We take a culinary tour of Old Dubai in search of sustainable seafood
Penelope Walsh rises early to embark upon food expert Arva Ahmed’s new tour, Food Lover’s Morning March, which winds through the fish market and uncovers Old Dubai’s undiscovered kebabs.
Readers, at Time Out Dubai we like to think we can and will do some pretty incredible things in your honour. We can’t walk on water, but with issue having something of an underwater theme, with the help of Frying Pan Adventures, we bring you an underwater (and at certain points, over water) walking tour. Sort of. The first time Time Out Dubai had the pleasure of traipsing (and nibbling) our way through Old Dubai’s backstreets with local food blogger Arva Ahmed, was because the old town enthusiast had launched Frying Pan Adventures, the guided food tours company. We still fondly remember the rose-scented sweets, fragrant zaatar manakish, Palestinian falafel (with a secret centre) and so much more sampled on that Arabic eating odyssey. It is hard to believe that was nearly two years ago.
Since then, Frying Pan Adventures has grown in strength, becoming something of a family project too, as Arva has enlisted her sister Farida to take on, and put her own stamp on, the Indian culinary exploration. The next big development for Arva, however, was the introduction of a tour focused on seafood sustainability in the emirate – a passion and conviction shared with Time Out Dubai. Arva has ploughed close to a year’s worth of research into bringing this fish-themed tour to fruition. After research, returning to the drawing board and sifting through some fairly confusing common assumptions on the subject, this sustainable expedition has now launched as the first chapter of a seven-hour Old Dubai tour called the Food Lover’s Morning March.
Arva’s morning march begins bright (and much earlier than we’d usually like to face-off with a foot long fish) at 8am. The tour group (which swells in numbers once we hit the optional, later start time of 9am) is around 12 people. Aside from Time Out Dubai and our trusty food-loving photographer, the rest of the group is made up of tourists from New Zealand, France, Australia and America, as well as a handful of Dubai residents who have brought their visiting friends along for the outing.
The first stop of the day is the Shindagha Fish Market – Dubai’s largest and longest-running market of its kind, which opened in 1988. Despite our desert-focused image abroad, Arva is quick to begin the tour with an explanation of the longstanding importance of fish in the UAE. Dubai, she tells us, is the highest consumer of fish in the GCC. Since the earliest evidence of our fish-eating past are hammour bones found off the islands in the UAE, dating back to the fifth millennia BC, this is no new dietary development. Fishing has been a key industry activity in the UAE for centuries, yet our fish stocks have dramatically declined – by approximately 80 percent. This is widely attributed to the UAE’s growing population. However, Arva makes a startling point that there are thought to be further issues, such as gargour (a type of steel mesh net, commonly used in the region) left dormant in the sea. Should this be the case, these nets are continuing to catch fish that no one is trawling for consumption.
First off, Arva gives us an insight into traditional desert preservation methods for fish, by showing us the ‘maleh’ section of the Shindagha market. This is the Emirati word for salted, preserved fish. In this section, there are (nearly) metre-long species that have been preserved in this way. It is a queen fish, the vendor explains, particularly popular among the Sri Lankan community.
Of the fish from UAE waters, 46 percent, Arva says, are from off the coasts of Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah. Shellfish found at the market, such as crab and prawns, are typically from Omani waters. Holding out a plump, palm-length king prawn, Arva reveals that key techniques to determine whether it’s fresh include looking for a clean white colour on the flesh of the belly (anything that has become greyish ought to be avoided) and ensuring that the head is still fully connected to the body. Finally, a gritty feel to the skin is a good sign that it has recently been pulled from the ocean.
Arva uses a traffic-light coded booklet of fish species, provided by the EWS-WWF Choose Wisely campaign (to promote sustainable fish choices in the Emirates), to help illustrate to the group the fish displayed at the market that are red (i.e. overfished and advised against), and green (considered to be sustainable choices). Her tactics for flagging which marks and colours denote which species are especially useful when it comes to some of the more confusing options. For example, there are four different types of ‘emperor’ fish, she says, so which is the sustainable species? Shaari eshkeli (or pink ear emperor), Arva points out, has a little strip of pink just behind the gill, and this is the green option to go for.
