In a new weekly col­umn, Arva Ahmed ex­plores the UAE’s in­cred­i­ble culi­nary brush­strokes

Friday - - Food -

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

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