Time Out gets to grips with the UAE's food roots: check out our guide to national cuisine from bajilla to ouzi and from gerger to magly
Emirati cuisine is an elusive beast, and even the most integrated, right-on Dubaians could be forgiven for going their whole time in the UAE without trying any national dishes. There are precious few restaurants serving Emirati food, but this is gradually starting to change: Local House, an exciting new restaurant in Bastakia, is set to open soon with an agenda of bringing national dishes to the city (see left). However, this will still leave Dubai with a grand total of only three Emirati eateries, so if you’re truly determined to get a flavour of the nation you need to travel – the food experiences are out there, but you’ll have to go UAE-wide for some of them.
Before setting off on this food crusade, you have every right to ask the question: just what is Emirati food anyway? The first thing to note is that it isn’t Lebanese: kibbeh and fattoush, moutabel and sambousik have nothing to do with it. It does, however, have a lot in common with Omani food: it’s a stripped-down, simple cuisine, born of the hand-to-mouth Bedouin existence which reigned in the Arabian Gulf for the 7,000 years of civilisation before oil was discovered and modern Dubai was born. Until the oceans of black gold upon which the country floats were discovered and exploited, the vast majority of the population was intimately involved in food production, and the markets in oasis towns where desert folk and barasti-dwelling merchants came together to trade were the central focus of social life.
The tough Bedouin lifestyle placed a huge importance on food, which was intrinsically linked to status: the ability to offer hospitality to guests was of deep social importance. Tradition dictated that when travellers passed through Bedouin territory they were given food, drink and shelter for three days, and protection for a further three – the time it took for the last of the host’s dinners to pass through their bodies. These days the first thing offered when you enjoy majlis hospitality in an Emirati home is a huge plate of dates: in the time before refrigeration and mass-production, this was a deeply generous gesture as fresh fruit was in chronically short supply.
The austerity of the lifestyle and the sparsity of provisions dictated the structure of the local cuisine. Surplus food was always reused, meaning that many classic Emirati dishes are made with rehashed leftovers. Dried provisions such as wheat, beans and loomy (dried Omani limes), which could be easily transported by camel, formed the backbone of most dishes. Food was baked wherever possible as boiling took up too much precious water: in Ras Al Khaimah the most popular local dishes are still sun-dried fish and shrimp with twists of lemon. Finally, as food preparation in the desert was a complex procedure, animals tended to be cooked whole – game was baked with the fur or feathers still on.
While there was a shift in food culture in the Emirates with the advent of Islam, which brought the Arabian Peninsula into contact with the spices of India and North Africa, truly Emirati food is not highly flavoured. Starters tend to be very straightforward: delicious bowls of dango chickpeas and bajilla broad beans eaten raw with a smattering of melted butter, a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of cumin. To dig into dango, head to Kan Zaman at the Heritage Village (04 393 9883), a terrace restaurant inches from the creek which offers beautiful nighttime views of the lantern-lit wind towers of the village. Kan has a couple of other local treats on offer: along with your salty chickpeas, you can indulge in thick puffs of chobab bread eaten with dark honey and musallah savouries filled with cheese and egg.
Another classic Emirati starter is gerger, green leaves reminiscent of a particularly bitter form of rocket, whose high iron content has earned it a reputation as the natural Viagra. They serve it daily at Khalid Horiya Kitchen (06 538 0555), a 25-minute whizz out of Dubai on the main road from Sharjah to Ajman. Nip to Sharjah, take the Sharjah Airport Road (Al Dhaid Road) and at the first interchange (Waseed Sqaure), turn towards Ajman and the café is 300 metres down on your right, just before the Eppco station. The roof is adorned with a big neon mug and the outside area is strewn with enormous metal cauldrons. Head to the two upstairs rooms (one for men, one for women) and get ready for a proper Emirati feast.
Seating is on the floor – having washed your hands (cutlery is strictly for the tourists), tuck one leg under yourself, splay the other one out and order some gerger, harees and fish and chicken biriani. Your food will arrive in seconds: get stuck in under the watchful gaze of stained-glass Arabs equipped with drums, bagpipes and camels. After a bouquet of gerger, attack the biriani, a sweet chickpea and sultana-filled delight, less spicy than its Indian counterpart, and topped with baked hammour and aromatic chicken. Grab a palmful with your right hand, mould it into a ricey ball and down it before moving on to the harees. This is the best-known local dish, a bland blend of meat and barley which are cooked together for hours and then mashed to the consistency of porridge. The chicken version at Khalid Horiya is pepped up with lashings of hot sauce: lap it up off two fingers before rounding off with a proper Emirati shisha – sucked from a straight hollow stick rather than the twisty Jordanian pipes usually used for puffing in the UAE.
