Eat your way around India

We bypass butter chicken to find Dubai's best traditional Indian food

Tandoori chicken at Delhi Darbar
Tandoori chicken at Delhi Darbar
Dosas at Sukh Sagar
Dosas at Sukh Sagar
Paneer tikka at Gazebo
Paneer tikka at Gazebo
Malabar fish fry at Calicut Paragon
Malabar fish fry at Calicut Paragon

With the exception of India itself, there are few places in the world that serve better Indian cuisine than Dubai. The city houses an enormous Indian population and countless restaurants serving dishes from all across the vast nation. So in order to understand a little more about Indian cuisine – and try to move out of our chicken-tikka comfort zone – Time Out highlights a few regional favourites and recommends a few choice restaurants that specialise in northern, eastern, southern and western Indian delicacies.

North India
Tandoori chicken
There’s nothing like biting into a succulent, tender leg of tandoori chicken – a north Indian staple, and deservedly so. The chicken is marinated in yoghurt and seasoned with a brilliant mix of spices: garam masala, cumin, cayenne pepper, ginger and garlic are all typically used, with lemon juice often added for a zesty kick, before the meat is cooked in a tandoor, or a clay oven. Red never looked so good.

Where to try: Delhi Darbar
As well as succulent tandoori chicken, Delhi Darbar specialises in a number of north Indian delights. We’re rather partial to the rogan gosht.
Za’abeel Road, near Karama Post Office, (04 334 7171)

Punjabi chole
Head to any wayside dhaba on the roads of North India and, aside from the usual tandoor suspects, you’ll find this vegetarian delight. Punjabi chole, essentially chickpeas in spicy tomatoey gravy, is meant to be hot. You’ll find onions, garlic, ginger, chillies and tomatoes in this thick broth, spiced with turmeric, red chilli powder, garam masala, cumin and coriander. Mop it all up with a ‘batura’ – a puffy fried bread that’s made with flour, yeast and yoghurt.

Where to try: Gazebo
A stalwart of Dubai’s Indian dining scene, Gazebo has long been a favourite of locals and expats alike. Other than the punjabi chloe, try the Pudina paneer tikka, the palak paneer maki or tomato chettinadu – all are highly recommended.
Opposite Lamcy Plaza, Oud Metha (04 335 7151)

South India
Malabar fish fry
You may have seen ‘meen varutharacha’ (fish fry) listed on the menu of many a South Indian restaurant and wondered about its complexity, yet in reality it’s ridiculously simple to make. Mix some ginger and garlic paste, red chilli and turmeric powder, pepper, lime juice and salt to create a fine paste. Cut incisions into a piece of fish (kingfish or pomfret will do nicely), rub it with the spice paste and set aside for half an hour to 45 minutes. The secret, however, is shallow frying the fish in coconut oil.

Where to try: Calicut Paragon
This Keralite gem in the heart of Karama also serves delicious crab malbari curry, and a starter of crab pepper fry. Other highlights are the moilee curries, which feature light, coconut milk broths. We love the prawn version – the crustaceans are huge and taste so delicious that they’re clearly deep fried.
Opposite Lulu Centre, Karama (04 335 8700)

The French have crêpes; the Indians have dosas. The batter is made from rice and urud dhal (white lentils), which has been soaked overnight and then wet-ground to create a relatively thick, creamy batter. And while it’s rare that you’ll find chocolate hazelnut spread slathered generously on a dosa, this Indian creation instead competes with spicy savoury options. South Indian restaurants will serve them paper thin and crisp (and often as long as the table itself), with choice dips. Yum.

Where to try: Sukh Sagar
As well as dosas, we’d recommend the subzi humjoli – a vegetable fritter that comes with a rich tomato and spinach gravy.
Trade Centre Road, Karama, (04 323 7012)

East India

The beautiful state of Orissa in East India offers delicious cuisine, with dalma considered to be one of the most popular. This lentil and veg curry isn’t as spicy as you’d imagine. It traditionally includes ‘toor dhal’ and a medley of seasonal vegetables including potatoes, squash, aubergines and raw bananas, flavoured with chillies, ginger and coconut. What gives this dish a kick is the famous pancha phutana mix of spices, namely cumin, mustard, fennel, fenugreek and kalongi (also known as nigella, these are small tear-shaped onion seeds).

Where to try: Madhuben
East Indian food is notoriously difficult to find in Dubai, though this innocuous restaurant does serve a selection of dishes from the region.
Piccadilly Hotel, Bur Dubai (04 222 2113)

Hilsa curry

Locally known as ilish, the fish is very popular with Bengalis and whether steamed, fried or grilled, it’s lip-smackingly good. Hilsa fish with mustard seeds is a popular curry and generally involves copious amounts of green chillies – well, if you can’t handle the spice, it’s best to stay out of the Indian kitchen.

Where to try: Zaika
Zaika is one of your best bets to head for hilsa dishes. Also try the creamy daab chingri. There’s also rumblings that some east Indian dishes will be added to the new menu at Indego by Vineet. Watch this space!
Zaika, Al Murooj Rotana, opposite The Dubai Mall (04 321 1111)

West India

Seafood, coconut milk and rice are the main ingredients of Goan cuisine, influenced by the region’s time under Portuguese rule, and sorpotel is the one meat dish that celebrates the best of both flavours – Indian for its generous use of spices in its sauce, and Portuguese because it contains vinegar, which is uncommon in other parts of the subcontinent. The whole dish works beautifully.

Where to try: Casa De Goa
Honouring its Indian and Portuguese culinary roots, Casa De Goa’s dishes are predominantly seafood-based and this is where the restaurant excels. Kick-start your appetite with a tawa fish tikki starter and follow with the moreish kingfish masala fry or Goan prawn curry.
Palm Beach Hotel, Khalid Bin Walid Street, Bur Dubai (04 393 1999)

Vada pav
This fast-food snack from Maharashtra is one of our absolute favourites. It’s almost like a mini Indian burger, featuring a spicy, deep-fried potato patty sandwiched between a thick, square-ish bun. What makes it a little more interesting is the tangy, spicy sauce that’s generously slathered over the filling. If you want a real, authentic experience, we dare you to bite into the fried salted green chillis that are served on the side. Go on, you know you want to…

Where to try: Bombay Chowpatty
Also try the ‘vegetable frankies’ – mashed veggie cutlets wrapped in thin roti with spicy chutneys and sliced onions generously drizzled on top. The classic bhel puri is another standout, with just the right combination of puffed rice, vegetables and chutney.
Trade Centre Road, Karama (04 396 4937)

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