Footsteps to foodie steps, exploring Dubai through its stomach., this is dedicated to those of you who wants to visit Dubai and try the real and ethnic food that Old Dubai has to offer.
It took nothing less than a seven-star hotel behemoth, the Burj Al Arab, to plant the desert city on the tourist map in 1999.
The Burj was Dubai’s luxurious magic carpet ride into an era of glamor, international style, and record-breaking feats from the tallest building to the longest driverless metro network. The city has leveled its dunes to make way for shimmering glass-encased buildings that gloat with Paris Hiltonesque bling and imported haute cuisine. But to truly experience multi-cultural Dubai, one has to ditch the restaurant concepts that have been flash-frozen and shipped in from the metropolises of the world, and wander closer to the historic areas flanking the Dubai Creek. It is these parts of town that have buttered Dubai’s bread since it rose as a trading hub over a century ago.
The heart—or stomach—of the city is where a Lebanese immigrant has impaled a mountain of lamb strips and fat on a spit, grilled it through the day in its own dripping juices, and then shaved off a few charred meat slivers for smoky shawarma. Or where the wiry Indian has curried freshly-caught pomfret and rolled out hot elastic parathas in a Malabari cafeteria by the road. Or where fresh-baked pandesal and hopia stuffed with the fragrance of Manila call out to the droves of Filipino immigrants who have become the foundation of restaurants, hotels, supermarkets, nail bars, and ice cream parlors all across in town. These unassuming but soul-feeding kitchens is where the taste of Dubai is truly at—a taste that in reality is a kaleidoscope of many immigrant cultures that have dropped anchor at the creek to achieve their dreams in this New York of the Middle East.
Here’s a sampler plate of what Dubai has to offer—without the bling, the glam, the extravagance that this desert city has come to symbolize. These are the authentic, incredibly diverse flavors that can converge for someone who’s willing to wind their way through the alleys of old Dubai and taste what’s off the beaten, crystal-studded path.
You may notice the lack of complete street addresses in the slides. Dubai is notorious for awkwardly mapped street numbers (44th street can intersect 37D. or 25C. and it may also exist in five other counter-intuitive points of the city.)—people tend to rely on landmarks instead, which isn’t great news for the wide-eyed hungry tourist. But fret not; the map is drown as accurately as it could despite the navigational anarchy. The map, along with any phone numbers and landmarks provided, and a healthy dose of directions from the nearest helpful soul on the streets should hopefully get you to the right door!
The legendary Al Reef Bakery is the grandmother of all Lebanese bakeries in the city that spin out a veritable Lebanese style pizza, or manousheh
). But here’s a little secret: We often bypass tradition and patronize one of the newer kids on the block: Breakfast To Breakfast.The BtoB baker deftly dimples the stretched manousheh
dough with his fingers, indenting mini craters into the surface that hold pools of various topping combinations: salty akkawi
cheese, earthy za’atar
herbs and olive oil; creamy sourlebneh
and sweet jam; eggs and minced lamb; or our most recent favorite, meltedakkawi
studded with blood-red sujuk
sausage. It is not uncommon for the baker to slit your manousheh
down the center and fold it up like a cheese-glued sandwich for ultra portability.
A tip to potential manousheh-munchers: attempt BtoB’s manousheh light. While we’d like to think that we opt for the skinnier crust to maintain our curves, in reality, the sole reason is that the leaner manousheh provides a crisper base for the toppings than the doughier original.
Breakfast to Breakfast, Al Rigga Road, +971 (4) 222-3566 [Multiple branches]
Al Reef Bakery, Zabeel Road, +971 (4) 396-1980 [2nd branch on Al Qussais Damascus Street]
Iranian Sangak and Chelo Kabab
When the ruler of Dubai offered free land and wiped out taxes to lure enterprising Iranian traders in the early 1900s, the strategy had nothing to do with securing a lifelong supply of chelo kabab.
Strategized or not, the immigrant Iranian has shipped in valuable kabab cargo that must not be missed.A quick Iranian lunch at Khoory Special Kabab Restaurant could consist of a piece of the three-foot long, pebble-baked sangak
bread, drenched to the chewy core with meaty drippings of a lamb kabab koobideh
sprawled atop it. Alternatively, pay your respects to Iran’s national dish, chelo kabab
, with Al Sadaf’s versatile platter of lamb skewers, barreh
(lamb chops) and joojeh
(chicken) kababs, best paired with mounds of rice spiked with sour zereshk
berries or fragrant dill. As you wait on the meat, swish your bread around a plate of yogurt-based borani esfenaj
, pounding with olive oil, spinach and enough pungent garlic to bomb the hopes of any dinner conversation with the person sitting beside you.
Khoory Special Kabab Restaurant, Hor Al Anz, +971 (4) 266-6322 / (50) 317-9721
Sadaf Restaurant, Al Maktoum Street, +971 (4) 222-1622
South Indian Appams
While South Indian food often gets pigeonholed into the dosa-sambar-purely-vegetarian category, there is SO MUCH MORE to it than that.Take the angelically light appam
for instance: fermented rice flour bowls that are crisp along the edges, and then grow sweet and spongy toward the denser coconut milk-heavy centre. Pair that with one of Calicut Paragon’s spicy chicken or fish curries, or with Aapa Kadai’s Chicken in Fried Curry, which has chunks of chicken that are so soft, you can’t but help suspect that someone switched out the chicken’s grain feed for buckets of butter. Other dishes that have caught our fancy in the past have included Calicut’s crunchy Dry Fry Prawns sprawled on a bed of crispy fried coconut bits, or any one of Aapa’s Kingfish Tava Fry, papaya-tenderized nuggets of Chicken 65, or Chicken Kothu Parotta, a mix of chicken, buttery Indian bread (parotta
) and omelet all conveniently shredded up and tossed about so that you can get an optimal bite of each element—chicken-bread-egg—in every spoonful.
For those hoping to graduate to the next level of South Indian gastronomic grammar, a stop at Aapa Kadai or at Calicut Paragon is a must for the hungry student.
Aapa Kadai, Karama, +971 (4) 334-8030 [multiple locations]
Calicut Paragon, Karama, +971 (4) 335-8700
The Iraqis have managed to save a distinct space for themselves in the Dubai belly with their mammoth charcoal-fired fish, maskouf
. While the fish at Al Bait Al Baghdadi is hauled over from Iran (transporting the fish from Iraq isn’t feasible), the cooking style is firmly rooted—or speared—in Iraqi tradition. You get to choose your own fish based on weight, though be prepared for nothing less than a four-pound marine ogre that looks suspiciously like carp.It is fascinating to watch the cooks salt the giant open fish, spear it, and then erect it around a pit of flaming wood and charcoals as though Dubai has suddenly been zapped to the stranded shores of Treasure Island. The result is a fish with the crackly golden brown skin of a broiled chicken on its top belly, and with the black bitter crisp of charcoal-induced, direct scorching heat on the underside. The white flaky innards beg for you to lather them with salt, vinegar, or lemon, or splotch them with an exceedingly sour Amba
, or mango chutney. But the best way to dress the maskouf is with copious spoonfuls of the restaurant’s special “fish stuffing”—tomatoes, onions and spices simmered down to a piquant tangy salsa that is exactly the sort of magnanimous flavor that fits this fishy giant like a glove.
Al Bayt Al Baghdadi, Al Muteena Street, near Sheraton Deira (map); +971 (4) 273-7044
Filipino Halo Halo
With a smiling Filipino face at every door, counter and aisle of Dubai’s service industry, it is surprising that no one has nicknamed Dubai the Manila of the Middle East. Sadly, insufficient press coverage and ignorant generalizations of the food being too exotic, fried, even smelly,
mean that your tourist’s guide to Dubai may not urge you to scour the streets for the tastes of imported Philippines….but we absolutely do. Pull up a chair at a home-style Filipino eatery like Delmon or Kabalen, and explore the Pinoy palate with some therapeutic chicken mami
soup, coconut-infused beef bicol express with crunchy scallions, fat lumpia
parcels with peanut sauce, or green chewy shoots of swamp cabbage (kankong
) braised in adobo sauce. For dessert, experiment with colorful spoonfuls of the multi-textured fruit, bean, gulaman
and nata de cacao
jelly, and crushed ice layers of the halo halo
, arguably one of the most refreshing desserts you can resort to in the sweltering peak of Dubai heat.
Kabalen Restaurant, Karama, +971 (4) 397-8839
Delmon Restaurant, Karama, +971 (4) 336-9561
is Yemen’s answer to chicken and rice. This soulful food is best deconstructed with your bare hands, seated cross-legged in Al Tawasol’s Arabesque-upholsteredmajlis
, with a plastic disposable dining sheet on which to fling your thrice-licked chicken bones with barbaric flourish. Traditionally, the meat is suspended and slow-cooked in a clay tandoor dug into the ground, and then served over a bed of colored rice with a side of salsa-like tomato gravy, yoghurt, raisins and nuts.Our coy questions to the waiters haven’t yet revealed whether Al Tawasol has followed the underground tandoor tradition since their opening in 1999. All we can taste is the result of whatever they do behind the kitchen doors: a crackly skinned chicken, with shockingly supple, ghee
-massaged meat that glides off the bone with the smooth skill of a well-practiced figure skater.
Al Tawasol Restaurant, Deira Clocktower, +971 (4) 295-9797
Indonesian / Malaysian Sambal Tempe
Singapore Deli is one of Dubai’s few authentic culinary ambassadors from the Malay-Indo-Singaporean belt. The menu has a smattering of dishes familiar to the Southeast Asian palate, including coconut-milk drenched noodles of Mie Laksa
, skewers of peanutty Chicken Sate
, battered and deep fried chunks of Tahu Isi
, beefy Nasi Rendang
throbbing with the fragrance of coconut, and tender chewy tofu cubes ofTahu Goreng
covered in a thick blanket of peanut gravy. Savor it all, and then digest the gastronomic damage with a piping hot cup of frothy tea tarik
.A word of advice: Whatever you do, don’t leave without scooping your spoon through the little hill of Sambal Tempe
—deep fried tempe, nuts, fried potato chips (a Singapore Deli improvisation to replace the traditional anchovies), and chili sauce. If a mad scientist were to fuse together the sticky crunchiness of caramel popcorn with the sweet salty nuttiness of a peanut-loaded fruit and nut bar, and then skinny dip the test tube in a pool of viscous dark soy sambal, this is the monstrously delicious creation that would emerge from his laboratory.
Singapore Deli, Karama, +971 (4) 396-6885
is like New York’s corner-pizza-joint food, grab-and-go food, comfort food, let’s-debate-the-best-one-to-death food.Claiming that Automatic Cafeteria, one of the city’s long-standing Lebanese stalwarts, wraps up the best shawarma
may put the life of the lady who authored this article in serious peril. But, she can safely say that Automatic is the only place she has returned to for her shawarma fix and hummus dip, time and again, for nearly three decades. Juicy shreds of chicken or lamb are sawed off of the rotating spit, laid out on a khubz
(pita) with a bed of leaves, sour pickles, tahina
, garlic butter, and fries, and then toasted down with a sandwich press. The toasty shawarma
is then rolled together tightly like a toffee in baking paper, only to be brutally ripped away seconds later so you can take that first, charred, pickled, garlic-pungent, creamy, meaty bite of a perfectly assembled Lebanese shawarma
Automatic Cafeteria, Deira, +971 (4) 222-4478 [Don’t confuse this with the co-owned Automatic Restaurant next door!]
Rajasthani Daal Bati Churma
Dal bhati churma
is a villager’s meal that has travelled from the Indian desert state of Rajasthan to the Arabian sands of Dubai. Manvaar recreates tradition by baking balls of wheat (bati
) slathered with ghee
in a tandoor, and serving them with a hearty broth comprising five kinds of lentil (panchmel
).If you step in on a tranquil weekday lunch, the servers at Manvaar will throw themselves at your table, begging to teach how to eat through this desert tradition: crumble apart the soft warm bati
into the tiniest pieces possible (anger management therapy, anyone?), drench the crumbs with copious amounts of dal
, sprinkle some raw onions, squish a lemon, and then drizzle more melted ghee
to magnify the earthy essence throbbing throughout this modest village dish.
The resourceful desert dwellers of Rajasthan took the bati a step further and transformed it into a dessert called churma—crushed bati with oodles of jaggery andghee that can only be worked off if you trek across the desert yourself.
Manvaar Restaurant, Karama, +971 (4) 336-8332
This pillowy dumpling has plodded all the way from Nepal into floor -1
of a building in Bur Dubai’s congested textile and electronics jungle. Kathmandu Highland steams its momos, deep-fries them, or even dunks them in Chinese-style sweet and sour sticky gravy (C-momo
) that trickles down the smooth elastic walls of the momos as you try to maneuver them into your mouth.Our go-to momo is the kothey chicken variant, with a part steamed, part pan-fried skin that fissures open to release a mound of steamy chicken laced with the sweet heady aroma of Nepal’s timur
pepper. Tear open the dumpling, scoop up some tomato chutney within the momo walls, savor the sweet, spicy, fragrant, chutney-drenched innards…and smile with the realization that indeed, every dumpling is born different.
Kathmandu Highland Palace Restaurant, Meena Bazaar, +971 (4) 353-6398 or +971 (55) 174-2232
Egyptian Koshari and Feteer
The original Al Ammor is a dive located on a gruff, testosterone-dominated street in a lesser known part of town, Hor Al Anz. But their koshari
makes it worth the trek.Koshari
is Egypt’s version of “everything but the kitchen sink”: rice, macaroni, lentils, chickpeas, spaghetti, and crunchy onions, all jumbled up in a mess that’s a joy to wipe clean when splashed with some tangy tomato gravy. If you step closer to the open baking counters, you may see the bakers slather Kraft cream cheese all over a sheer stretch of dough, closing it up into what will become the warm puffy, cream-cheese slathered folds of crispy feteer
Luckily, this Egyptian gem has now opened a spacious second location in a more familiar and family friendly part of town, Bur Dubai, where it can continue to dish out authentic Egyptian eats to the carb-craving soul.
Al Ammor Restaurant, Bur Dubai, +971 (4) 370-7060 [Original location in Hor Al Anz. Not to be confused with sister restaurants: Al Ammor Kabab and Al Ammor Falafel]
Chinese Hot Pot
It may seem ludicrous to serve the wintery Chinese hot pot in a desert furnace like Dubai, but nevertheless, Xiao Wei Yang has been successfully spooning out its broth at the Deira creekside for many years now.The interiors are far from fancy, and your nose may want to dive into a potpourri pit after the initial onslaught of fishy meaty smells as you enter. But once you’re at the table—with a scallion pancake dabbed with leek chutney and a yin-yang pot of boiling broth—you
become part of the authentic smell that defines Xiao Wei Yang. The menu leads you through an Amazon of ingredients that could be cooked in the simmering broth, including silky marbled beef strips, fish balls, fish heads, Chinese cabbage, lettuce, mushrooms, tofu, julienned seaweed, shrimp, blue crabs, and deadly addictive hand-pulled noodles that become hoses of broth-busting flavor when you slide them into the pot. Paired with chutneys and dips from the restaurants self-serve table, this DIY meal is one that makes for a fun large group dinner, while also providing a free lesson in slippery broth-splashed chopstick management.
Xiao Wei Yang International Restaurant, Baniyas Road, +971 (4) 221-5111
Indo-Pak Bihari Kababs, Naihari, and Sheermal
Dubai has no dearth of restaurants serving North Indian and Pakistani cuisine, including the famous Ravi graced by Anthony Bourdain himself during his tour of the city. While there are few foodies who will leave this city without a taste of Ravi’s, let us tell you of a place that most tourists don’t already know. This is the place where you can truly experience North Indian Kabab epiphany: the mundanely named Daily Restaurant.The kabab of choice is Daily’s bihari kabab
—a yogurt marinated kabab that has defied all pre-conceived kabab logic by melting into a tartare-like magic substance on the grills. This beefy buttery paste that claims to be a kabab can be drizzled with a cooling coriander raita
. But we prefer to not mess with the sacred and succumb to the meat on its own, in all its beefy primal glory. If you want to further catapult yourself into a state of giddy meat delirium, order the string-tied gola kababs
or some naihari
with plump chunks of baby soft mutton bobbing about in the gravy. With a meal that’s already challenged your perceptions of how soft meat can really be, surprise yourself further by skipping the usual naan for sweet cardamom-tinged sheermal
. This milk-based leavened bread is perfect on its own, drenched in the naihari
, or paired with chai that you will have no choice but to order at the end if you hope to shake off the meaty stupor and head to the door.
