In Abu Dhabi's Al Markaziyah district is a tiny, poorly lit hole in the wall called Royal Vegetarian. Last week, after a deliriously good meal of chaat items and Punjabi specialities, I realised that it was the most laid-back and unpretentious restaurant experience I've had in Abu Dhabi short of scarfing shawarma against the railing of the Corniche. It was also the best meal - and the cheapest - that I've had in months; a perfect antidote to the endless tedium of fusty, cavernous hotel venues beclouded with women's perfume and men's cigar smoke. In other places, a restaurant as great as Royal Vegetarian would be a social adhesive and a place where people would congregate to eat without any gripes over the fluorescent lighting and battered Kleenex box in lieu of napkins. Here, sitting in the family section, we were the only non-Indians in the joint - and still we were treated like extended family.
Whether we admit to it or not, there's an implicit culinary caste system in the UAE that delineates and defines how we eat and who we do it with. Any family with hired help witnesses this on a daily basis. The future of our cuisine and the evolution of our food industry may well be dependent on the degree to which we yield to the inevitability of better integration, a process that began many decades ago as proven by the Emirati culinary lexicon. And sometimes, after a string of lousy meals served by hapless waitresses at overpriced hotel restaurants where the line cooks preparing the food haven't ever had the chance to taste it themselves, it feels like we're stalling.
Our dining culture is more focused on lifestyle than food, and more on eating and drinking as a social lubricant than as a social adhesive. Imbalances thrive here: there is nowhere in Abu Dhabi where an office boy and a CEO can break bread at the same bartop, and the last time I picked up falafel sandwiches for lunch in Khalidiya, I was the only woman in a sea of men. Outside, a dozen bored drivers leaned against their cars awaiting takeaway orders, presumably for the other women in Abu Dhabi who were craving falafel for lunch.
I often hear people bemoan the degradation of UAE cuisine, but I refuse to get sentimental about something whose very nature is to adapt, which is what Emirati food was made to do. The best food in the Emirates is made and served by people cooking native dishes familiar to them - and you won't find these people being glorified or brandishing their names across a menu. What will really inspire a new dimension is a dissolution of socioeconomic barriers - and not just where food is concerned.
It has been fascinating to witness one of the world's least glamorous and most labour-intensive professions morph into a perceived caricature of its diametrical opposite. In times when the state of the agro-economy is akin to the Jolly Green Giant battling it out with the Big Bad Wolf and even agricultural non-profits often end up hurting the very farmers they set out to help, it is impossible to approach any food-related issue without considering its ramifications on a larger environmental and socioeconomic scale. Cue orthorexia, an eating disorder you have probably never heard of. Orthorexia, or orthorexia nervosa, is one example of a distinctive psychological casualty of contemporary food culture: it's an obsession with eating healthy, natural foods to feel clean and pure.
McDonald's and Starbucks, both of which have been very successful in the UAE, function differently here from their sibling behemoths elsewhere. In the US, where McDonald's and Starbucks usually have drive-through windows and are found on major throughways or are located in a convenient location for pedestrian traffic, the establishments are patronised primarily due to convenience: a portable breakfast, a cup of coffee in a paper cup and off you go. In the UAE, where McDonald's and Starbucks are often located deep in the recesses of malls, it's a different story. The spaces take on a more family-friendly environment conducive to socialising. Also, whereas in the US even the poorest of people can afford McDonald's, that is certainly not the case here.
Issues of food in the realm of social class and elitism are occasionally spurious or divisive. One standard assumption is that people's attitudes about food reflect their behaviour towards it, but it's not always the case. There are many disconcerting disparities between how we eat and how we think about food in the Emirates, as evidenced by the fact that everything from our kitchen traditions to our children's health is in jeopardy.
Next week, I'll be writing about the ways I think it will unfold and what we might be able to do about it.