It's official, the UAE's top three comfort foods are biryani, pizza, and the south Indian dosa (a crepe-like South Indian breakfast dish made with fermented rice and lentil batter). According to the food delivery apps GoFood and Zomato, these three dishes were among the top five food items that UAE residents ordered in 2020.
Whether it is the flavourful rice cooked in the juices of the meat or the intoxicating aroma of the spices and fried onions, biryani was the dish that took the top spot when we asked Gulf News readers on Facebook and Instagram. It had 53 per cent of votes on Facebook, with one of our readers even saying he ordered biryani for lunch every day! Pizza came in second with 32 per cent votes, and dosa came in third with 15 per cent.
So, we asked some of our readers what it was about these three dishes that kept them wanting more. And, would they order the same in 2021? The answer was a resounding yes.
If you live in the UAE, it's unlikely that you don't already know about this aromatic rice dish that is very popular on the Indian subcontinent. Many food historians believe that the roots of this dish lie in the Middle East. They believe that the recipe reached India towards the end of the Mughal era (1526–1761 AD). Some theories suggest that the dish came to south India first and evolved from pilaf varieties brought to the Indian subcontinent by Arab traders. The classical pilaf of ancient times called for the rice and meat to be cooked separately and then co-arranged. But, the biryani evolved with the meat and the rice being cooked together, but in separate layers in the pot.
The modern-day biryani is made with aromatic spices commonly used on the Indian subcontinent, rice, and meats such as chicken, beef, goat, lamb, prawn, or fish. Some versions include boiled eggs, while potatoes are added in certain regional varieties.
For 30-year-old Indian expatriate Aarif Mohammed, "a plate of biryani is a no-brainer", when hungry.
Aarif, who works as a design engineer at a manufacturing company in Al Qusais, said: "First of all, I look for something that delivers fast, especially when I am at work. I order in on most days of the week, out of which I order biryani almost two or three times a week. My favourite biryanis come from the restaurants Biryaniwala and Kayal Star."
There is a reason for the choice, he said. "Biryani is comfort food, and Kayal Star makes it just like my grandmother makes it, with small grain rice. Every time I visit my hometown in Thiruvananthapuram in the south Indian state of Kerala, my grandmother buys this specific rice to make her special biryani just for me. It's not common to use small grain rice for biryani, it is a family recipe," he added.
Biryani is comfort food... it transports me back to my hometown, where my grandmother makes her special biryani for me.
Aarif's plate of biryani transports him right back to the coastal capital of Kerala. But, for Pakistani expatriate Quratulain Khan, biryani became the much-needed comfort food when she landed in the UAE for the first time.
The 36-year-old investment banker told Gulf News: "When I first arrived in Dubai in 2013, I began living alone and started to miss my home and the food back home. It was my fifth night in Dubai, on a Thursday, when I missed home so much that I ordered biryani."
It was my fifth night in Dubai, on a Thursday, when I missed home so much that I ordered biryani.
Quratulain, who orders biryani at least once a week now, calls it her go-to delivery food. She said: "Not only is it comfort food that I have been eating since childhood, but it is also Karachites' favourite food."
Two months later, when Quratulain's family joined her, it didn't stop her from ordering biryani. She found that she was ordering out more food than when she was living alone. She said: "I remember ordering biryani late at night from the Student Biryani restaurant on weekends."
Who doesn't know pizza? The flat oven-baked bread with sauces, toppings, and melted cheese that temptingly stretches into strands when a piece is pulled off the pie. Pizza, one of the most popular dishes across the world, has a long history. Flatbreads with toppings were consumed by the ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks. Food historians say that the modern birthplace of pizza is in southwestern Italy's Campania region, home to the city of Naples.
Talah Almously, a Saudi expatriate in the UAE, loves pizza. The 37-year-old full-time mum and self-professed "full-time pizza eater" found herself ordering pizzas twice a week or sometimes more in 2020.
Talah, who landed in Dubai in 2014, told Gulf News that she has been ordering out ever since she got here, and pizza is her top go-to dish to order: "Pizzas are a great option as delivery food. They are quick, easy to eat, they have so many options for toppings like you can go all-vegan, or some restaurants make it with wagyu beef. You don’t need cutlery."
"Pizza is definitely the food for emotional eating..."
She added: "Biryani is something I can make at home, but pizza is not something I would bake. It's something I would order when I crave it." She also said that she mostly orders vegetarian pizza with mushrooms, olives, onions, garlic, and tomatoes.
For Talah, pizza is "definitely the food for emotional eating". She said: "When I am feeling down or upset or emotional, pizza is something I would want to eat. I don't know if it's the cheese or something else. Or even if you are celebrating, for positive or negative emotions, pizza is perfect."
