Arva Ahmed. Photo: Airspectiv Media
Arva Ahmed. Photo: Airspectiv Media

‘Harees’ and ‘maamoul’ for world peace

On the trail of the most heady, multicultural, treasure of Middle-Eastern cuisine in Dubai

It is like dropping down a rabbit hole, at least some Arabian culinary version of it, and hanging out with a bunch of whimsical chefs in a series of hole-in-the-wall restaurants that have been hiding in plain sight in the old neighbourhoods of Dubai. Logic is left behind, and you gorge yourself silly on food that has you gasping with pleasure, your mind unable to battle even with a small (but very wicked) falafel.

Your leader in this Mad Hatter adventure is the foodie Arva Ahmed, founder and chief executive muncher of Frying Pan Adventures, who somehow manages to remain fashion-model-thin while eating for a living, and has high cheekbones and dreamy eyes to match. If the food is a treat, so is Arva. She seems to have absorbed enormous founts of gastronomical knowledge and quotes casually from pre-Biblical recipes inscribed on stone tablets, hypotheses that the falafel pre-dates Islam, and then gives you a little botany lesson on the saffron flower and the heaven-and-earth importance of buying the right microscopic bits of it. Hyderabad-born, Sharjah-and-Dubai-raised, she did an MBA at Wharton, University of Pennsylvania, US, dished out advice at a New York consulting firm, then chucked it all (lucky for us) for the love of food and sharing it with others in Dubai. And oh, she has all these macho Arab men in the by-lanes of Deira as her willing slaves—chefs, servers, cashiers, owners, they all wear the same besotted expression when she strolls in.

Arva’s melting pot credentials sit nicely with Dubai’s melting pot history, and the tour basically makes you taste the pot from the collective viewpoints of Palestinians, Egyptians, Jordanians, Lebanese, Syrians, Yemenis, Emiratis and Iranians, with the possible influences of Indians and Pakistanis. For example, the Hyderabadi haleem and Emirati harees are clearly twins separated at birth, and one can only guess at the backstory. The point is, man leaves his culinary DNA behind—trade routes intersected for centuries, spices got offloaded at various ports and added a kick to blander concoctions, tightly guarded cooking practices leaked out—and we get to enjoy this millenniums-worth of intermingling in one four-and-a-half-hour gluttonous evening.

First stop on the food tour is an itsy-bitsy falafel shop—the Sultan Dubai Falafel Restaurant—which, in my opinion, serves up the gold standard of falafels in Dubai. It is owned by a Palestinian but the cooks are mostly Egyptians, and in the sister-restaurant Qwaider Al Nabulsi, the pastry chef’s assistant, Musharraf, is definitely Indian. But I am getting ahead of myself. The falafels are piping hot, crunchy, moist inside, green with herbs, with a heart stuffed with red shatta chilli paste, the whole thing studded with sesame seeds. It gets better—you place it inside a roti-like bread, smash the hell out of it, then reopen the roti and layer it with creamy hummus, a tangy chutney called tatbeela, deep-fried cauliflower and eggplant, some Egyptian foul, assorted pickles, and then you try and bite into your overstuffed, oozing-from-all-sides sandwich, and in a split second you are transported to heaven.

This is followed by a musakhan—by now we are sitting at the outdoor tables of Qwaider Al Nabulsi—which turns out to be a chicken pie of Palestinian origin. Think of it as a pizza with half a chicken spreadeagled on it, entangled in loads of caramelized onions, sumac and olive oil. It must be very good—I skipped the non-vegetarian dishes—because it is demolished in pin-drop silence by the group.

A musakhan. Photo: Glen Pearson
A musakhan. Photo: Glen Pearson

Already stuffed, things become a blur from this point onwards. We march bravely into Al Samadi Sweets, which has been turning out baklavas of infinite variety since 1872 in Lebanon. Fortunately, we don’t have to eat, but Arva packs a small treat from here—a maamoul (spiced date cookie) and a bukaj (a baklava shaped like a knapsack)—for us to eat with breakfast! Then we are at Al Ammor, an Egyptian feteer place, for some more culinary theatre. Think of a feteer as a gigantic rumali roti—it is tossed up in the air with the same techniques—stuffed and folded over into a parcel, and then baked in a massive oven. The stuffings can vary—we get a savoury feteer with basturma (beef pastrami), vegetables and cheese, and a sweet one filled with custard, yes custard, and then slathered in Nutella and topped off with crushed nuts. It is deeply soul satisfying.

Just when you think you can’t eat another morsel, we settle down (as in on the floor, Bedouin style, in a room decked out as a merry tent) for an elaborate Emirati meal at Al Tawasol, a restaurant run by a single Emirati woman. She has sent in a special dish from home for us, a tahtah malleh, which is salted preserved fish cooked with rice. The rest of the spread is shorbat adas (lentil soup), chicken machboos (chicken and rice cooked in an Emirati blend of spices called bezar), laham salona (an Emirati lamb curry), harees (the Emirati version of haleem, a meat and wheat porridge cooked for so long that the meat disintegrates and blends in).

To help that heavy meal settle down, Arva walks us to Sadaf Iranian Sweets, where we eat icy-cold faloodeh with rose water and lemon juice, topped with saffron ice cream, while chatting with the owner, who has movie-star good looks.

We lurch homewards, munching on the thought that the Middle East has not deployed its most powerful weapon properly around the world—its food! If everyone went on this food tour, world peace is guaranteed.

Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult Of The Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.

Also read | Radha Chadha’s previous Lounge columns.

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