Exploring the Emirati food scene

Dine local: What to cook and where to try it in the city

Musabbeh Al Kaabi
Musabbeh Al Kaabi
Amna Al Dhahery
Amna Al Dhahery
Al Fanar
Al Fanar
Laylati Café
Laylati Café
Mama Tani
Mama Tani
Klayya Bakery and Sweets
Klayya Bakery and Sweets

Ahead of the first Emirati food championship, Penelope Walsh finds out what to cook and where to try it in the city.

Sometimes, unearthing local and authentic eating options is a struggle when relocating to another country. Yes, the UAE is awash with the cooking of the wider Middle East. Moroccan, Iranian, Levantine food are all in attendance here, but aside from the odd Yemeni mandi spot, the food of the Gulf is underrepresented. And Emirati food is even harder to find.

In a bid to change this, and aiming to show and promote the extensive culinary heritage of the nation, the first ever Dubai Hospitality World Championship will take place this week, from Saturday November 16-18 at Dubai World Trade Centre.

Operating under the directive of His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of the Dubai Executive Council, the event is organised by Zabeel Palace Hospitality and while it welcomes chefs from across the globe, it will also feature a dedicated Emirati championship, serving as a spotlight on Emirati chefs, home cooks and food products.

Open to UAE nationals, the Emirati chapter of the event features four categories: professional (with 112 teams of professional Emirati chefs, from all seven Emirates), amateur (which challenges the next generation of home cooks, between 15-25 years of age), the Emirati home-made dish category (which judges the creation of authentic Emirati dishes) and the Emirati home-made and innovation product category (aimed at promoting entrepreneurial food businesses).

The event marks a far reaching and comprehensive way of promoting a passion for the nation’s food, aimed at seeing this translate into the retail and restaurant market in UAE. For Amna Al Dhahery, a UAE national from Abu Dhabi and one of the organisers on the Local Championship Committee for Dubai World Hospitality Championship, the subject of Emirati food has been close to her heart for some time. Now working for the Jumeirah group, during her studies for a hospitality degree, Amna explains that her dissertation was on the subject of why there is no Emirati cuisine in the UAE. Involved in promoting Emirati food at last year’s Gulfood exhibition in February 2013, Amna tells us how this came under the notice of Zabeel Palace Hospitality. ‘They took an interest in this and wanted to take action to promote the food further,’ she says.

‘[At the championship] international teams of chefs are coming from 12 countries around the world. This will promote our food because they will be with us for the three days, cooking our food and watching what our chefs are doing.’

Is it fair to say Emirati food is underrepresented in Dubai? ‘It’s not represented,’ Amna says. ‘We are representing other cuisines [in the UAE], Lebanese, Chinese cuisine, but we are not promoting our own cuisine, which is really rich. In planning this event, we put together a list of 96 dishes that are part of the Emirati cuisine, from salads, main courses and desserts. You wouldn’t believe it if you saw the list. You only really need four dishes to be recognised.’ she jokes. ‘If you go to the UK you’ll find English food, in France you’ll find French food. But you can’t find Emirati restaurants. There is one, Al Fanar in Festival City. We need to teach the new generation.’

We venture, that perhaps Emiratis would rather eat new and different food when they dine out, rather than the same dishes they can get at home – after all, do you go to restaurants to eat food you can cook yourself at home? But Amna doesn’t agree. ‘Emiratis want to eat their own food in restaurants. What is needed is an authentic, home-cooking style representation of the cuisine, ‘like your grandmother used to make’.

The problem of the lack of Emirati restaurants is partly due to the lack of Emirati chefs. ‘The Arab society doesn’t necessarily see this job as appropriate, especially for a man. Some people don’t accept it. Look at chef Khulood Atiq [author of Emirati cookbook Sarareed], she had to work really hard to be known.’

Amna does believe this attitude will eventually change, however. ‘Now we are getting the support from the government. We don’t mind [non-Emirati chefs] cooking Emirati food, but we need Emirati chefs at the same time,’ she says.

