Dubai’s modern allure often overshadows its rich culinary heritage. But on a recent tour with Frying Pan Adventures, I was whisked into the heart of old Dubai, experiencing firsthand the authentic flavours and traditions that define Emirati cuisine. Join me as I recount this gastronomic journey through the city’s historic streets.
It wasn’t my first visit to Dubai, having spent three days in the Emirati city at the end of my honeymoon in New Zealand. We stayed in wonderful resort at Palm Jumeirah, spending the days relaxing by the beach and getting over the jet-lag before covering the last leg of our journey back to UK. Shopping and staying in luxury hotels and resorts is one of the things you can do in Dubai, but there is much more you can do in the Emirates!
My last trip to Dubai was jam-packed with outdoor activities, walking tours, brunches and dinners – every day exciting and different from the previous one. I used to think of Dubai as a place to stopover on the way to other places, maybe do a bit of shopping and hit the beach, but I have definitely changed my mind now. Dubai has a lot to offer to single travellers, couples, groups and families that even 5 days felt too little to see it all.
My trip was hosted by Dubai Tourism in conjunction with the Dubai Food Festival, and in five days I had the pleasure to discover that Dubai is a wonderful, unique, culinary destination. A highlight was meeting Arva Ahmed of Frying Pan Adventures, who introduced me to the very best food and drink experiences the city has to offer!
Arva, a charismatic and smart woman of Indian origins, grew up in Dubai and is an expert of local flavours and recipes. Her tour is a fantastic introduction to Emirati culture and culinary traditions.
The tour involves a visit to the fish market in old Dubai and therefore it starts early, around 8:00 in the morning. Our first stop was the Chai Kiosk at the entrance of the market to drink Karak Chai and eat parotta. Karak Chai, a traditional hot drink in Dubai, is black tea brewed with whole leaves, and then mixed with evaporated milk and sugar. Parotta is layered white flour bread that was introduced to Dubai by the Kerala immigrants. It’s filled with egg omelette, cheese and veggies and wrapped into a sandwich roll.
During the tour we learnt about how the market is structured (fish, meat, vegetables, and spices are divided in different areas), how to select fresh catch, the common types of local fish available, where to get them cleaned and the appropriate cooking techniques.
When we met Arva at the fish market, she had already been around the stalls to choose and reserve the freshest catch of the day. The secret to buy the best fish is of course to get there early, but it’s also important to distinguish the freshly caught, seasonal fish from the imported one. We learnt these tricks with Nokhoda, real name Hussein, a local ex-captain and savvy fish buyer. Nokhoda literally means the Lord of the Ship as Hussein used to work as captain on fishermen boats.
Dubai is the biggest consumer of fish in the UAE with estimated 33kg of fish consumed per person per year. Unfortunately many species are taken out of the sea beyond sustainable levels, or during their reproductive season, meaning the quantity of fish in the sea is rapidly decreasing. That’s why Arva is very careful about always buying sustainable fish, which helps lowering the demand for overfished species.
The meat section is separated from the rest of the market; it is indoor and accessible through plastic curtains to retain a cool temperature. Meat workers can be distinguished from the fish workers from their red aprons.
Around mid-morning we stopped to take a break at the coconut stand and drink fresh coconut water. They sold two varieties of coconuts: the orange King Coconut from Sri Lanka and green ones from Oman. It costs just 5 AED (£1) to buy a whole coconut, a third cheaper than you would find in new Dubai.
Next to the coconut stand we bought Khalas dates which we ate with chaami, a cheese curds made out of salted and boiled buttermilk. The combination of dates and fresh cheese was very sweet and tasty.
After a walk through the vegetable and fruit market, it was time to enjoy our fresh fish cooked with authentic local flavours.
We walked to the historic area Al Ras and stopped at Al Bait Alqadeem, a restaurant housed in the former home of an Arab pearling merchant from 1909.
Nokhoda expertly cooked the fish from the market: Indian mackerel, coated in local ‘bzar’ spice mix; and boiled blue swimming crabs.
Arva also ordered a few dishes from the menu at Al Bait Alqadeem like the Regag (wheat flour crispy bread) with eggs, cream cheese and mehyawah (fish sauce).
We also tried a delicious Iranian soup called Ash, made with 7 herbs and 5 beans, garnished with kashk (dehydrated buttermilk curds) and fried onions.
The Emirate cuisine we enjoyed at Al Bait Alqadeem was a blend of influences from Iran, north Africa, the Middle East and India. Other dishes included white rice with Iranian zereshk (barberries); baghali polo (Iranian rice pilaf with dill and barberries); machboos rice where the rice is typically simmered in the juices of meat or fish; Tanoor bread; Joojeh Kabab; Gormeh Sabzi (Iranian herb stew with kidney beans and dried loomi).
For dessert we ate Luqaimat, or white flour fritters, drizzled with date syrup and sesame seeds.
While Local Flavours is the best way to get experience Emirati cuisine from the market to the table, if yu are interested more into visiting the streets than choosing food, then I would recommend joining the Naif by Night food and photography tour. This tour is also organised by Frying Pan Adventures, in collaboration with Gulf Photo Plus.
The tour started just before sunset and together with Arva and the Gulf Photo Plus photographer we discovered the colours, the crowds and the flavours of Naif.
Naif is one of the oldest neighbourhoods by the Dubai creek and it was very exciting for me to walk these streets, past market stalls, electronics stores, Ethiopian coffee shops and Indian restaurants. Naif is incredibly alive on the streets, as opposed to the modern city of Dubai where lives seem to take place mostly indoors.
We watched the sunset over the Dubai Creek, from the top floor of parking lot. One of Arva’s best kept secrets! ;)
The street photography tour was aimed at teaching us tricks to photograph the people in their natural environment, doing their jobs, walking down the streets. But the tour was also structured around food stops. We stopped for karak chai, parotta, daqoos (hot sauce) and Chips Oman (spicy potato crisps). We ate Kachori – an Indian savoury fritter stuffed with spiced lentil paste, dipped into sweet tamarind and green chilli chutneys.
Later on, Arva stopped at one of the sweet shops in Naif to buy Halwa/Muscati (a green caramelized sugar treat with clarified butter, rosewater and nuts), tahina halwa (sweet tahina based fudge-like dessert studded with pistachios) and Persian Pashmak (fairy floss).
My favourite food from the tour was the two different roti breads, freshly baked in the tandoori oven and masonry oven from Zabeel Bakery.
And the Samarkand Naan from the Samarkand Bakery on Somalia Road which almost tasted like a bagel and was delicious. I wish I could have brought some back home with me!
The long walking tour of Naif ended with a dinner at one of Naif’s hidden ethnic restaurant gems: Delhi Restaurant.
Arva ordered for us a selection of the best dishes: Nihari (slow simmered beef stew), daal maash (lentils), behari kababs (beef kababs tenderized with papaya paste), hari mirch keema (minced meat with green chillies), which we washed down with Pakola (rosewater cola)!
The variety of dishes and flavours I enjoyed during both food tours, together with Arva’s enthusiasms, convinced me that Dubai is an incredible, one-of-a-kind culinary destination. One that I hope to re-visit soon!
Frying Pan Adventures organises “Naif by Night” is a street photography tour in collaboration with Gulf Photo Plus. The price is AED 595 (£114) per person. “Local Flavours” tour costs AED 499 (£96) per person.
For more information about Dubai call Dubai Tourism on 020 7321 6110 or visit www.visitdubai.com.
Disclaimer: I was a guest of Dubai Tourism. All opinions are my own.