The inaugural International Fine Food Festival lands in Dubai later this month, with organisers hoping it will become an annual part of the city’s food calendar. At the four-day festival, which kicks off on Tuesday October 30, the philosophy of fine food promises to be entirely gourmet, but with an emphasis on local and ethical concerns. Visitors to the IFFF will be able to try dishes and samples, as well as buy ingredients to take home with them. Visitors can also head to the ‘amuse bouche’ area, where junior chefs, aged under 21, will be competing by preparing micro-dishes for visitors to sample and vote for their favourites.
Reservations for the pop-up restaurant will be released ahead of the festival and are likely to sell out quickly, and visitors to the festival need to sign up in advance, so we thought we’d give you an early heads up so you don’t miss out.
The focal point of the event will be the Golden Toque Middle East competition. Chefs will be challenged to source ingredients from the festival’s ‘posh picnic’ exhibitors’ area before cooking a three-course menu, which will be served to guests in the pop-up restaurants. Visitors will have the chance to dine out on these competitively conceived dishes while the chefs’ labours are judged by a panel of prestigious foodies including British pastry chef Claire Clark (who has received an MBE from Queen Elizabeth II for services to the culinary arts), Michelin-starred chef Kevin Viner and local cookbook author Ariana Bundy.
Organiser Claire Tinston, the brains behind Dubai’s IFFF, says the event aims to boost awareness and communication between producers, distributors and consumers. ‘I wanted people to understand that gourmet fine food isn’t about the price,’ she explains. ‘It’s about the provenance: where does it come from?’
Claire moved to Dubai two and half years ago, having lived in Kent in the UK, an area dubbed ‘the garden of England’ thanks to its long-standing agricultural community. Initially, Claire assumed Dubai couldn’t possibly offer the locally grown produce and farmers’ market she had become used to in Kent. ‘Before I even arrived, I had this perception that it would all be processed food, and nobody would be growing anything,’ she reveals. Through extensive research, and by coming into personal contact with other food lovers in Dubai, Claire made two realisations: first, that there was an exciting and emerging local and organic food scene in Dubai, but it was bubbling away under the surface and had to be sought out. Second, she assumed there must be others like her embarking on their own similar food-focused searches. ‘People were talking, but in small groups. So I thought the logical thing is to bring everyone together.’
By cutting out the Chinese whispers effect, the IFFF has already managed to bring Organiliouz, a small, family-run Emirati organic farm, in contact with Oak Leaf European, an internationally respected importer of fruit and vegetables, which has been able to close the gap between this local supplier and the supply chain at Middle Eastern hotels. ‘It’s amazing to have an international company helping a smaller company to achieve their goals,’ says Claire.
At the festival, she says visitors will be able to experience ‘total engagement with food’, meeting with exhibitors such as Royal Culimer, ‘a responsible company’ that is partnered with the WWF, and provides sustainably sourced fish. There will also be the chance to meet local Emirati-run businesses such as Klayya Bakery and Sweets.
Visitors will also have the chance to taste the wares of local gourmet shawarma company Wild Peeta. It’s run by two entrepreneurial Emirati brothers, Peyman and Mohamed Parham Al Awadhi, and Claire has been impressed by their innovative, local and accessible food philosophies. ‘Everything about Wild Peeta is something we should aspire to: they source locally as much as they can.’ The brothers source their spices from Deira’s Spice Souk, making regular trips to the souk every few weeks.
To illustrate the importance of this local philosophy, Time Out joined Claire, Peyman and Mohamed on one of these spice-buying trips. The brothers are shopping for items such as green tea, cardamom and baharat (an Emirati spice mix, used at Wild Peeta to make a Khaleeji curry-style sauce for the shawarmas).
Mohamed tells us these spices will usually keep for up to four years, provided they’re stored in cool, dry conditions, but suggests it’s a shame to stockpile spices for this long when access to a facility such as the Spice Souk makes it possible to buy good-quality spices in small quantities on a regular basis. ‘Today, China, India and Iran dominate the spice market as suppliers,’ Mohamed tells us. He adds that the UAE has, over time, become a hub of this trade thanks to its central, global position for import and export around the world.