"Since we were home during the COVID-19 pandemic, we were bored and emotional. Pizza at such a time was the right option," she laughed while planning to order a pizza right away.
Dubai-based Filipino expatriate, Paul Michael Codeno, couldn't agree more. The 32-year-old said: "A warm pizza at any time of the day is the definition of comfort food. I am a pizza lover."
Paul, who works as an HR consultant in Dubai, said that he had lost count of the number of times he and his friends ordered pizza during the COVID-19 restrictions. "During COVID-19, all celebrations moved home. Going out was not an option. Pizzas came to the rescue during every gathering. It's delicious, convenient, fast to deliver, and you only need two slices to feel full," he added. Moreover, food delivery apps had amazing offers on pizzas, he said.
Pizza can be had any time of the day for any meal, and it is affordable.
Food delivery became more prominent in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions. According to Paul, food delivery apps and voucher apps started offering many good deals on pizzas. He said his favourite pizza is a thin-crust pizza with a Hawaiian topping.
He added: "Sometimes you are working or studying, you want to eat something you enjoy, without the hassle of cooking it, pizza is one of those foods. It can be had any time of the day for any meal, and it is affordable. You can eat it and quickly get back to work."
Paul said: "I will keep ordering pizza but will also try to taste different food. I enjoy Turkish and Arabic cuisine, as well as biryani."
3. South Indian dosa
A thin crepe-like breakfast dish that is very popular in southern parts of India, dosa is known to be healthy too. Made out of a fermented batter of rice and lentils, it's best enjoyed with South Indian-style white chutney made by grinding freshly grated coconut, green chillies, ginger, and split chickpea lentils into a fine paste. It is then tempered with mustard seeds, red chillies, and curry leaves. Even better if you have some sambar, a curry made with spiced lentils and vegetables pressure cooked and tempered.
Indian expatriate Candida Fernandes finds dosas to be her favourite option for ordering in. She is a mum who is working from home while taking care of her five-year-old son. With no one to help her to watch the child, on busy days, Candida turns to food delivery apps to make her life simpler.
I find dosa to be a food item that I can finish eating quickly when work gets busy.
While the 35-year-old IT (Information Technology) executive based in Dubai orders pizza for her son, she spoils herself with her ever-favourite dosa, a fondness she developed while working in India. She said: "Before I came to the UAE, I spent some time working in the city of Bangalore, in the IT sector. When we had too much work, and I would need to grab a bite, I would head downstairs and for sure find a restaurant or stall serving dosas. They would prepare it quickly, and I would eat fast and get back to work. Even today, I find it to be a food item that I can finish eating quickly when work gets busy."
For Indian expatriate Zeba Shafi, Friday morning is synonymous with dosa. She told Gulf News: "For me, if it's a Friday morning, I always think of dosa."
Zeba, who grew up in the city of Mumbai, said: "My mum is from Mangalore, while it's not a common breakfast item in Mumbai, in our house, it was a usual thing to have dosas for breakfast. Later, when I moved to the UAE around the age of five, dosas became a ritual during Friday family time. Now, I am married, and my husband is from Karnataka. He loves dosas too."
For me, if it's a Friday morning, I always think of dosa.
The 30-year-old, who works in IT sales in the UAE, said: "My favourite is the Mysore masala dosa. It has the perfect spiciness from the chutney spread inside the dosa, the potato filling is delicious, and the dosa is the right size for a proper full meal."
However, Zeba orders pizzas and biryanis with equal passion. She added: "We order pizza at least once in two weeks. We usually get a four-cheese pizza with a thin base or pepperoni or meat-based toppings. It's perfect for quiet Thursday evenings when you are tired and don't want to go out. Instead, you want to switch on Netflix, sit in your pyjamas comfortably, and snack on your favourite pizza.
And, every Friday, lunch is biryani. Zeba who has lived in the UAE for 25 years, said: "I love the Hyderabadi-style mutton biryani. It does not have too much masala (spices), and is prepared with the dum style of cooking."
Dum or dum pukht is a style of cooking using a round, heavy-bottomed pot, preferably a handi (clay pot), in which food is sealed and cooked over a slow fire. The slow cooking works like magic to infuse the flavours from the various spices and herbs and makes the meat beautifully tender. This style of cooking is not restricted to biryanis. It is also used for preparations such as korma, nihari, haleem, raan, and other meat curries.
"I live with my husband, my one-year-old child, parents, and brother, and for us, the weekend feels incomplete without biryani lunches on Friday," she added.
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