An old world charm resides in the narrow lanes of Al Ras, Dubai. The streets open up to tales of a city which had a slower pace of life once, where every sand coloured wall reflects memories of the past.
One such lane houses an old building, built in the year 1909, a time when Dubai was a point where traders met. Al Bait Alqadeem, which means an ‘old house’ in Arabic, was a popular meeting point for merchants and seafaring traders who travelled from Iran to Rome, the British spice route and Portuguese-African routes. They harboured to buy pearls, which were displayed for auction by Emirati merchants. But a trade-off such as this, had to be done at a physical point, where negotiations and matter of the sea could be discussed over food. Al Bait Alqadeem was the perfect spot.
The house was owned by Abdulla Bin Jamaan, an Emirati, with many pearl diving boats and worked as a guardsman to the late Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, former Ruler of Dubai. He later went on to become the first director of Dubai Municipality in the year 1954. Today, the old building is a heritage site turned restaurant.
It should come as no surprise that recipes travelled with voyagers too.
Heritage confluence: Food and Architecture
In 2021, two Iranian businessmen, Ismail Rais Saadi and Majeed Saadi, rented this heritage site and spent the next two years renovating and creating a menu that could represent the confluence of cultures of Emirati, Iranian and Indian cuisnes, which is seen in their menu today. The seekh kabab, Shirazi salad, chicken machboos and Emirati Luqaimat are some of their most popular dishes.
Located in front of the oldest educational institution in Dubai – Al Ahmadiya School, the restaurant’s entrance has an outdoor seating with a pop of electric blue and green coloured benches, contrasting yet complimenting the sand coloured plain walls of the old house. Two Emiratis sit at the corner, under a shade, talking. Could they be discussing trade, just as their forefathers did a 100 years ago?
The interiors are recreated with paintings of the sea, chairs that resemble boats attached with oars.
At the restaurant, visitors can enjoy food in different seating areas, one of which is named in honour of the owner – Bin Jamaan Majlis (seating in Arabic). Made using beams imported from India, and palm leaf designs manufactured locally, the designs on the door are heavily inspired from Iranian and Yemeni architecture.
Another seating area – Alnoakhzeh, was a place where critical trade deals were discussed. Even today, this seating has to be pre-booked and reserved. Looking around, one can see the different types of boat models displayed such as – Al Sunboog – a type vessel used for fishing and a life-size 1900s maritime compass.
One of their seafood speciality is – Jeshid, a type of shark meat, cooked in Arabic spice and served with white rice. The meat is dry with a hint of lemon, to eliminate any raw fishy smell. UAE nationals and tourists come here with friends and family to enjoy a hearty meal and ambience, reminiscent of the past.
The Date room, on the ground floor seating is where date syrup was made. An important ingredient, in Emirati dishes. Speaking to the Food by Gulf News team Rais Saadi said: “This room was used to make date syrup naturally over a period of time and we have preserved it. There were cracks on the wall, so we used corals from the sea to redecorate it.”
At the end of a typical day, the Saadi cousins like to sit down with a cup of Turkish tea followed by a large plate of appetisers that consists of kebabs, a simple Shirazi salad, some hummus and falafel. All this, alongside guests; greeting and welcoming them.
On the way out is an inscription on the wall in Arabic of a poem by late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the 'Founding Father of the UAE' , according to Saadi it translates to: “You cannot forget or neglect our heritage. Our heritage is our base and our root, which we must be attached to.”
Here is a guide to making Emirati Luqaimat.