Over one million tourists are expected to visit Dubai throughout the month of March. Sun, shopping and street parties may dominate the plans of these tourists, but they will also be tempted to soak up a little Arabic culture. Where better for them to start than in the wealth of stunning Arabic restaurants on offer in the city.
But where to start?
Arabic menus are daunting, and tourists are terrified that they’ll be eating bulls testicles or goat’s brains if they pick the wrong dish. They couldn’t be more wrong. We have reviewed just a handful of the different types of Arabic restaurants in Dubai, and have done so through the eyes of a Western tourist in an attempt to demystify the cuisine and encourage tourists and expats alike to indulge.
You won’t be disappointed. Dining Arabic style is not just about eating. Live music and singing are an integral part of the experience. Voluptuous belly dancers woo crowds of men with their intoxicating gyrations. Conversations amble deep into the night amid the curling smoke of sheisha pipes. These aspects of Arabic socialising are part of a lifestyle. Perhaps the food is secondary in importance to the rest and we shouldn’t be surprised that the cuisine hasn’t changed much over several decades. In Western cultures, diners focus all their senses on the food and ambience of a restaurant, whereas here the bowl of hummus is merely an accessory to the rest of the package. The style of service, particularly in Lebanese restaurants, is highly structured and hierarchal, and generally quite serious. (Entertainers entertain, and waiters wait). This has been carried over from generation to generation and, like the food, there is little variation.
Arabic food is a melting pot of many influences, but here in Dubai the Lebanese influence is the greatest. This is largely due to geographical proximity and the logistical ease with which produce from Lebanon can be imported into the UAE. The produce that comes from Lebanon (which together with Syria and Jordan makes up the fertile crescent) is the best in the region, and the food served in restaurants in Lebanon itself is renowned for its vital freshness. Because the dishes are all so simple and are made from just a few ingredients, the quality of the ingredients directly affects the final product. It is refreshing to find a cuisine that so clearly reflects the best of local produce. Unlike a lot of western cuisines that have adopted and modified favourites from other gastronomic cultures, Arabic food shows only small regional variations.
There seems to be no direct relationship between the calibre of the restaurant itself and the quality of the food and the entertainment. We found that sometimes the expensive restaurants with luxurious furniture served food with muted flavours, in an attempt to please a wide audience. While the food served in the haunts with garden chairs and plastic tablecloths had punchy flavours and rustic authenticity. The best way to gauge how good the food is going to be is to get a peek at the chefs; Lebanese chefs undoubtedly produce the best Lebanese food.
Arabic sweets are divided into two clear categories. There are those that would be prepared and eaten in the home, which are predominantly simple milk based puddings. Then there are the huge array of pastries available in sweet shops that are intricately created by master craftsmen. Once you have seen them at work you develop a much greater appreciation for the confections themselves. Sugar syrup and nuts are every baker’s friends and are used liberally in most preparations.