More unusual items on offer at the souk include chia seeds (Iran’s answer to the bubble tea tapioca pearl, and a fashionable new superfood), samg (a hardened tree sap, ground with rock sugar to make a ‘really smooth, tasty pudding that’s good for male virility’), and mastic (a natural resin that can be chewed, like gum, as a natural toothpaste). Also sold everywhere in the souk is fenugreek. ‘If you don’t have fenugreek at home, you should,’ says Mohamed. ‘You can make tea from it, and it’s good for everything – chest infections, stomach upsets, cholesterol and kidney stones.’
Many items at the Spice Souk, notably saffron, are cheaper by weight than at the average supermarket. However, it is the quality that draws most gourmets here, rather than the price, which can fluctuate wildly depending on shipments and how ‘in the know’ the vendor perceives you to be. Haggle if you suspect you’re not getting the best bargain.
Mohamed and Peyman are particularly impressed by the freshness of the products. ‘Look at this nutmeg,’ Mohamed tells us. ‘You can see the great thing about spices is that they shine, from the oils in there. In the majority of spices you see sold in the supermarkets, the oils have completely dried out.’
Similarly, of the three varieties of cardamom Mohamed shows us (sourced from India and Guatemala), he emphasises the freshness, comparing the dull colour of supermarket pods to the vibrant green of those sold here. Despite this, we’re surprised to hear that the quality of Indian cardamom that makes it to Dubai isn’t consistent, because ‘the good stuff goes to the domestic market’. Looks like India has the right idea – that’s just one of the advantage of buying and eating locally.
The International Fine Food Festival takes place on October 30- November 2, 10am-8pm. Entry is free, but pre-registration is advised. Meydan Grandstand, Nad Al Sheba, www.ifffestival.com (04 455 8653).
More from the IFFF exhibitors…
Down To Earth Organic
Managing director Lokesh Aswani
Food philosophy: ‘We believe in organic, fair-trade food that is responsible towards the grower, the environment and the consumer. We want consumers to make a choice to make the planet a better place.’
Inspiration: ‘I studied agriculture and wanted to do something with a conscience. Organic food was where my ethics and industry training met.’
What will you be selling at IFFF? ‘Our organic, gluten-free, fair-trade and chemical-free food.’
Down To Earth Organic, Sheikh Hamdan Complex, Jumeirah 1 (04 386 3391).
Managing director Riah Hamed
Food philosophy: ‘Our vision is driven by a love of raw, unfiltered Yemeni honey. We aim to educate consumers about its amazing medicinal properties.’
Inspiration: ‘The love of Yemeni Sidr honey, and the lack of quality, diverse honey available in the marketplace.’
What will you be selling at IFFF? Our range of Yemeni honey. We also have the ‘Balqees Dessert Honey Challenge’, where chefs will create desserts using honey from our range.’
Balqees Honey Boutique, The Dubai Mall (04 325 0666).
Founder Punit Bhatia
Food philosophy: ‘Simple, natural products using minimal ingredients to maximum effect. We sell high-quality artisan products that respect tradition created over generations.’
Inspiration: ‘The love of good food.’
What will you be selling at IFFF? ‘The specialist ingredients we’ve sourced, such as La Tourangelle truffle oils, organic argan oil and organic falafel chips.’
Gourmet Point also exhibits at the Ripe farmers’ market. The Courtyard, Al Quoz (04 380 7602).
Founder and CEO Obid Bin Ghubash
Food philosophy: ‘We want everyone to understand the importance of local, organic produce.’
Inspiration: When my wife got pregnant, I wanted her to eat the healthiest food. I researched nutrition and realised the importance of local, organic food – it’s fresher and better for your health.’
What will you be selling at IFFF? ‘Fresh produce grown locally on our own farm.’
Organiliciouz is stocked at Baker and Spice, Souk Al Bahar (04 427 9856).