Most of the UAE's food is imported, but how much and where from?
Ahead of this year’s Eating Out Awards, Time Out is munching its way through the city’s multitudinous array of restaurants, from the Michelin-starred names to the colourful Karama eateries. But the more food we eat, and the more delicious culinary variations we sample, the more we wonder: where does the food we eat here in Dubai come from?
The UAE’s sandscape isn’t the most hospitable environment in which to grow crops or rear livestock, so it’s no surprise that most of the food we eat is imported. In fact, the UAE imports more than 80 per cent of its food, and the GCC region imports more food per capita than anywhere else in the world – the UAE alone spent Dhs25.5 billion on food imports in 2010.
According to the 2010 Gulfood Briefing, India is the biggest exporter of food to the UAE, providing the country with 18 per cent of its produce. Brazil is second with 13 per cent, and China isn’t far behind with 12 per cent, followed by the United States (10 per cent), and Australia (eight per cent). Of these imports, vegetables account for the highest percentage, followed by prepared foods, then meat.
The UAE’s dependence on imported goods doesn’t bode well for its capacity to sustain its five-million (ish) population, nor its carbon footprint (which is the highest per capita in the world, not helped by the fact that 50 per cent of this food is then re-exported to other countries in the Gulf, Eastern Europe, India and Africa). This trend is unlikely to change any time soon – as the population rises, and with more restaurants set to open, more food is needed. Even in the wake of the 2009 financial crisis, food consumption in the UAE is predicted to increase by 4.74 per cent a year between 2011 and 2014.
Agriculture accounts for only three per cent of the UAE’s GDP, despite recent efforts to turn 7,237 sq km of desert into farmable land. Though the UAE does produce fruit and vegetables such as aubergines, dates, cucumbers and tomatoes, Dubai Municipality produced just 20,948 tonnes of fruit and 7,030 tonnes of vegetables in 2008. Something the UAE does have in abundance, however, are camels, so it’s no surprise that the government announced plans to start exporting camel milk to Europe this year. As well as developing its own food industry on home soil, the UAE (like many Arab nations) has invested in African farmland (with farms as big as 50,000 acres in Egypt and 100,000 acres in Sudan) to cultivate crops for the country.
But can these efforts catch up with, let alone match, the rapid development of the hospitality industry here? For example, the monthly shopping list of The Fairmont Dubai features huge quantities of produce that couldn’t possibly be sourced locally, including 1,500 oysters (France), 250kg of Sako tuna loin (Indonesia), 30kg of live lobster (Australia), 450kg of premium gold Angus tenderloin (USA) and 25kg of lettuce hearts (Holland).
At the end of the day, what we eat and where it’s from is a choice that’s entirely down to consumers and, while Dubai isn’t the most environmentally friendly place in the world, locally grown produce is available. We spoke to chefs and retailers to find out where our food is coming from, and where to buy home-grown produce.
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While he’d like to see more local produce being used in restaurants, Chef Olivier Biles of Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire is a realist who argues that there isn’t enough on the market to cater for local demand. ‘Local production is very limited and cannot provide for so many hotels,’ he says.
Environmental concerns aside, the food Olivier cooks is transported thousands of miles. Does this affect its freshness and, ultimately, the way it tastes? ‘We say it’s faster to get fish in Dubai than it is in France,’ he says with a wry smile. ‘[The produce] from the supplier is loaded onto the plane and six hours later it arrives in Dubai. When the plane arrives [every] Sunday at 3pm, we have it by 7pm. It is very, very fast – the food is perfectly fresh.’
Nick Alvis, head chef at Verre by Gordon Ramsay, agrees. ‘As far as imported stuff goes, we had scallops over from Norway today and they were fantastic – they were still moving. Very fresh. We’re getting good stuff – I must admit, I’m surprised. The fish is probably as fresh as it is in London.’
This is made possible thanks to innovations in packaging and transporting fresh produce. Seafood, for example, is often packed using insulating materials such as urethane foam or expanded polystyrene. Then there’s the technique of modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) – a process by which air is replaced by other gas mixtures, usually carbon dioxide or nitrogen. These slow the growth of potentially harmful microorganisms and reduce ‘oxidative reactions’ (rotting). However, it seems the best way to ensure the freshness of produce is by getting it from its point of origin to the restaurant as quickly as possible.
Since arriving in Dubai, Baker & Spice founder Yael Mejia has made it her mission to only stock and sell regional produce. We ask her about the fruits of her labour.
Yael is so fierce in her advocacy for locally grown produce, she’s almost frightening. When we ask whether it matters that so much of the food we eat is imported, it’s as though I have insulted her personally. ‘Where do I start?’ she exclaims. ‘Number one, carbon footprint; number two, local produce is a superior product: it’s fresher; it actually tastes better, which from my perspective is top of my list. And because it’s fresher, it’s better for you because it hasn’t gone through so much refrigeration – and you know how old it is.’
So where can we buy fresh, locally grown produce? Aside from the weekly Friday Farmers’ Market that Yael organises at Souk Al Bahar, she recommends the fruit and veg market in Deira, as well as supermarkets such as Lulu and even Carrefour. ‘If you’re adventurous, the main wholesale market at Al Awir is a great source of local and regional produce,’ she adds.
A lot of the produce Yael stocks comes from the commercial farms in Abu Dhabi, from which she’s currently buying celery, strawberries, cauliflowers, cabbages, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, aubergines, and okra in fairly sizeable shipments. So what tips does she have for us, the consumer, to buy more responsibly? ‘Read the labels!’ she exclaims. ‘Read them in the same way you’d read labels on packaged goods, and start understanding where this stuff comes from. It is everyone’s tiny daily decisions that can change the face of food in this country.’
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Partha Feb 23, 2011 10:59 pm
Very nice article!
Thanks for this, TimeOutDubai.
Sanjana Syamaprasad Feb 23, 2011 06:02 am
This is a very interesting article.
But I gotta say, we don't realize that we're not eating fresh food until we actually have fresh food from other countries.
I was in South Africa in December and was amazed at the freshness of the strawberries, the lettuce etc, even the tomatoes (even though these are locally produced in UAE too)! You can feel the difference between farm-fresh veggies and the preserved stuff so easily!
UAE definitely has a challenge in this case, it being a desert and all.