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Eat Emirati: Exploring local cuisines in Dubai
It’s not hard to find a good meal in Dubai. As the emirate has grown, attracting people from across the globe, a diverse food scene has flourished. Cuisine from an array of nations can be found to suit any budget. An inexpensive but authentic Pakistani feast at Satwa’s famous Ravi Restaurant; expertly prepared sushi and sashimi at the local branch of Rainer Becker’s global chain Zuma in Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC); fine dining at celebrated French chef Pierre Gagnaire’s Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire in Dubai Festival City – Dubai has it all, and much more. The ethnic diversity of Dubai’s population means that most of the food is authentic, too. But, until very recently, it was not easy to find a restaurant serving traditional Emirati cuisine.
“I think we need more Emirati restaurants, but I definitely see a movement [in the right direction], which is amazing,” says Emirati food writer Shaikha Al Ali, the woman behind the popular blog When Shaikha Cooks, which is dedicated to educating people about Emirati food and culture, and who The National newspaper dubbed an “Emirati Nigella in the making”.
Al Ali describes Emirati cuisine as “simple, good, wholesome food”, explaining that typical ingredients include fish, goat, dhn khneen (spiced clarified butter), dried black lemon, bay leaves, cloves, saffron, turmeric, dates and rice. One of her favourite dishes is ghoozi; spiced kid slow-cooked with nuts, raisins and rice.
Women like Al Ali and chef Khulood Atiq, author of bilingual Emirati cookbook Sarareed and the closest thing the UAE has to a native celebrity chef, have helped fuel interest in local food culture, and despite Al Ali’s belief that the best Emirati food is still to be found in Emirati home kitchens, there are some spots where visitors can sample the local cuisine in Dubai.
Start with a trip to the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Located in the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, beside Dubai Creek, SMCCU serves a traditional Emirati breakfast every Monday and Wednesday (AED80), brunch every Saturday (AED100) lunch on Sunday through Thursday (AED90) and dinner every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday (AED100). The meals are enjoyed with an Emirati host, who will be available to answer any questions about Emirati food or culture.
Not far from SMCCU, you will find Local House, where you can sample numerous dishes featuring camel meat, including the famous camel burger, which can be washed down with a camel milkshake. The food is not, strictly speaking, traditional, but it’s worth trying camel when you have the chance.
The model Bedouin, donkeys and camels decorating the outdoor seating area of Al-Fanar Restaurant & Café in Dubai Festival City are offputtingly kitsch, but the restaurant serves what is perhaps the largest range of traditional Emirati dishes available in Dubai, including machboos (lamb, chicken or fish cooked with rice, stock, spices and dried lemon), thereed (a stew of Arabic bread, meat and vegetables), and harees (a mixture of wheat and meat).
Mama Tani Café, located in the Town Centre mall in Dubai’s Jumeirah neighbourhood, specialises in the traditional Emirati bread khameer, freshly baked and enjoyed either on its own or stuffed with a filling of your choosing. A traditionalist might choose the zaatar khameer, while the more adventurous diner might go for a marshmallow and cotton candy filling.
Other spots worth seeking out are Al Khettar Restaurant & Café, opposite Dubai Police HQ on Al Ittihad Road in Hor Al Anz, which serves food from across the Arabian Gulf, including half a dozen Emirati dishes, and, if you happen to be shopping in The Dubai Mall and need a bite to eat, Milas Restaurant is well worth a visit, too.
Written by Gareth Rees