Student abroad talks about missing the magic of food in Dubai


Student abroad talks about missing the magic of food in Dubai

Living miles away from home is bound to leave you feeling a little homesick…

Missing the magic of food in Dubai
Missing the magic of food in Dubai Image Credit: Supplied/Gina Bagnulo

I was raised in the sunny Dubai neighborhood of Umm Suqeim from birth until 18 years of age. Following the steps of my family who valued education above all else, I moved abroad to study towards a degree a couple of years’ ago.

In fact, I left Dubai in the midst of a pandemic in September of 2020 - quite a time to make the transition into adulthood. Currently a second year student doing Middle Eastern Studies in Ireland, London is always a midpoint and a home away from home for me. Both my parents had lived there for a time, and I still have people from both sides of my family there.

As a student abroad, it is common to order all kinds of cuisines when one does not have time to cook a meal between essay deadlines and homework. I, however, have never been one to not miss home. My mother even went as far to send me every Indian spice to add to my food due to the lack of seasoning abroad.

Many international students around the world regularly go to restaurants that remind them of home, the closest to that I could get was Indian or Iranian food. Having grown up in Dubai, I was used to the abundance of different Middle Eastern and South Asian cuisines available to me. However, in such a diverse country as the UAE, hosting so many nationalities, it is still relatively rare to see an Emirati restaurant, let alone outside of it. I had just received my desperate shipment of Lipton Karak Chai, when my mother asked me if I wanted her to visit for a week. We decided to meet up in London.

An excursion…

“What shall we do?” she asked, as we planned the day.

Being a student, I am never shy of having an opportunity to get free food, so I suggested going to a Middle Eastern restaurant.

It was at that moment I remembered seeing something very unique a couple of years ago. I was on my way to a hotel from Heathrow airport, in London, and had seen an Emirati restaurant outside of the UAE called ‘Al Fanar’.

This was very much like finding a needle in a haystack. Named after the Arabian kerosene lamp, Al Fanar was founded in 2011 and aims to revive the memory of 1960’s Dubai through food and architecture.

The restaurant franchise that exclusively serves Emirati cuisine can be found in Dubai Festival City. However, branches can also be found outside the borders of the UAE in London as well as in Saudi Arabia. The Al Fanar UK website states, “Emirati cuisine is a traditional Middle Eastern cuisine from the United Arab Emirates and shares similarities with Indian and Iranian cuisines.” Surrounded by Khaleeji Architecture, I felt right at home just looking at its website.

Middle Eastern food
A traditional Middle Eastern food table with different dishes Image Credit: Shutterstock

It was founded by Emirati Hashem Al Mazrooqi, who wanted to popularise the concept of Emirati food. Starting off as a family business, Al Mazrooqi’s son Sohail is now the Al Fanar operations manager. The menu consists of many recipes passed down from Sohail’s grandmother that were common in the earlier days of Dubai - Al Fanar offers an abstract view into the UAE’s past.

Hashem Al Marzouqi Image Credit: Supplied/Gina Bagnulo

I had the opportunity to have a quick chat with Hashem Al Marzouqi, the person behind the Al Fanar franchise.

Q: What was your main motivation for opening Al Fanar?

“We wanted to introduce Emirati cuisine to the world. Emirati cuisine is not well known. When we opened Al Fanar in 2011, there was no restaurant in the United Arab Emirates serving Emirati food. Local food was only available in homes, so even as an expat if you wanted to try Emirati food you had to be invited by an Emirati to their house. My main occupational specialty is building theme parks, so then I thought why not open a restaurant that was like a museum, people would be able to see every aspect of the culture, not only the food.”

Q: Did you expect Al Fanar to grow big enough to have a branch outside of the UAE and the Mena (Middle East and North Africa) region?

“We opened in London in 2019, where we hope to establish more restaurants and are planning to open another branch in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Europe in particular Germany is also somewhere we would like to expand to. With the growth of every country, people will be more curious to try the food of that place and see the culture. Food takes time because you are touching every individual’s taste buds. I expected my customers to be expats but about 99 per cent of them are Emirati.”

Q: What sets apart Emirati cuisine from other Middle Eastern cuisines?

“Whenever someone says Middle Eastern Food, people’s minds usually turn to Lebanese food. In reality Emirati and Lebanese food have nothing in common. I would say that the closest cuisine to Emirati cuisine is Indian, specifically South Indian due to the trade routes. The food in terms of influence is 80 per cent Indian and the rest being a mix of Iranian and Zanzibari. The spices used are mostly Indian spices.”

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