian dish made of slow-stewed brown fava beans, the history of which can be traced to Pharaonic Egypt. The bowl will arrive garnished with crunchy onions, bright tomatoes, and eggs upon request, and awaits a hefty squeeze of lemon and a disc of fresh khubz (Arabic bread) before you can enjoy the same breakfast that Egypt has dipped into since time immemorial.

9.30am LEBANESE MANAKEESH

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Lebanese Manakeesh. Photo: Arva Ahmed

10.15am BREAKFAST BAKLAVA

Walk back in the direction of the mosque, taking a left by Al Safadi Restaurant and walk straight down towards the main Murraqqabat street. Wander to the right and get lured into a neighbourhood baklava store that has satiated many a sweet tooth since the 1980s—Al Samadi Sweets. Taste your way through trays of cashew, pistachio and almond-filled baklava and pack a gift box of your favourites as an edible souvenir. Request Kunafa in Ka’ak, a Palestinian semolina and cheese pie (kunafa) drizzled with sugar syrup and stuffed into the mouth of a purse-shaped, sesame-studded bun (ka’ak). The sugar rush will leave you drugged with happiness and sleepy by the last gooey sweet cheese bite—but thankfully, you can order a cup of traditional Turkish black coffee to rev your comatose body engines back up again.

11.00am SPICE AND GOLD SOUK

Burn off the sugar by taking a 20-minute walk over to the Union Metro stop. Grab the green line to Al Ras station, and ask someone to point you in the direction of the spice souk. While no comparison to the grand bazaars of Turkey and Morocco, the spice souk in Dubai will give you an opportunity to gasp at giant cinnamon sticks, glimpse turmeric roots, taste Arabic sumac, bargain over vanilla pods, and sniff through sacks of dried, ground and whole spices. Be prepared for every Iranian shopkeeper to regale you with his line-up of Iranian saffron, the expensive stigma thread that is hand-picked from the Crocus sativus flower. Should you wish to buy a few strands, seek out a shop called Nami Saffron on its own isolated peninsula to the right of the souk. Ask for Sarghol, the Farsi term for the highest quality of saffron, and ensure that every strand is as red, dry and separate as possible. Don’t be fooled by sunny yellow or orange strands. At the time this article was written, the going rate for saffron was about 10 dirhams (around 148) per gram. Just as you start feeling parched, hasten back to the main corridor of the souk where you will find a signboard for camel milk gelato. Taste exotic flavours ranging from plain camel milk to saffron, and settle on the smallest scoop possible so that you can save space for lunch.

Wind your way out through the narrow alleys at the back of the spice souk until you find yourself at the covered entrance of the gold souk. Give your stomach a break, and let your eyes snap wide open and feast on all that glitters.

1.00pm YEMENI MANDI

Grab a taxi towards the Deira Clocktower in the same neighbourhood where you sampled breakfast in the morning. Al Tawasol is one of the area’s oldest Yemeni haunts, positioned steps away from the clock tower, right by the bus stop as you take a right out of Al Rigga Road. Men eat in the front section, while ladies and families are led into a private dining area towards the back. Wash your hands and sprawl out in a private cushioned and carpeted tent where you can enjoy bowls of well-seasoned lentil soup and a popular Yemeni dish, Mandi. Traditionally baked underground, Mandi is now most often prepared in specially designed ovens that melts bone-in chicken until it is meltingly tender. It arrives in a platter of rice simmered in stock. Attempt to eat with your right hand as is the traditional way of enjoying this meal, but retreat to your silverware if you find that the carpet is savouring more rice than you are. One portion is more than enough for two or even three people, especially if you hope to complete this tasting trail without your stomach resigning midway.

2.00pm EMIRATI SWEETS AND GAHWA

Hail a taxi over to Dubai Festival City, a shopping mall that is home to Al Fanar Restaurant, one of the few restaurants serving the national cuisine of the United Arab Emirates. With Al Fanar being the term for an olden-day kerosene lamp, this restaurant brings to life the culture and cuisine of the early 1960s, before oil came gushing through. From an old-school Land Rover at the entrance to the black-and-white photographs framed up on the walls, Al Fanar crafts a nostalgic sensory journey for the many Emiratis who come to dine there, and as an educational experience for visitors who often pigeon-hole Emirati cuisine into the generic hummus and falafel category. If the heat is bearable, sit in a traditional tent outside and sip Gahwa, Arabic coffee with sweet tones of cardamom and saffron. The coffee is served in a tall “dallah", and is served in miniscule quantities into a small “finyal", for the practical reason that a guest should not have to suffer through cold coffee by the time he has sipped halfway down a “venti" cup. Every drop must be served hot from the dalla, and the guest will continue to be served until he shakes his finyal lightly from side to side to signal he is done. Enjoy your coffee with deep-fried globes of dough, Lgeimat, streaked with lines of rich date syrup and dotted with sesame seeds. Or try Batheet, a ghee-laden crumble of dates and flour that is often paired with gahwa. Make sure to hold on to the menu throughout your sweet stay at Al Fanar, flipping through the dish names, pictures and descriptions as a mini culinary lesson to acquaint yourself with Emirati food.

