Guy Dimond, Time Out London’s Food & Drink Editor, was a recent guest at our annual Restaurant Awards. Whilst here, he took the opportunity to go out in search of his real passion – authentic Indian food. It was a mission that yielded some surprising results, and even more unexpected locations.
‘Closed, sahib’, said the gatekeeper. Nosy foreigners aren’t normally encouraged to explore the labour camps of Sonapur, the guest-workers’ settlement on the outskirts of Dubai. Built in the desert to house labourers – many of them from the Indian subcontinent – this chequerboard of dun-coloured concrete boxes – called Oud al Mateena by Emiratis, but renamed ‘Sonapur’ (‘City of Gold’) by its Indian inhabitants – has often been a source of controversy; stories of overcrowding and low pay among the construction workers have often surfaced in the press at home and abroad. But I’m not here to describe the crowded rooms I saw, the communal squat toilets, or the dusty, teeming streets. I’m here to eat.
My guide, Mohammed, used to live in Oud al Mateena when he first came to Dubai from Tamil Nadu in south-eastern India 16 years ago. Now, his cousin works here as a labour camp supervisor. We find the right compound and it’s all smiles and handshakes as they show me around. The conditions at this particular labour camp are better than I was expecting; I’ve lived in worse myself. But then I used to work on a rural development project in India, where there was no clean running water, no electricity, no shops selling fresh food, and – worst of all – no medical care, all in a region rife with tropical diseases. Here in Sonapur, these particular Tamils have air-conditioning, lots of clean water, medical care, laundry facilities – and a good canteen that’s open from 4am until 12.30am.
I’m surprised to find no idlis (steamed rice cakes), masala dosas (crisp pancakes), or gently-spiced sambhars (thin vegetable curries) on offer, as these are the staple breakfast dishes of south Indians; though I’m told they can be made ‘on request’. There’s not even a south Indian wadai (fried snack) for a homesick worker to nibble on.
Instead, the canteen dishes are generically ‘Indian’ – that is, north Indian. So instead of rice – the staple of the south – the breakfast carbohydrates come from parathas (fried wheat-flour flatbreads, two for Dhs1.5). Animal protein comes from ‘meat’ curry (‘meat’ usually meaning mutton at Dhs4 – you won’t find beef or pork on this menu), while vegetarians (which many practising Hindus are) settle for the vegetable curry at Dhs3. Hindus do not consider eggs to be a vegetarian dish, so the egg paratha – fried egg wrapped in a flatbread – is classified as non-veg.
The food’s pretty good, and it’s not something I’d object to eating every morning. It’s simple, tasty, and very cheap. At lunch the canteen menu expands to rice with curries – fish curry is popular – while the dinner menu serves more sophisticated dishes such as pepper chicken, mutton, chicken masala, chicken tikka, dahl, chapatis. Dinner costs around Dhs7-8. Ingredient costs are kept intentionally low, as a monthly wage might be less than Dhs800 – so already half the wages go on food (the accommodation is free).
I notice groundnut oil is used for cooking, instead of the more expensive ghee (clarified butter) that many Indians prefer the taste of. But since groundnut (peanut) oil is far healthier for the heart, this particular economy is arguably a good thing.
We head for the nearby Madina supermarket, the focal point of this part of Sonapur. The shelves are stacked with dozens of types of dried dahls (pulses), spices, woven sacks of rice; there’s a fresh meat counter and a fresh fish counter. Many guest workers prefer to shop here and then cook their own food at their compound’s facilities, taking their packed lunches to work in the shiny, stainless steel stacking containers called tiffin tins.
There are even mid-morning bus services which collect these lunch boxes and distribute them to the various building sites so that the food doesn’t spoil in the morning heat (the day-shift workers we spoke to start at 7am or 7.30am, work until 10.15am for a 15-minute ‘breakfast’, then around noon have a one-hour lunch break; their working day ends at 3.30pm).
I’ve seen a similar tiffin tin system before – in Mumbai, where a century-old logistics system employs thousands. The tiffin-tin lids are colour-coded with painted markings that even the mostly illiterate dabbawallahs (lunchbox delivery men) can understand. The markings ensure the dabbas don’t go astray on their path from housewife’s kitchen or favoured café to the office and back again. Every day, around 200,000 lunch boxes are still transported on trains, bicycles, hand-carts and yokes in this way. The urban myth is that the dabbawallahs never lose a tiffin.
With rooms too small to sit in or entertain guests, and the narrow-laned compounds filled with lines of drying laundry, it’s perhaps not surprising that many of Sonapur’s workers prefer to eat out. Next to the Madina supermarket in Sonapur is Arif restaurant, a humble café with white-tiled walls that is the focal point of the area in the evenings, attracting hundreds of young men who gather to chat on the forecourt outside. Unlike the canteens of the labour camps, Arif’s café is open to anyone – though they did look a little surprised to see a white-skinned foreigner. They stop staring once I got stuck in, eating with my right hand, in the Indian way (Indian caffs invariably have sinks and running water where you wash your hands).
