From the caveman-inspired paleo diet, to liquid-only juice detoxes, increasing numbers of the world’s healthy eating and weight-loss focussed philosophies are taking off in Dubai. Two such principles particularly big in the health-hub of California and now spreading their wings right here in the city are raw and vegan dining. While the concept behind each is very different, these two eating styles are often offered hand-in-hand.
In the past year, the number of raw-vegan dining concepts in Dubai has grown significantly enough to spark something of a trend. Following the launch in 2013 of Comptoir 102’s café (which serves a raw-, vegan- and macrobiotic-influenced menu), Lafayette Gourmet welcomed the opening of Bestro, a standalone eatery with a strictly raw-vegan policy. And now, celebrity chef Silvena Rowe has brought two new outlets to the emirate (with several more impending): café-deli Omnia Gourmet in Jumeirah and signature fine-dining restaurant Omnia by Silvena on Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Boulevard. Both offer raw-vegan recipes, alongside more conventional cooking on the menu.
‘A meat and cheese eating diet takes more work and energy for the body to digest. In nature we are hunter-gatherers and foragers. This means we wouldn’t be eating six different types of animal in one day,’ begins chef Sati Faulks, a raw-vegan specialist and visiting consultant at Comptoir 102. ‘Most serious illnesses stem from what we put in our bodies, so it’s just logic,’ he continues. ‘If you eat an animal that has been stuffed in a cage, lacks sunlight and vitamins, and is fed corn and soy all its life, do you really think that is going to benefit you more than some fresh veg that has been growing in soil under the sun? Aside from individual health there is also a global ecological factor; the meat-eating carbon footprint is double.’
According to chef Silvena Rowe, it was relocating to Dubai (from London) that first sparked her interest in raw and vegan principles. While she asserts that she is still a ‘carnivore chef’ (and as such her menus continue to reflect a mixture of omnivore recipes) raw and vegan inspired dishes have become an increasingly significant signature for her, especially on the dessert section. For Silvena, her interest in local ingredient sourcing became a gateway to raw food. ‘I just took it upon myself to start investigating, supporting, eating and cooking with locally sourced ingredients, first of all. Even when I do chicken, it is local Al Ain chicken, when I use burrata, it is locally produced in the UAE.’
Impressed by the quality of locally grown fruit and vegetables in the here, which she describes as ‘delicious because they are drenched with sun’, raw dining became an attractive means to showcase the quality of these local, organic products, in their natural and un-tampered state. ‘It’s also about being creative,’ she adds, ‘and the lushness of the raw ingredients. When you cooked it, this lushness is gone.’
‘Raw dining is complicated. I’m not talking about salad. It is about creating food that is raw, but when you eat it, it is so delicious, as if you have cooked it. Cooked food has delicious flavours, because it has been put through certain processes, or lots of oil, butter and cream has been added to it. So, the challenge with raw food, is to create a dish that has all those qualities, but has not been cooked, because otherwise all the minerals and fresh qualities are lost.’
Having studied raw food principles for the past 12 months (ahead of opening Omnia Gourmet) chef Silvena has discovered several techniques that change the texture or the flavour of ingredients, mirroring the effects of traditional cooking methods, but without applying heat. Examples include de-hydration, soaking and extraction of liquids. ‘You can also use sous vide,’ Silvena explains (a method of preparing food in a temperature-controlled water bath), ‘But even then, this can be controversial. For example, with my pressed watermelon, it is marinated, then we sous vide it, and it becomes very different, almost like a gelatinised sugar cube.’
Raw food avoids chemically processed and pasteurised ingredients and, as such, is also typically free of gluten, refined sugars and transfats. ‘I don’t use chemical substitutes for sugar, which are dangerous. I use dates, honey, maple syrup and agave. I also don’t use fats such as butter or ghee in my cooking. All I use is occasionally olive oil in my dressings. I also use nut and seed butters and avocado, which contain fats, of course, but those oils are very good for you,’ says Silvena.
