Food blogger Arva Ahmed takes us on an eating tour of Old Dubai
Dubai, in particular Old Dubai, is awash with authentic street eats from across the Middle East and India. Despite generally being very affordable, this style of eating can be inaccessible for those outside of the relevant culture. Where should you go to eat authentic Yemeni cooking? What should you order? And how exactly should you eat it?
Having lived in Deira since 1989, food, specifically old Dubai street food, is blogger Arva Ahmed’s passion. Arva has been running her blog, I Live In A Frying Pan, since May 2010. Hitting on a novel way of introducing others to her backstreet finds, the 29-year-old Indian expat launched Frying Pan Adventures in January 2013. The concept involves Arva guiding Dubai visitors and residents on a walking tour through a selection of well researched eateries in Old Dubai, along a particular regional theme, with plenty of eating pitstops at which to try signature dishes from these cuisines. For now, the themed tour itineraries include Arabian Foodie Pilgrimage, Little India on a Plate and North African Food Safari, although there is also an option to ‘cook up’ your own private tour. While the Arabian Foodie Pilgrimage doesn’t include Emirati food, Arva tells us she plans to introduce a standalone Emirati tour, with local guides at the helm.
With summer looming, the days of pleasant walking weather are almost numbered. Wondering how this will affect Arva’s tours, she tells us her standard tour programme will take a break during summer, with the possibility of introducing two new styles of tour suited to the season. One will eschew the issue of walking in the heat with a ‘mobile tour’, where guests will be transported from restaurant to restaurant. The other will be an iftar tour. Taking place during Ramadan, Arva plans to guide guests through dishes traditionally eaten by people across the Islamic world to break their fast during the Holy Month.
With April marking one of the last chances for walking-friendly weather, we decided to join Arva on the Middle Eastern Foodie Pilgrimage.
Joining the group on Muraqqabat Street in Deira, we’re surprised to learn that the rest of the tour are almost exclusively tourists. There is Dubai resident Anne from Germany (she has been on Arva’s tour before and has brought along her parents this time), husband and wife Irhgard and Andreas from Austria and Italy respectively, and lone traveller Herman from Norway. Herman tells us he’d expected to find much of Dubai more like the older districts, and has been surprised that authentic Arabian food is not ubiquitous, nor easy to find.
Dishing out a goodie bag complete with a glossary of dishes and map of Dubai, Arva explains a few logistics of the tour, including her philosophy of ‘pacing’. There will be, she explains, a lot of food to eat during the evening, and in order to pace ourselves and appreciate it fully, she will explain what ‘percentage’ of fullness we should ideally feel at each stage.
This follows our first pitstop of the night at nearby Sultan Dubai Falafel, further down Muraqqabat Street. We cram inside this tiny counter space to watch the cook preparing fresh falafel using a vivid green chickpea paste, made with parsley and coriander. It’s made with a small gadget that allows the cook to flick the patties into the fryer once ready. These falafel are stuffed with a little chilli paste and, as is Arabic tradition, Arva tells us, we are invited to try a free falafel while waiting for ours to be prepared.
We head outside and take a seat at the venue’s sister restaurant, Palestinian eatery Qwaider Al Nabulsi. Here we eat the falafel, which are beautiful (among the best we’ve tasted), with an exceptional freshness to the crisp yet soft texture. Arva gives us a choice between Palestinian mosakhan (a dish of chicken layered over bread), which is considered the country’s national dish and a great source of pride, or Jordanian mansaf. The latter, goat meat and rice cooked with preserved yoghurt called ‘jameed’, sounds intriguing and we’re curious to try it. Yet we are fairly convinced that the group will not opt for this more unusual-sounding dish, so we’re surprised when the vote is unanimous for the mansaf (Arva reveals that her tour groups almost always choose this more adventurous dish). It is a simple and pleasant concoction of tender meat and buttery rice, with soft, sweet fresh cheese flavour flowing through it. We also try kanafa, a famous dessert eaten across the region: it’s made with semolina noodles to create a crunchy topping over either cream, or, in this case, a stringy chewy fresh cheese similar to melted mozzarella.
Next we walk to nearby Al Samadi Sweets, which specialises in baklava, and where Arva’s parents have been taking her since she was a little girl. Here, Arva shows us the purse-shaped ka’ak bread, which the Lebanese stuff with kunafa and syrup for breakfast. We try several varieties of baklava, including flaky flowers of filo stuffed with a cashew-nut paste, and karabij sweets topped with natef, a meringue-like cream made from the roots of the soap wood tree.
Our next stop is Breakfast to Breakfast on Al Rigga Street, a location that Arva warns us may look like a fast-food chain, because that’s exactly what it is. ‘I want you just to trust my instincts,’ she tells us. The venue specialises in street-food favourite manakish, using a dedicated bread oven, with the snacks served sizzling and dripping straight from the oven. We try a vibrant and tangy zaatar mix, and one with cheese and sujuk, a traditional Armenian beef sausage, seasoned with sumak that is made fresh in-house at this venue.
Arva has evidently unearthed this information through extensive research – not only does she test the menus thoroughly before adding them to her tour, but she also has an impressive knowledge of food history and customs, and she shares a wealth of knowledge on Arabic food terms and ingredients.
It’s soon time to move on to Yemeni mandi restaurant Al Tawasol on Abu Baker Al Siddique Road. Here, we pass through the male-only section at the front and head into our own secluded and tented majlis area, where we sit on the floor as we await instruction. Arva orders two traditional dishes with chicken and rice: mandi, which is cooked in a tandoor-like underground oven, and mazbi, prepared in a barbecue style, giving the chicken skin a smoky flavour. By this stage, guidance on percentages aside, we’re already starting to flag from all the food we’ve been nibbling for the past two hours, but the experience of Al Tawasol is perhaps the most impressive for visitors to Dubai.
Arva teaches us how to tackle these dishes with our hands, explaining the traditional Arabic method of eating rice, which involves using the three fingers of the right hand to roll it into a ball. She also explains her preferred method, which is more in keeping with the Indian style.
Finally we head to Iranian venue Abshar on Al Maktoum Road, finishing with the most complex cuisine in the region. Here we try several dishes, including a beautifully jewelled mix of saffron rice and barberries and kashk badmejan, a delicious paste of eggplant and rehydrated, preserved whey. Most exciting, however, is the ‘stone bread’ freshly fired over loose stones, which gives it an incredible, dimpled texture.
Now, in terms of percentages, we’re at about 250, but it’s been delicious, informative and thoroughly worth it. Dhs350 per person for a four-hour tour, including food and soft drinks. See the website for dates and timings. www.fryingpanadventures.com.
Three street eats to try
Arva Ahmed from Frying Pan Adventures shares her favourite street foods from around the globe.
Za’atar and cheese manousheh ‘A Levant-style pizza where bubbling hot akkawi cheese courts a forest-fragrant za’atar mix, perfumed with thyme, sesame seeds, ground sumac berries and olive oil. It’s traditionally eaten for breakfast, but I often sneak in an order for a midnight snack.’
Feteer meshaltet ‘Folds of flaky Egyptian pastry tossed, layered and baked to a crisp. It’s the only time I condone the use of processed Kraft cheese. I order it as a creamy, salty partner in crime with chicken and olives for lunch, or with honey and icing sugar for dessert.’
Dahi puri ‘One of the most addictive Indian street foods. Crispy globes of deep-fried dough are filled with sprouts and potatoes, splashed with sweet dates, tamarind chutney and salty yoghurt, and garnished with chilli powder, cumin, coriander and crunchy gram flour noodles.’