Reassuringly, Arva tells us that Dubai Municipality has a regular presence within the market, ensuring traders follow rules relating to health and safety, as well as sustainability. These rules include the size and length of fish that are allowed to be sold. This has particular relevance for species such as hammour (also known as orange spotted grouper), which is thought to have been heavily overfished. Consumers are advised to avoid it where possible. To be within the requirements, hammour must be more than 35cm in length. At one stand at the market, we see huge, half-metre-long hammour. The biggest, Arva remarks, she has seen at the market in some time. However, in a basket by their feet (fresh out of the sea, still wriggling and flapping their gills) are some much, much smaller fish, also being sold as hammour.
The problem with hammour, Arva reveals, is not simply overfishing or fishing of juveniles. We are fascinated as she reveals that the fish are effectively transformative hermaphrodites. That is to say, they begin life as females and later in life, transform into males. Consequently, with this species, fishing of juveniles is put into an entirely different context: it’s not just removing the next reproductive generation, it’s removing large quantities of one gender.
Tucked away, inside the Al Ras complex behind the market, Arva shares a secret with us. Inside the Grill and Shark Restaurant is an Egyptian chef named Shakir, who, Arva says, will cook up your catch from the market (an excellent idea for understanding how to prepare your new seafood purchases yourself at home). There is no seating in this restaurant, but for an extra Dhs5, you can sit down to eat your fish in the next door Keralan canteen. However, this is not what is on offer on today’s breakfast menu.
After the fish market, it’s onto an abra – traditional wooden boats that criss-cross the Creek from Deira to Bur Dubai. We’re off to Bur Dubai where the morning continues with a breakfast stop at cultural café Creekside. Sitting outside, enjoying the views of the glistening Creek, we bump into local celebrity chef Silvena Rowe. Inside, we indulge in Emirati-inspired recipes such as French toast with fresh berries, hickory-smoked date jam and sour pomegranate syrup; ‘rgag’ scrambled eggs with black truffle and tarragon butter and a ‘posh beith temat’, a spicy, soupy poached egg dish with saffron tomato sauce and chami-yoghurt.
Recharged by an early morning black truffle hit, it’s back onto the abra and back across the Creek to Deira’s spice souk. Here, with the aid of ‘spingo’ (Arva’s spice souk version of bingo), we walk and smell our way through the different oddities on offer, from the most premium saffron (from the very tip of the stamen stem) ‘sarghol’, through to a pint-sized shrub known as the flower of Maryam, which is thought to help ease the pain of childbirth, and mineral compound alum (aluminium sulphate or ‘shabba’ in Arabic), which has both antibacterial and fairness-enhancing properties and can be used as a natural deodorant.
Ready for a coffee after this feast for the senses, we head to heritage district Al Fahidi to explore Dubai Coffee Museum, the first UAE exhibition space of its kind. Here, coffee-expert extraordinaire and museum founder Khalid Al Mulla offers a fact-packed tour of coffee culture past and present. At this point, we are happy to rest our tired legs in the company of the Egyptian barista, who makes some astonishingly good Turkish coffee.
The final stop of this adventure takes us for a late lunch. As we travel to the furthest corners of Dubai to a top-secret location on the border with Sharjah, Arva leads us to a hidden-away spot for Iranian kebabs. Seated on the floor around our plastic tablecloth, we indulge in skewers of meat, ripped off the metal onto flatbreads with our hands, stuffed with fresh and fragrant locally-grown salad leaves (a milder cousin of the spring onion), dipped in yoghurt and devoured happily.
At the very end of the day, as Arva asks seven-year-old Kiwi tourist Molly what her favourite part of the day was, she replies, ‘the kebabs’. And Arva responds with our personal quote of the day, from an excellent experience, ‘Ah, a woman who knows her kebabs, is the very best kind of woman.’ Food Lover’s Morning March: Dhs475 per person (including all meals, transport and refreshments) for a seven-hour tour from 8am (or optional six hours, excluding the visit to Shindagha Fish Market). www.fryingpanadventures.com.