Traditional vegetable salona

One of the very few Dubai-born chefs, Musabbeh Al Kaabi, Executive Oriental Chef at Jumeirah Zabeel Saray, shares a recipe.

400g potatoes
300g baby marrows
30g chopped red onion
3g chopped coriander
200g chopped tomato
1g black peppercorn
3 chopped garlic cloves
2 dry lemons
80ml local ghee
4g local spices
1g turmeric powder
1 cinnamon stick
1500ml water
3g tomato paste
0.5g cardamom

Heat the local ghee in a round pot and sauté the onion, garlic and tomato.
Add the black pepper, local spices, cinnamon stick, turmeric and cardamom.
Mix all together, and gradually add the water, potato and baby marrow.
Add the tomato paste and leave to cook.
Finish with chopped coriander and dry lemon.


Khanfaroush is a sweet treat that is very typical to the Gulf region, often served on special occasions. This recipe comes from chef Khulood Atiq’s bilingual cookbook, containing 80 traditional Emirati recipes, entitled Sarareed.

6 tablespoons of rice flour
2 tablespoons of white sugar
3 tablespoons of sugar
8 eggs
3 to 4 tablespoons of rose water
1 teaspoon of cardamom powder
½ teaspoon of saffron
1 teaspoon of baking powder

Mix all the ingredients together and leave the mixture aside for 30 minutes.
Heat the oil in the frying pan and add enough to cover the bottom of the pan.
Use a spoon to pour the dough into the oil in the shape of small cookies and fry them on both sides until they brown.
Place the cookies on paper napkins to absorb the excess oil.
Serve hot with coffee.

Where to try...

Contrary to popular belief, there are in fact some interesting Emirati eateries in Dubai, the problem is there’s just not enough of them! Here’s our picks for local cuisine.

Al Fanar
Cute, kitsch and quirky, the vintage ambience and theme park worthy decor at this canal-side Emirati restaurant is just as worthy of a visit as the menu, which is packed with classics. A hot spot to take visitors to.
Dubai Festival City Mall, Canal Walk Festival City (04 232 9966).

Bait 1971
Bait Al Bahar is a multi-concept townhouse, popular with the local crowd, and with the ambience of an exclusive yet accessible secret find. The middle level is dedicated to a more formal dining and traditional Emirati restaurant.
Bait Al Bahar, Offshore Sailing Club, behind Jumeirah Beach Road (04 394 4441).

Klayya Bakery and Sweets
A Time Out Dubai favourite, Klayya charms with its young, fresh and forward-thinking reimagining of classic Emirati breakfast dishes, a great cup of karak chai and freshly baked breads and sweets. Highly recommended.
Barsha Mall, Al Barsha (04 325 5335).

Laylati Kitchen
Although Laylati Café is a reasonably longstanding Emirati option on the scene, it stills slides under the wire and seems to be little known. Head here for a classic selection of Emirati dishes.
Hyatt Regency Dubai, Deira (04 209 1234).

Local Bites Café
The latest addition to a scene that has (proportionally) grown considerably in the past year, this casual dining spot is a fun and funky-designed café, serving Emirati bites.
Jumeirah Beach Road (04 338 5855).

Mama Tani
Another sign of fresh ideas triggering an emerging Emirati scene, Mama Tani serves Emirati khameer breads, stuffed with any manner of sweet, savoury or bespoke fillings, but with a touch of modernised flair. You
can even get hot drinks made with camel milk.
Town Centre Mall, next to Mercato, Jumeirah Beach Road (04 385 4437).

While not fine dining, Milas makes Emirati cuisine modern and accessible for diners, with plenty of other classics from across the region supplementing the menu, excellent service and even a touch of dining theatre with a final course of perfume to finish the experience.
The Dubai Mall, Downtown Dubai (04 388 2313).

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