Middle Eastern eats in Dubai

As Gulfood rolls into town, see where to get local cuisine Discuss this article

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The seemingly innumerable hotels and restaurants in Dubai are just one sign that food and hospitality is big business in this city. The second is the annual frenzy that surrounds Gulfood (www.gulfood.com). The industry-only event, which takes place at Dubai World Trade Centre on February 19-22, will draw an estimated 62,000 people from across the world.

Trade visitors will be treated to 100 international pavilions and 3,800 exhibitors showcasing the latest innovations and products covering everything from food and drink to hospitality and beverage equipment, and even processing and packaging. Together they paint a picture of an increasingly complex and competitive industry that will keep Dubai going long after the last drop of oil has been drained from the UAE. In celebration of Gulfood (and food in the Gulf), we thought it was time to take a look at the intricacies of regional food, and its reputation in this age of culinary innovation.

One of the most difficult aspects when discussing food is the vague categorisation so liberally attributed to regional cuisine. While labelling food by its origin is necessary (not to mention practical), there’s a tendency to overlook the diversity within a region. For example, ‘Chinese’ food is never just noodles, and ‘Indian’ (despite what many Brits may say) is so much more than chicken tikka masala.

The ‘Middle Eastern’ label is perhaps the most misleading, because it refers to dishes from numerous countries spanning several continents (‘MENA’ is another problem altogether, because it brings North African cuisine into the equation). Yet for all Middle Eastern cuisine’s geographical diversity, the majority of us are only familiar with staples such as hummus and baba ganoush.

This, according to Ewaan head chef Mokhtar Elkholy, is largely to do with the expectations of visitors to the region, who will order more predictable dishes as a result of their limited exposure to Middle Eastern cuisine in their home country. This means many people overlook treats such as date ravioli (a marriage of Arabic and Mediterranean traditions) and traditional Arabic seafood stew (a nod to the Middle East’s rich seafaring heritage).

Chef Mokhtar also points out that Middle Eastern cuisine’s diversity isn’t simply a result of geography, but also religious influences. ‘One thing to remember,’ he says, ‘is that Islam is not just reflected in daily prayers and chores, but also in the dining habits of people in the region. Halal cooking [exemplifies this].’

In Dubai, Mokhtar feels there has been a conscious effort made by some Middle Eastern venues to serve more traditional dishes, in an attempt to maintain the identity of local cuisine. On the other hand, it’s inevitable that Middle Eastern food here will evolve in keeping with the city’s cosmopolitan tastes.

Mohammad Jammoul, sous chef at Khaymat Al Bahar at the Madinat Jumeirah, believes that the aim of many local chefs is not to create complex variations of traditional foods (as their European counterparts have done in the past). Instead, he explains they prefer to fine-tune their technique for better, more delicious results – which, incidentally, seems to be the current trend in Europe.

The uniqueness of Middle Eastern cuisine comes from the simplicity of the combination of ingredients,’ explains Mohammad. ‘Instead of reinventing the dishes to create new and contemporary Arabic cuisine, the secret is to fine-tune the techniques to produce amazing Middle Eastern food.’ Here we recommend four less ‘mainstream’ Middle Eastern dishes, and three places to try them.

By Oliver Robinson
Time Out Dubai,

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