In a new weekly column, Arva Ahmed explores the UAE’s incredible culinary brushstrokes
Trying to define Dubai’s culinary identity is like staring at modern art. You are convinced it must have a meaning, but it is challenging, even overwhelming, to make sense of it. Most cities boast a canvas of flavours that gives them their unique, distinguishable and instantly recognisable identity. I internalise the places I visit through the foods I consume: içli kofte and baklava in Istanbul; Assam laksa and mamak food in Malaysia; deep-dish pizza in Chicago; biryani and haleem in Hyderabad; lamb mansaf and knafeh in Amman; rice-less biryani in Isfahan; sulguni cheese khachapuri and soupy khinkali in Tbilisi; and phô in Vietnam.
The food alone does not sate my hunger. It is the journey of ferreting out local flavours that leaves me feeling full, and more importantly, connected to the place. The people I meet, the street corners I turn, the markets I visit, the tales I hear, the unexpected situations I often stumble into – all of these make the eventual meal far more than just ingredients on a plate.
But the crosstalk of food cultures in Dubai has made its culinary brand an elusive one. I returned home after spending nine years away in America, only to realise that it had taken on so many new and ambitious faces that I could no longer recognise the city of my childhood. There was so much more concrete, yet I found myself stumbling because I could not pin down what was uniquely ‘Dubai.’
We inherit trends from the West. The overwhelming cupcake chatter of the past five years has finally been cleared for the latest course of gourmet burgers and cronuts. Food trucks have become the rage, as has Peruvian cuisine. Dubai infuses these Western templates with its own twist, often with a sprinkling of gold dust and a world record in tow.
As the founder of Frying Pan Adventures, Dubai’s first food tourism venture, I have been on a singular mission to track down those experiences that give meaning to the city’s canvas of eclectic culinary impressions.
One of the meanings I have found is that Dubai is a great preserver of Old World food traditions and techniques, often practised by the people who will never make it to the front cover of a glossy magazine. Take for instance the Emirati mother who graciously invited me home to learn about the traditional salting and preservation of fish (malleh). Or the Emirati, Iranian, Indian, Pakistani and Filipino home cooks who gather at the Friday market in Mamzar to share their family recipes in a celebration of the city’s delicious diversity. Or the Ethiopian restaurateur Sara who fed me fermented injera and chicken stew with her own hands in the ultimate act of hospitality, or gursha. And the most humbling of them all
Today I begin a journey with Friday where I set out to SHARE the STORIES, opinions and ideas that surface as I feed my curiosity about Dubai’s culinary identity – or more aptly, IDENTITIES
during Ramadan, when a charitable association gave me the privilege of sharing dates and soupy Tamil kanji with 3,000 fasting men on a pavement in Naif.
Today I begin a journey with Friday where I set out to share the stories, opinions and ideas that surface as I feed my curiosity about Dubai’s culinary identity – or more aptly, identities. The topics may range from old city bakeries and karak chai cafeterias to locally sourced caviar and wild desert truffles. The common thread is that they have local relevance and exploring them is a way to forge a deeper nourishing bond with the city. With all due respect to the West, it is time we celebrate the culinary brushstrokes painted in our own backyard.
As Arva explores the culinary traditions of Dubai through her tours, she realises the secret lies in its diversity