When my little girl, aged two, bit into an apple bought at our local supermarket and proclaimed, ‘It’s a potato!’ I thought she was just being cute and getting her words muddled. Then I took a bite myself and realised that, actually, she had a point. The mushy flesh under tough-as-old boots skin did, in fact, taste more like a potato – and a rather dubious one at that.
It wasn’t the first (nor the last) time we’ve been disappointed with fruit and veg bought at Dubai supermarkets: bananas that stay green forever or turn black before you’ve dragged your trolley back to the car, nectarines that lure you in with peachy perfection but would be better suited to careers as cricket balls, baby new potatoes that resemble goats’ droppings in both appearance and texture, and don’t even get me started on remortgaging our home for a punnet of sour strawberries. No, the relationship between our household and supermarket produce has not always been a happy one.
So when Yael Mejia, a food consultant who advises Baker & Spice Dubai on where to get its fresh, local produce, offered to take us on a tour of Deira’s fruit and vegetable market and the neighbouring fish market, we were, well, champing at the bit. The Souk al Bahar restaurant has earned itself a reputation for offering real food, made from quality, fresh ingredients all sourced from within the Middle East region, so myself and four Time Out Kids readers were keen to get a few pointers and some new, healthy ideas for feeding our families.
We arrive at the rather civilised hour of 9am – Yael assures us there’ll still be plenty of the good stuff to be had, although during the hotter months, it’s best to get there bright and early when the market opens at around 4am (eek!). We’re immediately struck by the colours: The mums ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ as we stroll through rows of verdant mint, coriander and rocket, vivid purple aubergines from India, coral grapefruit from Turkey, blood red spinach leaves, lime green guavas from Egypt and ruby tomatoes from Jordan. ‘The region has some stunning agriculture,’ explains Yael. ‘We all know nothing grows in Dubai, but places like Oman and Iran are simply amazing because they haven’t succumbed to industrial agriculture.’
None of the produce found here will carry an ‘organically approved’ stamp but, given agriculture in the region is largely made up of subsistence farming, it is unlikely to contain nasty pesticides and chemicals that might plague foods from further afield.
‘Have you ever stopped to think about what you’re buying?’ asks Yael, a no-nonsense operator who is passionate about healthy, tasty grub. ‘You insist on buying apples in August. It’s not the season for apples. Those apples, if you’re wondering why they taste horrible, are quite possibly months old.’ The mums look at each other in horror. ‘Don’t worry, you’re not going to die eating it, but what’s going to taste better: a fresh apple, or one that has been engineered to have a longer shelf life in the supermarket? And, if you’re worried about what you’re feeding your kids, then apples that have been in storage then flown thousands of miles in an aeroplane are certainly not going to have the same nutritional value as fresh products. Think about it.’
Yael convinces us that we should concentrate on produce that is in season – the way our grandparents did back in ye olde foodie days of yore. Urging us to find out where the food is from – ‘if it’s from Australia or America or somewhere else thousands of miles away, don’t touch it with a barge pole.’ She also wants us to feel, smell and taste the produce before we buy. ‘Pick it up and look at it. A vegetable will tell you if it’s fresh or not.’
Let loose to go shopping (we’re taking a few ingredients back for the Baker & Spice chefs to whip up into something tasty) the mums are like whippets out of a trap.
‘This is amazing,’ grins mum-of-two Caroline. ‘There’s such a limited choice at the supermarket. I often stand there with my trolley thinking: What am I going to buy? Here there is a wonderful selection of fruit and veg – I’m spoilt for choice.’
‘I can’t believe the colour and the quality,’ agrees Navin. ‘I’m inspired. I think I was suffering from boredom in the kitchen, but now I want to rush out and buy a recipe book and try out new salads and vegetable dishes on my husband and two girls.’
Already laden with enough fruit and veg to satisfy all our five-a-day requirements for a week, we pick up some sparkling, fresh Omani sardines (a bargain at Dhs5 a kilo and, as Yael says, ‘brain food for kids’), and pop in a handful of blue crabs, also from Oman. Catherine, a great believer in getting the kids involved in shopping and preparing for meals, loves the hustle and bustle of the fish section and will definitely bring her boys to visit. ‘My two would love this,’ she says. ‘They enjoy the fish counter as much as the aquarium.’ Catherine’s eldest, like many kids, went through a picky phase. ‘I regained his interest by taking him to the shop, letting him choose a few items, put them in the trolley, and help me chop them when we got back home. He’s not yet four but he loves to be in the kitchen, and he now eats like a horse.’
Georgia, who has three kids living at home and another two at school in Germany, agrees visiting the market would be a fun and educational day out for the whole family – as well as a highly productive shopping trip. ‘What’s great is that you can teach the kids about where food comes from. They’re getting a cooking lesson, a geography lesson and learning about the environment,’ she says. ‘Plus it’s far more interesting than lugging your trolley around a supermarket.’
We haul our purchases back to Baker & Spice, eager to gather a host of new recipes for our delicious, fresh ingredients. After all, isn’t creating tasty, nutritious meals bursting with vegetables and fruits that our kids wolf down with gusto not every parent’s holy grail? Pens at the ready, we try in vain to keep up with Yael as she reels off scrummy-sounding concoctions such as aubergines and slow-roasted tomatoes with feta cheese, beetroot and carrot salad, roasted cauliflower and grilled sardines. We plea for her to go slower but get short shrift. ‘You’re wasting your time writing it down,’ she sighs. ‘Today you make it like this, tomorrow you throw in something else. It changes all the time. Don’t be afraid to experiment.’
We give up, sit back with a large pomegranate juice (freshly squeezed from market fruit, naturally) and wait for our lunch of herb salad, fresh tomatoes, roast potatoes, pumpkin and crab – all locally sourced and cheap. When it arrives, little over 15 minutes later, it’s simply delicious – the ‘simple’ being as important as the ‘delicious’. ‘My kind of fast food,’ laughs Georgia.
As Yael says, ‘You don’t need to muck around in the kitchen for hours to create great food. If you’re buying fabulous ingredients, you have to do a lot less to make it taste good.’ Quite.
• The Deira fruit and veg and fish markets are open daily from around 4am until 3pm, but don’t think about going after noon as all the best produce will be long gone
• During the summer months, you need to get there as early as 4am or 5am as the heat quickly takes its toll
• Don’t be afraid to barter or walk away if you think the price is too high. There are plenty of stalls to choose from
• A man with a trolley is happy to follow you around, carry your purchases and take you back to the car. Let him help, and don’t forget to give him a tip
Deira fruit & veg market, near the gold souk, Baniyas Road, off the Deira corniche. Baker & Spice, Souk al Bahar (04 425 2240).