Convinced that it was not only possible, but preferable to make a meal using only local ingredients, Daisy Carrington put chef Peter Frost, to the test approached Peter Frost with a challenge.
The esteemed executive chef at Nineteen, famous for his take on contemporary European cuisine, was to cook a meal using local produce.
‘What do you think?’ I asked him, to which he replied, with charming honesty, ‘I’m scared’.
But he couldn’t have been as scared as I was entering Géant in the Ibn Battuta Mall one hour before the cook off, saddled with what felt like the impossible task of finding enough UAE-based ingredients to make up an entire meal.
Like most expats, I had long been operating under the assumption that the desert wasn’t the place to try to limit one’s food miles. If I relied solely on local food, I’d starve, my thinking went.
My first week here, I had stumbled into the fruit and vegetable souk in Deira. Peddlers of cabbage and melons soon swarmed around me.
‘Pakistani mangoes?’ they asked, ‘Egyptian watermelon?’ ‘What do you have that’s grown here? In the UAE?’ I ventured. The peddlers dismissed me with a collective wave of the hands.
So, as Géant’s automatic doors slid shut behind me, I said a silent prayer. I decided to hit the vegetable aisle first, assuming it would be the most difficult place to find local goods. Imagine my surprise when I was able to pull together a wealth of local leafy greens. I filled a bag with dill, coriander, peppery white radish tops and a bushel of red spinach. As I ran up and down the aisles, the relief I felt at finding local produce turned into awe. It could be done, and not only that, there were choices. After a while, I realised my shopping basket was getting overloaded, and I found myself actually snubbing produce, deeming cucumbers too boring and tomatoes too run of the mill. I topped off my basket with courgettes, button mushrooms and celery. As I headed to the cheese stand I ventured sheepishly, ‘Do you have any UAE cheese?’ The shop assistant sorted me out with akkawi, a salty Arabic cheese similar in texture to mozzarella.
At the meat counter, I had a choice between beef (where on earth do they keep the cows in this heat?) and goat. I grabbed a hunk of fillet steak, and finished off my shopping excursion with some dates and camel milk. As I left the market, I marvelled at how two big bags of groceries could amount to little more than Dhs100. Chef Frost met me at the entrance of his restaurant, looking a little worried.
‘What do you think I have in these bags?’ I asked.
‘Um, dates?’ I emptied the contents onto his kitchen counter.
After a couple of minutes of careful concentration, he started to move ingredients around, as if attempting to solve some sort of three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. He paired the camel milk with the mushrooms.
‘I’m going to be ambitious and make a soup,’ he announced. The beef, he decided, he’d top with a crust made with the dill, shredded cheese and coriander. To accompany it, he’d make a risotto with the courgettes, dill, celery and camel milk (as well as some leeks and butter – from his own pantry – for good measure). He would use the red spinach and fried radish tips as garnish. For dessert, he opted for a date soufflé.
‘It could all turn out horribly,’ he warned, before setting to work dicing and shredding.
‘When I first arrived,’ Frost admitted, ‘I had the misconception that you can’t get anything here because it’s too hot. But there must be things that grow better in this climate than in Europe.’
As he readied the mushrooms for purée, he picked up the bottle of camel milk and eyed it suspiciously.
‘Ever tried it?’ I asked. He shook his head. ‘What’s it like?’
‘Tangy,’ I replied, ‘and kind of heavy too. You should try it.’
He had one of the waiters bring him a glass and took a sip, then immediately scrunched up his face. ‘It’s all right,’ he said. ‘It starts off sweet, then becomes sour, and you’re right, it’s quite heavy as well. I was just thinking of the camels on the beach, doing what they’re doing,’ he shuddered. This soup might be Frost’s last experiment with camel milk. Or so I thought. ‘We could use it in the permanent menu,’ he admitted. ‘We could use it in a dessert.’
Soon, the food was done, and it was time for a taste test. First up was the soup, which was absolutely delicious. The camel milk’s somewhat tart characteristics paired well with the earthy flavours of the mushrooms, and Frost further enhanced all the ingredients’ main attributes with the simple addition of onions, leeks and garlic.
And, to add to the beauty of the dish, it was not impossible to make at home.
The steak and risotto came next out of the kitchen. The fried radish tops that decorated the plate were a lovely and peppery addition to the whole dish. As the photographer, Frost and I sampled the steak, we all broke out in a frown.
‘Aw, it’s really tough,’ said Frost. And indeed, it was a really chewy piece of meat. Which is a shame, because the cheese crust that topped it was absolutely lovely.
We quickly abandoned the fillet and finished up the risotto, which was buttery and delicious, mainly because it was prepared simply with fresh ingredients. The date soufflé was another clear winner in the challenge, and was demolished in short order.
According to our photographer (a self-described steak aficionado), the moral of the story was, ‘Don’t buy Emirati beef.’ I personally left the exercise with a sense of relief and a deeper appreciation of local food. As for Frost, I think he realised that this country had more to offer in the way of foodstuff than he previously assumed.
‘When I first saw the ingredients, I thought I’d be limited,’ he admitted, ‘but I wasn’t really. It just goes to show what’s possible when you think a little outside the box.’
My humps, my lovely camel humps
Wondering where you can sample some of the UAE’s superfoods? Time Out has the hook up.
If you want to try your hand at cooking camel meat yourself, you can buy the stuff raw at Deira’s Meat Souk (across from the Hyatt Regency Hotel). There, camel meat sells for Dhs20 per kilogram. If you’d rather sample it from somewhere that’s experienced at cooking it, then head to Bin Eid Traditional Restaurant (Al Khaleej Road, Garhoud, 04 266 3644). According to the manager, they’re the only restaurant in Dubai that regularly serves the Bedouin delicacy.
Beef, lamb and produce
Géant (04 368 5858), in Ibn Battuta Mall, is one of the few supermarkets in Dubai that sells local and fresh (as in, never been frozen) meat. Head to the butcher counter and just ask for meat sourced from the UAE. Géant is also diligent about labelling where its produce comes from. Try touring the fruit and vegetable aisles in search of UAE-grown goods. You’ll be surprised at how much you can find.
Got a hankering for homegrown honey? Bee Kingdom (Al Rolla Street, Bur Dubai, near Imperial Hotel, 04 352 2455) stocks the sweet stuff, sourced from all over the Gulf. The owner, Omr, lets you sample his wares before purchasing. While we found Yemeni honey to be the best (the flavour is pungently floral), the Emirati honey, which had a more caramelised taste, was a runner up.
If you want to learn more about dates (and believe us, there’s so much to learn), the best place to start would be the Emirates Dates Showroom (Abu Hail Centre, Deira, 04 269 0629). There, the owner can show you the numerous date products that come out of the Emirates, and give you some background on the humble fruit. Alternatively, just pick up a batch of Emirates dates at your local grocer.