The food truck craze drives into Abu Dhabi, with a local twist on the trend. Liz Totton speaks to Shaikha Al Kaabi, founder of Meylas, the capital’s (and the UAE’s) first Emirati food truck, and finds the meals are worth the chase.
The newest craze on the Abu Dhabi food scene is not five-star or over-the-top and glamorous. It is instead, elusive, mobile and served from a car window. Once you find it though, you will be glad you did. The Meylas food truck serves up traditional Emirati cuisine at undisclosed locations around the capital. Shaikha Al Kaabi, owner of Meylas, is always on the roll – and she might be on a street near you.
Shaikha’s ambitions go far beyond the truck. ‘The idea for Meylas started a few years ago. I realised that many expats living here had never tried authentic local food, and some have been residents in the UAE for a very long time. When I asked them what is their favourite Emirati dish, most would answer hummus, tabbouleh or fattoush, which are not Emirati, but Middle Eastern regional foods. I’m determined to correct this. I am very proud of and passionate about Emirati food and culture, and I want everyone to taste it.’
Shaikha explains that although people were coming from all over the world to attend events such as the Formula One, very few people tried Emirati cuisine. ‘I think more people would if there were more restaurants to serve them. I hope that Meylas will fill this void. The food truck is the perfect way to spread the message about what I am doing… fast.’
Mobile food trucks have been around for years in the US, serving reasonably priced fast food to workers on construction sites. The gourmet food truck resurgence was driven by the recession. The construction business suffered a slowdown, which led to a surplus of food trucks. At the same time chefs from high-end restaurants were being laid off. Suddenly, many experienced cooks were without jobs and opening a food truck seemed a clear choice. For many chefs, it became their passion. Food trucks helped them return to their culinary roots and have offered them creative license.
Chef starring Jon Favreau recently glamorised the food truck phenomenon. In the film released this year, Favreau’s character, an artistically driven chef, loses his job and opens a food truck as an alternative to opening a new restaurant and having to compromise his vision to obtain funding for it.
The film helped to open people’s eyes to the possibility of eating delicious food straight from a van. There are around three million food trucks roving the streets of the world, serving up everything from dim sum to Maine lobster.
The UAE has been slower to jump on the bandwagon due to strict health and safety regulations and a lack of awareness, but Meylas hopes to change this. It debuted at Abu Dhabi Art and has since been sighted at twofour54 Media Zone, Masdar City and at large National Day events. Shaikha is working tirelessly to bring the food truck sensation to the capital. She someday hopes to see a city square filled with them, like those in the US.
Meylas is a local expression that means a place to gather – akin to a living room. Shaikha’s mission is, first and foremost, to bring people together around local cuisine, and like other successful food vans before it, social media is playing a key role in the popularity of the Meylas mobile restaurant and in helping patrons track it.
Does this mean food trucks could be the new trend in Abu Dhabi? Shaikha hopes so. Though for now, the bureaucracy surrounding serving food on the go in the Emirates makes the process of becoming a mobile restaurant prohibitive. Shaikha is determined to help break down these barriers, and judging by the social media buzz surrounding Meylas, we predict that it won’t be long before gourmet meal vehicles rove the UAE’s streets.
Meylas can be tricky to catch, but once you do, you will be rewarded with fantastic Emirati cuisine as well as the pleasure of supporting a local businesswoman with big dreams and a mean legimat recipe.
Find the Meylas food truck on Instagram: @meylas. Meylas restaurant is opening soon in Al Muneera, Al Raha Beach. Visit www.meylas.com for more details.
Emirati food glossary
Legimat: sweet, fried dumplings similar to doughnuts that are drizzled with a tasty date syrup.
Khameer: Emirati bread often eaten with honey and cheese.
Rgaag: thin, light, crispy bread used for wrap-style sandwiches.
Batheetha: traditional dessert made with date paste, flour and ghee.
Food trucks in Dubai
The first of the frenzy in Dubai came from this catering company, which serves its food at events from a retro van.
The gourmet burger van was recently launched by a French surf fan (actually called Eric), with plans to expand into more vans, serving a variety of cuisine offerings, under the mother-company The Food Truck Dubai.
Following the #findsalt campaign on social media, this gourmet burger van is now fairly permanently moored at Kite Beach until further notice.
Vida Downtown Dubai Food Truck
As the trend moves from indie to mainstream, even hotels are getting in on the act. You’ll find this new food truck by the Downtown hotel parked outside The Pavilion, on Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Boulevard.