Arif’s menu is verbal, not written: parathas, channa masala (chick pea curry), keema (minced mutton or lamb), and addictive Indian chai (sweet stewed tea made with condensed milk and sugar) which I miss from my visits to India. Around us, as everywhere in Dubai, there is chatter in Tamil (from Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka), Hindi (the principal common language spoken northwards from Mumbai), Malayalam (from Kerala in the south-west of India), and other languages I can’t even identify. A light meal for Mohammed and myself at our glass-topped table comes to Dhs7.75.
The food’s good, but there’s something about Sonapur which makes me think of prisons. Then it dawns on me – there are no women or children, anywhere. The city of gold is also a city of bachelors. Thanking Mohammed for his help, it’s time to head into central Dubai and the metropolitan bustle of Al Karama, one of the districts where Indian families settle.
At last! Now this is more like Mumbai – dozens of budget restaurants to choose from in the backstreets off Trade Centre Road, covering all the regional styles from Keralite to Punjabi, plus a jostle of people of all ages and types. The café that makes me most nostalgic is the Mumbai-stye chaat (snack) house called Bombay Chowpatty. The system is familiar: counters facing the street allow you to order the mixtures of bhel poori you fancy, for takeaway or to eat inside the small, air-conditioned dining room next door.
‘Bhel poori’ describes a type of dish popularised by the stall-vendors of Mumbai’s Chowpatty Beach, which was then adopted by (much more sanitary) cafés all over Colaba and other central districts of Mumbai. Most types of bhel poori contain variations on a theme: some deep-fried, yellow-coloured crisps called sev made from gram (chick pea) flour, puffed rice, dahi (thick yoghurt), whole chick peas or diced potato, and with a watery, but very piquant sour-sweet tamarind sauce. My papdi chaat is just one of many classic recipes, and the tastes and textures of the dish transport me back to Mumbai’s heat, noise and pungent smells. To drink? Jal jeera, the cold drink that looks and smells like pondwater, conveniently hidden inside a lidded Coca-Cola container; it’s an acquired taste. Jal jeera’s fetid aroma comes from the black salt spice that many Indians consider to have a cooling effect in hot weather. Cost of one dish and a drink, for one person? Dhs9.
Around me, Indian families and tables of business-wallahs are lapping up the masala dosa, uttapam (like a rice-based ‘pizza’) and pav bhaji (pronounced ‘pow’, pav is the European-style bread roll introduced by the Portuguese to Goa as ‘pão’; ‘bhaji’, rather confusingly, is a spicy vegetable curry). These snack dishes might be accompanied by chikoo shake (chikoo is a sweet fruit popular in India that’s known as sapodilla in its native Mexico), or a fresh juice such as sugarcane from the Bombay Chowpatty juice and sweet parlour right next door. For me these were once the tastes of home; and for hundreds of thousands of South Asians working in Dubai, they still are.
From Raj to riches
Dubai has the one of the best selections of ‘Indian’ food (from the subcontinent) anywhere in the world; the only non-Indian city to top it is London. From the cafés of Karama and Satwa to the astonishing layered spicing of dishes in the city’s finest hotel restaurants, Dubai has brilliant Indian food at every price level – as long as you know where to look. Here are a few favourites. Guy Dimond
Good for various chaat such as bhel poori. The dining room is very basic, but it’s clean and very cool.
Bombay Chowpatty, in the lane opposite Spinneys, Trade Centre Road, Karama (04 396 4937). Meal for two with soft drinks: around Dhs25.
This Satwa institution is at its best in the late evenings (food is served until 2.30am), when you can sit outside at the pavement tables and savour rustic Pakistani dishes such as haleem (a ‘porridge’ of wheat, lentils and mutton) and nihari (lamb shank in a spicy gravy), all served with flatbreads hot from the oven. It’s not a slick place, but the cooking’s top-notch.
Ravi, between the new mosque and Satwa roundabout, Satwa (04 331 5353). Meal for two with soft drinks: around Dhs45.
The setting is a Sheraton hotel, but within this palace to new wealth is a secluded corner evocative of a Moghul court. The cooking is also Awadhi-style, i.e. originating from the courtly cooking of Lucknow in northern India; the layered flavours of this type of cooking are a revelation.
Ashiana, Sheraton Dubai Creek, Deira (04 228 1111). Meal for two with a glass of wine each: around Dhs400.
Winner of the Time Out 2008 Award for the Best Indian restaurant in Dubai, The Bombay serves stand-out north Indian dishes – accompanied, of course, by live traditional Indian music.
The Bombay, 1st floor, Marco Polo Hotel, Al Muteena Street, Deira (04 272 0000). Average price of a meal for two with glass of wine each: around Dhs300.