While the raw-vegan trend is only hitting Dubai’s eateries now, it already has a strong following in America’s dining capitals of LA and New York. ‘The difference is that the scene in New York City is established, settled, and you don’t have to seek it out, you can run into it.’ says Emma Sawko, co-founder of Comptoir 102, who is responsible for the in-house café, and was previously based in New York. ‘Here in Dubai it’s at the very beginning, but as more and more people become aware, it’s really starting to grow fast. Of course, when I first came here to Dubai, I could not find anything. That is part of why we opened. Aside from Comptoir 102 there are only a few places where you can find this food, although more and more are popping up all over Dubai.’
So why Dubai, and why now? The consensus seems to be climate, combined with an attitude of openness and a reaction against existing, unhealthy eating trends. ‘It’s in its infancy but rapidly maturing’ says chef Sati. ‘When I arrived in Dubai, my first thought was this reminds me so much of LA: driving, hot, big cars and people are excited for new things, really open to ideas and progress.’
For Silvena Rowe, Dubai’s general health is a key factor. Dubbing her raw menu section ‘raw to glo’ (‘because it makes you look younger and healthier, gives you clear eyes, glossy hair and radiant skin’), she tells us that her own persistent health problem with high cholesterol has been dramatically reduced over a year of introducing vegan and raw eating into her diet. ‘I set out to do it because of the diabetes problem here, I thought, if I create an alternative, it is healthy, but people don’t have to deprive themselves. There has been a very big culture of poor fast food here, for many years, Dubai has been saturated in this. I think, now, Dubai is rebelling, I really do.’
And rebelling with aplomb it seems, as Emma Sawko reveals she has yet another new raw-vegan-inspired concept planned for Dubai, still currently under wraps. ‘It’s the perfect place for this,’ Emma concludes ‘It’s hot, sunny, creative and progressive. This type of food is ecologically friendly, no processed foods, no bad fats, its everything Dubai needs right now. Globally we need to recover from the fast-food craze that has damaged the world and acknowledge that food matters.’
Comptoir 102, Jumeirah Beach Road, opposite Beach Centre (04 385 4555). Omnia Gourmet, Al Souk, Jumeirah Fishing Harbour 1, off Jumeirah Beach Road (04 343 7181).
The skinny on Dubai’s diet trends
Clinical dietician Juliot Vinolia gives the lowdown on the latest food trends.
What is it?
Total elimination of animal foods. It is believed that meat is intrinsically unhealthy, as high intakes lead to high uric acid levels and also to colon cancer.
What are the benefits?
When also nutritionally adequate, vegan diets are largely proven to be disease preventive. Short term benefits include reduced BMI (if not weight loss at all times), improved bowel habits, lower bad cholesterol, reduced risk of stroke, heart disease and colon cancer.
Some studies have found a vegan diet can lead to protein deficiency, anaemia, decreased quality of lean muscle mass and menstrual disruption in women who undertake increased physical activity. Certain nutrients are more easily available to the body from animal derived foods (Vitamin B12, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium and Vitamin D). Going vegan three days a week offers the effect of an alternative day fasting.
What is it?
Cooking destroys the antioxidants and enzymes in food, and chemicals alter certain components, which could be toxic to the body, like carcinogens, heterocyclic amines and turn fats into transfats. The raw diet consists of uncooked, unprocessed, organic foods.
If heated, this should not exceed 48°C, but food can be dried, soaked, sprouted, blended, ground etc.
What are the benefits?
There aren’t many studies to support raw food, but short duration studies have shown a raw food diet helps reduce cholesterol, inflammatory factors and helps weight loss which could be attributed to the high fibre, low fat and antioxidant rich diet.
When followed for three days, it offers a detox and cleanse to the intestines. There are studies that pin point adverse effects, when practised [strictly] for more than 21 days, such as unhealthy weight loss, nutritional deficiency, lowered metabolism, food poisoning (when taking meat, fish and dairy products in their raw form) and disturbed bowel habits.
iCARE Clinics, Oasis Centre ( 04 384 7272). Other locations: Discovery Gardens (04 452 2242), Lamcy Plaza (04 709 2900).