What is the absolute first thing an Indian expat woman, who just moved to Dubai, get asked when speaking to her mother back home: "Did you eat?"
Yes, mum, I just finished the dal parathas (Indian flat breads stuffed with cooked lentils), you packed for me, with my favourite raw mango pickles. Food is a feeling that mums express love with. From the time I moved to Dubai around 10 days ago, my Whatsapp chats with my mother usually revolve around food – what the last meal was, or what the next meal will be.
Chai (tea) time is usually a special affair at our home. On my first weekend in Dubai, it was at a small restaurant near the Business Bay metro station when I heard a Filipino expat order karak chai. Did I hear it right or was I missing chai too much? I double checked with the waitress and turned out that, I wasn’t imagining, karak chai was one of the most popular hot beverages at the shop. Immediately, I ordered one for myself, clicked that mandatory selfie holding it, and began documenting my food journey in the multicultural land of Dubai.
Next it was time to try some Arabic cuisine. The same weekend, I tried some creamy hummus. Vegetarian by resolve earlier, I found myself breaking some rules to try a shawarma. My friend also introduced me to mouttabel - a dip made from grilled aubergine blended in with garlic, yoghurt and the sesame seed based tahini sauce. Arabic bread dipped in labneh or hung sour yoghurt became my regular breakfast.
What's great about Dubai is that I don't have to go to a special restaurant to find a specific international dish. Everything is just a call away. I was soon ordering ramen with miso soup, Japanese katsu curry with rice, Indian Chole bhature (chickpeas curry with deep-fried bread), South Indian dosas, penne arrabiata, feta cheese salad and my go-to comfort food - dal chawal (Indian-style lentil curry with rice).
What's great about Dubai is that I don't have to go to a special restaurant to find a specific international dish. Everything is just a call away. I was soon ordering ramen with miso soup, Japanese katsu curry with rice, Indian Chole bhature (chickpeas curry with deep-fried bread), South Indian dosas, penne arrabiata, feta cheese salad and my go-to comfort food - dal chawal (Indian-style lentil curry with rice)
What I loved eating the most were the desserts. They were sweet but not too sweet. Even the Japanese cheese cake I tried at a mall, was just the right amount of sweet.
In the following week, I also got to try regag (traditional Emirati crepe) at a small shop in Jumeirah, and some luqaimat (traditional fried sweet dumplings) drizzled with date syrup and sesame seeds at the Global Village.
For anyone visiting the UAE for the first time, wanting to try Arabic food these are my top 5 recommendations:
It is a chickpea-based spread, mixed with tahini or sesame paste, drizzled with lemon and olive oil, sprinkled with paprika and a warm red coloured spice – sumac, made by crushing wild red berries that is highly reminiscent of the taste of lemon. A mild and underappreciated flavour. I loved eating it as a dip with cucumbers and celery.
I asked my friend if I could have a vegetarian shawarama. She smiled ever so politely and said: “There isn’t anything like that here.” For the newbies, shawerma is like a wrap, with grilled chicken, marinated in olive oil, wrapped in tomatoes, pickles, onions, local spices, and tahini sauce, rolled inside a thin pita bread or kubz. Imagine a sweeter, fluffier version of a tandoor bread.
A smoky dip made from eggplant, by grilling it on a direct flame. Mixed with tahini paste, garlic, lemon juice, and Greek yoghurt in olive oil. The taste reminded me of Indian baingan bharta (smoky eggplants cooked with traditional spices). I combined it with Arabic bread (triangular cut breads) as a tea time snack.
My first reaction was “that’s a dosa” (South Indian crepe made with fermented lentil and rice). Yet again, my friend smiled and said that’s a traditional Emirati snack, prepared in most homes and served best with karak chai. I ate the spicy regag, spread with red chilli sauce, mayonnaise and sprinkled with wafers, for that extra crunch. My friend ate the Nutella spread regag. Quite a blissful experience!
This is one dip I have permanently included in my regular diet. A very light hung sour yoghurt, that is slightly salty and goes well with all fruits and vegetables. I love combining it with cucumbers for breakfast and also just regular bread. It is a fabulous Middle Eastern option to butter!