Time travel through places and food. The Gulf News Food team loves these adventures! On one such quest to discover hidden gems; beyond the high-speed lanes and modern architectural marvel of Dubai, we came across a little foodie secret in the Old Souk of Bur Dubai, by the Creek.
Tucked away in the labryinth of the souk, covered in colourful roof-top shades with a stretch of shops on both sides is a narrow lane that leads to the entrance of a 75-year-old restored heritage building. As you make your way into the structure, you will encounter numerous shopkeepers convincing you to buy souvenirs.
This building overlooks the Dubai Creek and has witnessed many generations of travellers and is a treasure trove of stories from the past. Formerly a meeting point for sea voyagers travelling to South Bombay, India and Iraq, this building is now listed on Dubai’s heritage sites and also houses a a famous restaurant called Bayt Al Wakeel. In Arabic, Bayt means house and Wakeel means agent, meaning 'house of the agent'.
Luckily, a former admirer of this building is now its proud owner; for all the nostalgia that it carries and more.
Food by Gulf News team caught up with Ahmad Mohammed Al Rafi, the owner of Bayt Al Wakeel and listened to his ode of love for the heritage site. “I just came here and fell in love with this old heritage site. Maybe, it’s got something to do with water, maybe I am an Aquarius, I don’t know,” said the 62-year-old Emirati.
Ahmad has a special affinity with the Dubai Creek, after all he grew up swimming in its waters as a child – it looked very different from what we know it as today.
As expected, the cuisine served is Emirati cuisine-inspired seafood and Arabic grilled meat dishes. "The food is simple... but very good food," declared Ahmad.
The heritage site not only tells the tale of Dubai’s rich history but the food served there currently is a homage to the UAE’s culinary culture and a window for tourists into Emirati and Arabic food.
As a country graced with a long coastline, seafood has long been a staple in the UAE’s cuisine. Grilled fish, fish biryani and machboos made from fish caught right at the Dubai Creek lines the memories of many Emiratis.
Bayt Al Wakeel serves an Emirati-inspired fish biryani with light spices reminiscent of the region’s food. Their grilled fish also signifies the trade ties with adjacent countries. It uses saffron from Iran and spices from India – two of the countries passengers would embark to and come from at the 1930s Bayt Al Wakeel.
The restaurant shared a guide to their legendary fish biryani for Gulf News readers. Click here to follow.
The restaurant uses the traditional Emirati way to cook their fish – over flaming hot coals.
The Emirati way to cook fish is to pin it on a stick and put in the barbecue with the other end of the stick fixed to the bed of coal at an oblique angle, a technique still used in some households.
The restaurant also serves Lebanese food, which is popular amongst the younger generations of Emiratis. Some say that shawarma, hummous, tabbouleh and mixed grilled platters have become regulars at an Emirati dinner table, but these dishes are only a new addition.
The food gives tourists an introduction to different Arabian flavours, meat preparations and cooking styles, a feature that sticks to travellers’ minds as they visit the eatery that has become part of tourists’ list of must-visit destinations in the city.
“We are famous in many countries around the world, like parts of Europe. People tell those travelling to the UAE to go to the restaurant (Bayt Al Wakeel) to get an authentic Emirati experience. We are part of UAE tour booklets,” said Ahmad.
Memories of 'Old Dubai'
Engineer and an entrepreneur by occupation, Ahmad belongs to an Emirati family based in Dubai and he has fond memories of ‘Old Dubai’.
After he returned to the emirate from attending university in the US, he approached the Dubai Municipality and heritage authorities to buy Bayt Al Wakeel, which was a heritage site at the time. It was his way to encapsulate his love for Dubai and preserve the Creek’s essence and the UAE’s heritage. The building holds great significance to Dubai’s development as the buzzing place we know it to be today. Ahmad bought the structure and converted it into a restaurant in 2004.
A slice of history
In the late 1800s, Gray Mackenzie and Company was appointed as the licensed shipping agents in Dubai. This marked the beginning of a long relationship between the firm and The Trucial States, which were a collection of independent monarchies, which formed a close bond with the British Government by signing a treaty before the eventual formation of the UAE in 1971.
The company contributed to the UAE by providing services to trading, shipping, insurance and transportation.
According to the backstory provided by the restaurant, the Bayt Al Wakeel building was originally built as a shipping office in 1935 by an Iranian mason named Saji Mohammed Kukhardi.
Gatch, a form of mud that was brought from the top of Dubai Creek, near what is now the airport, was used to building the structure. They burned the gatch to make a form of cement in order to construct the building. It was also made of coral, brought in from the Creek at the front of the building.
“It was a large building used for commercial purposes, which was very unique at the time in the area. You can say it was one of the first commercial buildings in the UAE,” said Ahmad.
Ships carrying general cargo and passengers travelling from Mumbai (Bombay at the time), India to Basra, Iraq and back again, would stop by the building as Dubai was a port in the middle. The bottom was used for the shipping office, while the manager, or agent, lived upstairs with his family.
“People at the time used to refer to the building as ‘Bayt Al Wakeel’ (translates to ‘agent’s house’ from Arabic) because it was the literal translation. ‘Let’s go to the agent’s house’, they’d say and the name stuck,” said Ahmad.
People at the time used to refer to the building as ‘Bayt Al Wakeel’ (translates to ‘agent’s house’ from Arabic) because it was the literal translation. ‘Let’s go to the agent’s house’, they’d say and the name stuck
The structure of the building was also unique. The Bayt Al Wakeel restaurant’s website states that it was constructed using mangrove poles from East Africa because they grow straight and are resistant to the depredations of termites.
Passengers who were sailing to Basra or Mumbai would assemble on the ground floor of Bayt Al Wakeel to embark the ship that was due. There was one ship going north once a week to Basra and one ship going south to Mumbai.
“It was a very significant area and building. There was no other way of transporting goods and people other than boats, the next option was camels,” Ahmad said.
A place where the past and present meet
A structure with traditional interior seating and contemporary outdoor glass seating over-looking the Creek, the sun light cascades onto the sand-coloured walls of Bayt Al Wakeel, it leaves one to think what it must have felt like standing there 75 years ago.
Bayt Al Wakeel is listed in Dubai's must-visit heritage sites and is popular with tourists from all over the world. With a rich and diverse Emirati food menu, it is also popular among residents. Ahmad mentioned that people who live around, like to come by, sit and simply revisit old times. It is a meeting point for the old-meets-new and the perfect setting to catch a glimpse of the setting sun.
So, Bayt Al Wakeel, like its history continues to be a place for travellers from far and near, to catch up, have a good meal and watch time go by.
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