The most common form of harees is made with veal, and can be enjoyed nightly at Al Areesh at the Al Boom Tourist Village (04 324 3000) on the Bur Dubai side of Garhoud Bridge. Other delights which appear at this bamboo-lined buffet restaurant include ouzi – a goat baked with rice, onions and eggs and topped with rigag, a traditional Emirati bread – and tharid. Tharid was the favourite dish of the prophet Muhammad (pbuh), who claimed that it surpassed other dishes in the same way that his favourite wife, A’isha, surpassed all other women. It’s an ancient dish made with vegetables, meat and bread, a tasty stew with seams of slow-cooked flavour.
Although only made on special occasions at Al Areesh, sannam is another classic Emirati dish – a roasted baby camel on a vast bed of rice. Your best bet for trying it out is to organise a big party at the Al Boom village and commission a camel, or to get yourself invited to a local wedding. If you do get the opportunity to try a slice of sannam, go for the hump – it contains the most fat, so it’s the tastiest part. Traditionally, camels were eaten only on the most special occasions – they were extremely valuable and of such key importance to the Bedouin’s survival that to put one in the tanoor oven was a tremendous sacrifice.
When not being cooked, the camels were the source of remarkably healthy milk – before cow milk became widely used in the Emirates, the common cold was unheard of and the move away from camel milk has been blamed for the huge increase in diabetes in the UAE in recent years. Sheep were also slaughtered on special occasions and cooked whole – this tradition is still particularly prevalent among the Kipsi people from the mountains of Ras Al Khaimah, who savour the brains as the best part.
If you’re organising a party and feel like a traditional UAE lamb feast, there are two addresses of key importance. The first is Jamahir Kitchens (04 269 2192) in Deira: as you come out of Shindagha tunnel on the Deira side, pass through one set of lights, head past Dubai hospital and over a roundabout and it’s signposted to your right. You can either buy a whole lamb for Dhs300-400 at Union Co-op (04 394 5999) by Safa Park (choose from Iranian, Indian, Australian and local animals and get them skinned and cleaned there) or buy your beast from Jamahir.
Either way, for a couple of hundred dirhams on top, you can leave the sheep at the kitchens, where it will be cooked as a khouzi on a bed of rice, as a biriani or as a machboos – cooked as a stew, then mixed with rice which soaks up all the liquid. The food is delicious, authentic, and serves around 40 people. If you’re delivering your own meat, you’ll need to allow at least two hours for fresh stuff and five for frozen. You can get much the same deal at Shindagha Kitchens (04 338 5775): head to the Oasis centre, and take the adjacent Shevai Street. Head along to the Capri Sun factory and turn down the road opposite (Sand Street) – next to the Hot Breads store you’ll see the Kitchens.
For Emiratis living by the coast or making forays there from the desert, grilled hammour and Gulf prawns also formed part of the diet. Fresh fish was only eaten at lunchtimes, as by evening it would have gone off in the sun: despite the introduction of refridgeration, this no-fish-at-dinner practice is still observed by most local families. The most vibrant fish market in the UAE is in Al Ain, the suq as samak which, despite being desertlocked, has an extraordinary variety of sealife on offer. As well as fresh fish, you can get hold of salted and sun-dried cheseef, the preserved shark, tuna and anchovies which were widely eaten before the advent of the fridge.
By far the best place to get a taste of Emirati seafood is at Al Dhafra (02 673 2266), an Emirati eatery at Meena Port in Abu Dhabi. It’s right next door to the fishmarket, and serves the freshest, finest char-grilled fish and lobster in town. Pay a flat rate of Dhs109 and load up on flame-cooked hammour, tuna and prawns with plenty of char-edged fresh bread and sweet muhammar rice. You can also try jeshed, a yellow, powdery mix of shark and onions, an unattractive but flavourful dish, and samak magly, a rough-cut fish cooked with bezar, the traditional spice mix of the UAE, and served with tomatoey relish.
It takes a special effort to track down proper Emirati food and when you do it’s not always the taste explosion you might have hoped for. It is however a unique experience – the UAE has one of the few food cultures that hasn’t been exported worldwide and until such time as this simple desert cuisine is globalised (McDango anyone?), the only place you’re going to get to try it is here: spurn your taco merchants, your hummos-pushers and your bolognese, er, bandits, and get stuck into some hardcore harees…•