3.15pm DIGESTION BREAK IN BUR DUBAI

Take a quick power nap in your cab ride over to Bastakiya (recently renamed as the Old Fahidi Neighbourhood), a piece of land that had been gifted to Iranian traders in the early 1900s to entice them to make Dubai their lucrative base. Lose yourself in the narrow shaded alleyways between the coral and gypsum wind-tower buildings, stumble into art galleries, souvenir and spice shops, and learn about traditional Arabic attire displayed at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre of Cultural Understanding.

Request your server to point you in the direction of the Dubai museum, just steps away from the old neighbourhood along Fahidi Street. Enjoy scenes of simple Bedouin life that existed till half a century ago, years before the discovery of oil and the subsequent invasion by shopping malls. Transition away from rugged desert history and back into the cosmopolitan present with a slab of Al Nassma’s gourmet camel-milk chocolate, available in the museum store on your way out.

5.30pm TEXTILE SOUK

Curve around the back of the museum towards the textile souk. The shopkeepers are charming salesmen who call out to every Westerner as either “John!" or “Jane!" in the not entirely unrealistic hope that they might get a name right and convince the unsuspecting John or Jane to spend a few dirhams. Should you spot an item that would revolutionize your wardrobe, feign total indifference and slam back a price that is half the exorbitant rate the shopkeeper initially tossed at you. As you exit the textile souk, walk over to the abra (water taxi) station and get ferried back to the spice souk in a classic wooden boat that will leave you just one dirham poorer.

Step off the abra and walk along the creek to your right, soaking in the sight of historic creek-side buildings colourfully-lit against the night sky and rickety cargo boats with years of marine personality. Keep walking until you have built up an appetite for dinner, and then pop into a taxi towards Al Maktoum Street.

7.00pm IRANIAN SANGAK AND CHELO KABAB

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Photo: Arva Ahmed

Seal your day with one of the most ancient, complex and under-appreciated cuisines of the world—Iranian. Abshar Restaurant is an authentic Iranian haunt sprawled out on the first floor of a most unexpected building on Al Maktoum Street, right next to Al Sadaf Restaurant by the pedestrian bridge. But before you sit down for dinner, first step into Sadaf’s Iranian Sweet Store to gaze at saffron-laced rock candy and to pack a rescue supply of high-quality mixed nuts and mulberries that will keep you afloat in a sea of dismal flight food fare during your trip out of Dubai.

When you step past the sliding doors towards the retail space of the building beside Sadaf, do not be turned away by the randomly assembled retail space that screams everything but “good food". Ascend the escalator and enter Abshar, making a beeline over to the open-faced bread ovens to observe how 2ft-long Sangak bread is stretched out, patted with sesame seeds, perforated, and baked directly over stones. Snack on this bread served fresh and warm at your table, with a smidgen of white salty cheese, greens and soaked walnuts. All this, mind you, is served complimentary and refilled to your heart’s content.

At any Iranian restaurant worth its meat, the rule of thumb is to order the national rice and kebab dish (chelo kebab), preferably with skewers of butter-basted lamb Koobideh and a serving of perfectly steamed long-grained rice topped with tart barberries upon request. If you have followed the tasting trail to the T, you will be in desperate need of mint tea by the time your stomach has seen the last of the kebabs. Sit back comfortably and let Abshar conclude your culinary journey with sensory finesse. Sweeten your ears with lilting tunes by the multi-talented Persian musicians on stage, inhale the fragrance of fresh mint leaves waiting to be submerged in your glass of tea, gaze in appreciation at the intricately patterned teapot, trace your fingers towards the tantalizing tray of petit fours, and let hot tea infused with mint spread the warmth bestowed by a multitude of regional cultures, all in the narrow span of one intensively flavourful day in Dubai.

Arva Ahmed is a food blogger, freelance writer, and the founder of Frying Pan Adventures (www.fryingpanadventures.com) a sustainable tourism initiative that helps food-lovers access the rich mosaic of ethnic food and culture abundant in Dubai.

Many restaurants stay closed until afternoon prayer time on Fridays. So, preferably embark on this tasting trail during a weekday.

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