Here in the UAE you can get your hands on almost any ingredient at any time of year, irrespective of season or distance. Alaskan snow crab, Chilean sea bass, Floridian oranges, fresh chanterelles, Russian caviar - you name it and with time and a credit card, it can all be yours.
However, the secret to great cooking and fabulous food is shopping with the seasons; knowing when food is at its best and being able to take advantage of the crops at the peak of perfection. Get to know your suppliers. Haunt the markets. See, smell and taste everything you can, and never be afraid to ask questions. It is a rare butcher or baker who won't have time for a chat about what's good today, and market stallholders are always good for a friendly word.
Dubai has undoubtedly blossomed in this respect, and there are now a number of very high-quality speciality shops where you can find those unique ingredients that elevate a good meal into a great one. The secret is knowing where to look. Here are a few of my favourites. Go to alpha.'s Facebook page and share your own discoveries too.
Finding a reliable butcher is essential for every chef. You need a kindred spirit who understands what he sells, knows how to look after it and respects the animals it came from. They are few and far between, so when you find one, support him! Try these:
Prime Gourmet: in the unlikely setting of a corner unit in Emaar's Gold & Diamond Park near Interchange 4 you'll find this gem. All its meat (mostly prime Black Angus and Wagyu beef) is certified, Australian and very good indeed. www.primegourmet.ae or call 04-341-5445
Butcher Shop & Grill, Mirdif City Centre, Mall of the Emirates and JBR. It focuses on beef and steaks, mostly sourced from South Africa where the chain originates. It also has some interesting alternatives - ostrich, chicken and lambburgers and sausages for your grill or braai. www.butchershop.co.za or call 04-347-1167
Park & Shop on Al Wasl Road in Jumeirah is something of an expat institution, and the butchery section has had an excellent reputation for years. Definitely worth a trip. Call 04-394-5671
FRUIT & VEGETABLES
For the best choice and cheapest prices, the Farmers' Market on the Terrace is the place to go at weekends. Visit on Friday mornings outside Baker & Spice at Souq Al Bahar and Saturdays on the Marina Promenade. There's a great selection, cut fresh that morning and it offers excellent value for money. Also check out Ripe Market at the Garden Centre in Abu Dhabi (Fridays) and Dubai Garden Centre (Saturdays).
Wafi Gourmet (Wafi Mall and Festival City) usually has an excellent display of fresh and regional vegetables with an emphasis on Middle Eastern ingredients such as fresh vine leaves and desert truffles. It's also one of the few places where you can buy fresh borlotti beans, green almonds and apricots. www.wafigourmet.com or call 04-324-4433
Serious cheese aficionados will need to look no further than the Cheese Room at Jones the Grocer on Shaikh Zayed Road. This is a must-visit destination for all fans of the fermented curd. It has the finest range of cheese in this city. Perfection doesn't come cheap though. www.jonesthegrocer.com or call 04-346-6886
Carluccio's is another option, one with an obvious focus on cheeses of Italian origin. Fantastic Parmesan. There are several locations around the city, including Dubai Mall and Dubai Marina Mall.
Another option is the wonderful Made In Italia, a Sharjah-based maker of Italian-style cheeses and importer of all things Italian. Its products can also be found at Ripe and other farmers' markets. www.madeinitalia.co or call 04-431-8981
Mention must also go to Milk & Honey, the gourmet grocer with one outlet on Palm Jumeirah and another in the Meadows Town Centre (with a dedicated cheese room). It brings in speciality products from all over the world, so if there's a particular ingredient you want, this is a great place to look. www.milkandhoney.ae or call 04-432-8686
Prego's at the Media Rotana Hotel in TECOM offers Italian cheeses, antipasti and charcuterie. www.rotana.com/mediarotana or call 04-435-0000
Dubai is blessed with an abundance of fantastic breadmakers, mainly of the French and Lebanese traditions. Check out the fabulous goods at Paul bakeries and cafés across the city. Founded in 1889 in France, the chain now has branches across the Middle East.
Crumbs Elysée Café de Provence offers up a spectacular range of fresh bread and delicious pastries. It's located on Shaikh Zayed Road near Jones the Grocer. Call 04-346-8899
Pascal Tepper has a spot in Media City with a retail shop and a bistro. It even offers deliveries and catering. www.pascaltepperfrenchbakery.com or call 04-454- 2408
Raw Coffee, Dubai's only 100 per cent Dubai-roasted, organic, fair-trade coffee company is a must - find it in the Dubai Garden Centre. www.rawcoffeecompany.com or call Kim at 050-553-6808
While you're there check out its range of deli foods as well. There are lots of interesting pastas, huge jars of olives, tuna in oil and flavoured salt. My tub of smoked salt for Dh20 was the bargain ingredient of the year!
There is a long and noble tradition of honey collection throughout the Arabian Peninsula, and a number of distinct varieties can be found in Carrefour's Shindagha branch. Here, you'll find what look suspiciously like old Vimto bottles filled with intensely dark, sweet and flavoursome local honey, often gathered from the wild. Omani and Yemeni honeys are also available and are almost black in colour. You'll also find honey in traditional markets like the one in Dhaid. If you visit Global Village, the Yemeni pavilion has a huge selection - plus you can sample them all.
So-called date honey is also widely available and is a fabulous ingredient for sweetening sticky cakes and puddings. It technically isn't honey, but a sweet syrup pressed from the ripest dates. No bees are used in the making of the nectar, so it's ideal for vegans.
No little black epicurean book would be complete without a spice merchant, and my best new discovery in this city is the team at Down To Earth Organic Food, and its new shop in the unlikely setting of the Sheikh Hamdan Awards Complex, opposite the Union Flag in Jumierah. Do find it - its organic spices, rices and herbs are some of the finest and freshest flavours you'll find in this city. www.downtoearthorganic.ae, or call 04-349-7371
Sometimes the best ideas come from discovering and trying things you've never tasted before. Where you find those are part of the joy of exploration, of wandering into many of this city's specialist food shops just to see what's on offer. Here are three suggestions:
Downstairs at the Grand Hyatt Hotel is the Panini Italian Café and Deli, an Italian treasure trove of fresh baking, pastas, cheeses, olive oils, truffles, sweets and more. Call 04-317-1234
On the top floor of Galeries Lafayette at the Dubai Mall, you'll find a veritable cornucopia of exotic foods in this outpost of the Parisian empire. You don't have to buy anything to be entranced, but you probably will! Call 04-339-9933
1004 Supermarket, Al Barsha. On the ground floor of the Coral Al Khoory Hotel Apartments building is a little gem of a store; a real outpost of Korea and Japan. If you have a craving for kimchi, want fresh shiso leaves, king emperor mushrooms and properly cut ribs for Korean barbecue, go check it out. Call 04-323-4536