Just getting started
we scoffed the falafel. Arva explained a great deal of time and effort goes into this dish. The carp is killed fresh for cooking, marinated in olive oil, rock salt, tamarind and ground tumeric and then cooked for up to three hours depending on its size.
Customers must call ahead to order it, and must arrive at a set time as cooking starts before they arrive. Our fish was a massive 2.5kg (the smallest option) and we arrived to see the end of the cooking. It was impaled with wood and piled up on top of a massive cauldron of burning coals called a ‘fire altar’, which is like a big open oven/ bonfire set in a closed-off corner of the restaurant.
Typically a group of diners will pick at mezze or slurp bowls of shorbat adas (a simple lentil soup) during cooking time. We didn’t have to wait that long, but when the Masgouf made its grand entrance we ooh and ahh’d with childlike glee. The fish tasted smokey, with delicious crispy skin. We ate chunks of it layered with amba (mango pickle) and rayhaan (basil leaves) and cradled in warm tanour bread.
Given more time, this would be a lovely, slow and relaxed way to dine. Sure, the canteen-style interiors aren’t seven-star standard, but the basic surroundings and open kitchen allow the food to take centre stage. We left a platter covered in a scattering of tiny, bare fish bones and scraps behind us, which can only scream compliments to the chef. Usually this would be the point when one would waddle home in need of a lie down. But oh no, we were barely halfway through. And Arva had another surprise treat in store. “Here’s Samadi Sweets for our baklava pit stop,” she said as the minibus stopped suddenly. The Lebanese bakery dates back to the mid-1800s and all sweets are handmade on site.
Arva deliberately keeps the groups small, normally a maximum of seven or eight people, and attracts a mix of residents and tourists to maintain an intimate feel. “There’s no point eating dinner with 20 people, you’ll never talk to everyone,” she reasoned. “It’s great when residents of Dubai come on my tours, they’ve lived here for years but discover new things or rediscover the magic of Middle Eastern food.”
At every chance she gets she’s “obsessively scouring” local markets, unassuming eateries, attending tastings, meeting chefs and restaurant owners and constantly thinking of interesting ways for her customers to experience authentic Dubai. Right now she’s hoping to coax Bedouin women in to the city to give cooking classes; is testing a guided trip around Dubai’s bustling fish markets (with tips on how to identify frozen seafood from fresh produce); and wants to extend her tours to farms and local homes where people can learn recipes that have been passed down through generations. You certainly can’t fault her enthusiasm.
“These little places deserve to be given a chance, they deserve some recognition too,” she said.
Before even starting Frying Pan Adventures, she emailed journalists a list of all the small, independent, often familyrun restaurants she knows and loves in Dubai. Her aim was to secure the underdogs some column inches alongside the hotel juggernauts powered by PR machines. Her nostalgia for Dubai is endearing.
“I want to hit ‘rewind’ on Dubai to a time before it embarked on its glamorous seven-star journey,” she said. And her tours are the perfect time machine, working as a vehicle to show tourists and residents there are interesting alternatives to brunches and 24-hour outlets.
Now back to the tour. With our stomachs already groaning, we pulled up outside Al Tawasol, located right by Deira Clock Tower. It’s a Bedouin restaurant with a men-only section cream, honey and nuts. Amazing, but I could only manage two mouthfuls before I gave up and vowed not to eat again for days.
The great thing is I know if I went on another of Avra’s tours, it would be a different experience entirely. New people, new gems to uncover and lots more authentic and delicious food.
However, I think I’ll give myself a breather before my next culinary journey through Dubai.
If you want to discover secret Dubai, this is the experience for you – just make sure you pace yourself.
Arva enjoys showing people an alternative side of Dubai