by Sarah Hedley Hymers and Dubai expert, The Telegraph, May 28, 2019
A few weeks ago, on a deliciously cool Dubai evening, I found myself fidgeting in what must be the best seat in the house at a new celebrity chef outpost. The terrace overlooks seascape and skyline panorama that twinkles like a jeweller’s window. The menu – at least 50 per cent of it fashionably raw – features every decadence: champagne, truffles, caviar. And yet, I couldn’t help but feel a tad... bored.
A parade of gold-dusted amuse bouche regularly passes through Dubai’s kitchen doors. Instagram is bloated with the emirate’s most outlandish and expensive edibles, often coiffed by famous fingers. From ‘Salt Bae’ to Alain Ducasse, few celebrity chefs have resisted Dubai’s potential riches. However, I’ve come to realise, that while lauded gourmands put a face to fine dining in the region and attract their share of fans, Dubai’s greatest gastronomic achievement is its diversity.
Beyond the five-star hotel chains, there’s an enticing underbelly of no-frills options – a world of plastic table covers, laminated menus and pleasantly low pricing that contradicts Dubai’s reputation for being too expensive. It really depends on where you pull up a seat.
It’s critical to understand that Dubai isn’t so much a melting pot of cultures, as it is home to several distinct communities, harmoniously living side by side while following their own undiluted traditions – and recipes.
During the 1800s, the first Iranians settled alongside local Bedouin tribes. By the 1930s, a quarter of Dubai’s 20,000-strong population was made up of economic immigrants, predominantly from neighbouring Arab lands and the Indian subcontinent. Latest records show the UAE has an estimated 9.58 million inhabitants and more than 80 per cent are expats. Their hunger for home-cooking has fuelled the multi-cultural culinary landscape of today.
Often family-owned, off the tourist path and independent, countless heritage restaurants produce time-honoured dishes that are generations-old. As a result, today’s visitors can experience authentic specialities from numerous nations, including some that the Foreign Office currently advises against travelling to.
Pakistan’s rich and buttery tomato-based mutton Peshawari, cooked with garlic and freshly-ground spices until tender, is best mopped up with a warm naan straight from the oven at Ravi’s (www.facebook.com/ravirestaurant.ae), as it’s affectionally known. The family who run it are actually named Hameed. When founder Chaudary Abdul Hameed first arrived in Dubaifrom Pakistan’s Punjab Province in the Seventies, simply because all his friends were doing the same, there weren’t many places to eat in Satwa, so he took a loan from his brother in 1978 and opened Ravi Restaurant, serving the comfort food of his homeland. Named after the transboundary Ravi River that flows through Pakistan and India, nationals of both countries share plastic-covered tables and pots of sweet chai here every day.
Another family restaurant that has survived more than four decades is Bur Dubai’s Iranian Al Ustad Special Kabab (https://alustadspecialkabab.com). The late founder, Mohammed Al Ansari, arrived from Gerash in southern Iran in 1941. When the UAE was formed 30 years later, existing Iranian settlers were offered Emirati citizenship. The walls at Ustad pay homage to Al Ansari’s adopted home, crowded with patriotic flags and photos, including one of Dubai’s Crown Prince the day he visited in 2017. The food, however, is 100 per cent Iranian. Ustad’s swashbuckling skewers of chicken and mutton marinated in garlic-laced yoghurt and barbecued over open flames are as popular as ever, and Al Ansari’s eldest son, charismatic Majeed, upholds the charms and warm welcome the place is famous for.
Across the creek in Deira, Kabab Erbil (http://kababerbil.com) serves Iraq’s national dish, masgouf. Carp is slit along its backbone and impaled on spikes around a pit fire housed within what staff call “the sauna”, a self-contained room with display windows on the ground floor of this rustic restaurant. Apricot wood gives the fish an aromatic smoky flavour and a baste of olive oil, salt, turmeric and tamarind fruit caramelises the flesh. In Iraq, this is what visiting diplomats are served and former French president Jacques Chirac is rumoured to be among its many admirers.
I discovered this darling of the Iraqi dining scene while on a ‘Middle Eastern Food Pilgrimage’ with Frying Pan Adventures (AED395/£84 per person, www.fryingpanadventures.com). For four-and-a-half glorious hours I was filled with Palestinian falafels and kunafa cake, Lebanese baklava, Egyptian pizzas and compelling culinary tales. It wasn’t my first Frying Pan Adventure. I discovered this family-led operation after moving to Dubai many years ago and I fell in love at first bite. Their street-hopping degustation tours through the lively streets of Deira could never be boring – and they cost less than my meal at the celebrity restaurant where I’d been twiddling thumbs the previous week.
Our wonderful walking expedition came to an end at speciality goods store Sadaf Iranian Sweets (www.facebook.com/sadafsweets). Here, our group of likeminded foodies, hailing from Jordan, Dubai and the UK, reflected on the importance of preserving and sharing the history of food over faloodeh, a complex bouquet of saffron ice cream topped with rose water, lemon juice, pistachios and frozen cornflour noodles. Inhibited by trepidation and travel warnings regarding Iran, I may never have tasted this enigmatic Persian sundae if it weren’t for Sadaf Iranian Sweets – and therein lies Dubai’s gift to gourmets. It provides a platform for the world’s highest proportion of immigrants to share their culinary stories.
This article was written by Sarah Hedley Hymers and Dubai expert from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected]