For a dif­fer­ent taste of the UAE’S cap­i­tal of glitz, fol­low a food tour into the old part of town, where ev­ery­thing from Ye­meni to Ethiopian cui­sine awaits


Arva Ahmed is Dubai’s most ar­dent, if un­of­fi­cial, culi­nary an­thro­pol­o­gist. In an af­ter­noon, we wan­der the old­est neigh­bor­hoods of Dubai and un­earth, taste by taste, the essence of the trad­ing post it used to be, when fleets of dhows would ar­rive from Africa, In­dia, Per­sia, and the far cor­ners of the Ot­toman Em­pire.

“People think of Dubai as a soul­less city,” she says. “But its old streets are wo­ven with food his­tory and cul­ture. We’re talk­ing about the fla­vors of the Me­sopotamian and In­dus and Nile val­leys; of Maghre­bis and Ab­basids and Gulf Be­douins.”

Ahmed, an In­dian cit­i­zen, grew up in Dubai and con­sid­ers its Deira neigh­bor­hood home. I first met her a few years ago when she be­gan her food blog “I Live in a Fry­ing Pan,” which was also when I was tir­ing of mod­ern Dubai’s over­hyped and over­priced din­ing scene. A mu­tual friend and I had started a sup­per club tar­get­ing holes-in-the-walls in old Dubai. That friend in­tro­duced me to Ahmed, who just hap­pened to be look­ing for guinea pigs for what would be­come her Fry­ing Pan Ad­ven­tures ( fry­ing­panad­ven­; US$ 95 per per­son), a se­ries of themed food tours that she launched ear­lier this year.

They make for fas­ci­nat­ing walks. Her Ara­bian Foodie Pil­grim­age en­com­passes Be­douin, Per­sian, and Le­van­tine cuisines—ev­ery­thing from the sim­ple desert nour­ish­ment of chicken mandi, eaten Ye­meni-style with hands while seated on cush­ions in a tent, to man­ak­ish (Le­banese pizza) to a sump­tu­ous Ira­nian ch­elo ke­bab served with bowls of fe­s­en­joon (a tangy wal­nut-fla­vored stew) and zereshk polo (rice laced with bar­ber­ries). In be­tween tast­ings, Ahmed stops her group at a spice souk for a primer on how to pick out the best saf­fron.

Equally tan­ta­liz­ing is her hour-long North African Food Sa­fari, dur­ing which guests can sam­ple a lamb-and-apri­cot tagine while also dis­cov­er­ing how and why a cer­tain aphro­disiac was once part of the spice mix. And in be­tween bites on the Lit­tle In­dia on a Plate tour, Ahmed holds forth on the re­li­gious laws that gov­ern In­dian food habits, the re­mark­able ver­sa­til­ity of gram flour, and how chicken tikka masala, a curry-shop sta­ple, dates back to the Mon­gol con­queror Babur Khan.

When we visit a sweets shop spe­cial­iz­ing in jalebi, Ahmed reads from a cook­book pub­lished 1,000 years ago, a poem about an Iraqi ver­sion of the sweet. “From the 10th century to 2013, it’s the ex­act same thing in front of me,” she says. “These are the con­nec­tions I want to make.”

UP FOR GRABS Left: Fresh­from-theoven man­ak­ish (Le­banese pizza) at a Deira out­let of the Break­fast to Break­fast chain. Be­low: Arva Ahmed leading tour.

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