Daily Restaurant, Bur Dubai, +971 (4) 337-3123
Dubai has many a Japanese table with its fair share of gourmet sushi rolls and imported miso cod recipes. But if you’re looking to wield your chopsticks around authentic Japanese fare that feeds your soul without spearing your wallet, head straight to the well-serviced tables at fifteen-year old Bento-Ya.The menu winds through all the usual suspects, including tempura, ramen, sushi, sashimi, maki, grilled and raw meats, donburi, and bento boxes. Save yourself the menu indecision and beeline it to the top picks recommended by local food bloggers: crunchy swollen ebi
(shrimp) tempura, golden-brown kaki (oysters) tempura, grilledkarubi
(beef) with succulent slivers of fat right around the bone and last but not least, the mindblowing tsukune
. These glistening globes of minced chicken are coated in a magical teriyaki sauce that, after the globes have orbited to your stomach, will force you to hand in your chopsticks and head straight home for a deep comfort-induced sleep.
Bento-Ya, Sheikh Zayed Road, +971 (4) 343-0222 [2nd branch in Ghusais]
Syrian, Palestinian, and Lebanese Kunafa
Baklava may be the Madonna of Arabic desserts, but the sweet rockstar that has yet to garner the same level of international fame is kunafa
. Kunafa is essentially a cheese pie, soaked with enough melted ghee and sugar to make a McDonald’s cheeseburger seem like wheat grass in comparison.We’re not quite sure whether kunafa
originally hails from Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, or whichever other country steps forth to take credit. So to avoid any cultural offense, we recommend that visitors descend on Muraqqabat street and pay their respects to at least three powerful kunafa
clans—the Syrians (Firas), Palestinians (Qwaider Al Nabulsi) and Lebanese (Al Samadi)—each carving out thick blankets ofkunafa
topped with your choice of crunchy brown semolina crumbs or orange angel hair pastry (kataifi
), fried in ghee
to a crackly crisp.
There are three basic things you need to ensure when you eat kunafah: 1) your slice is piping hot and the gooey belly traditionally made of thick white Nabulsi cheese is bubbling out onto the plate; 2) you vigorously nod a “yes” when the server asks you if you’d like your slice doused in sugar syrup and chopped pistachios (when in sugar hell, there’s no looking back); 3) you close your eyes, crunch into the pastry, catch the elastic cheese squishing out on your tongue…and feign temporary amnesia if fellow diners urge you to count calories.
Qwaider Al Nabulsi, Al Muraqqabat Street, +971 (4) 227-7760 Al Samadi, Al Muraqqabat Street, +971 (4) 269-7717 [Multiple branches]
Firas Sweets, Al Muraqqabat Street, +971 (4) 222-2489 [Multiple branches]
Emirati Balaleet, Lqeimat, and Chebab
While practically every other immigrant cuisine has managed to pierce a fork into the culinary fabric of Dubai, the one culture visibly missing is that of the U.A.E. locals themselves: Emirati
. Beyond the kitchens of an Emirati home and of less than a handful of recent Emirati restaurant newborns, knowledge of local dishes likethareed
is dismally low.Luckily, the Sheikh Mohammad Centre of Cultural Understanding (SMCCU) strives to create awareness about both the local customs as well as the traditional cuisine—all within a dirt cheap price of 70 AED (about US $20)! Their Emirati breakfast is one where you can stretch your feet out in a majlis style feast, and discover why the fragrant gahwa
coffee served right at your cushiony seat is a shining symbol of Emirati hospitality. Stack your plate up with pillowy chebab
pancakes drenched in fresh cream and date syrup, and appreciate the art of buying quality saffron as you twirl up sweet vermicelli strands of balaleet
. Between mouthfuls of munchkin-style lqiemat
soaked in sticky date syrup, listen to the host bust popular myths and answer cheeky questions about the local culture with an ease and eloquence that will leave you not just enlightened, but entertained.
The SMCCU also hosts lunches and other cultural activities. The meals are only offered on certain days, and are so popular that you will usually find them sold out if don’t make a booking at least a week in advance.
Sheikh Mohammad Centre of Cultural Understanding, online reservations at cultures.ae. Phone: + 971 (4) 353-6666
BESOS y ABR@ZOS!!
[adopted from http://www.seriouseats.com/2012/03/16-top-ethnic-eats-of-old-dubai-slideshow.html#show-228217]