Love them or loathe them, supermarkets are handy for picking up generic staples. With that in mind, we wondered which out of the UAE's big four - Carrefour, LuLu Hypermarket, Choithrams and Spinneys - is the best bet for sourcing some ready-made dishes.
After some deliberation, we decided on five everyday items to judge the superstores on: hummus, a quick lunchtime fix in the form of a chicken sandwich, afternoon tea cake, a loaf of brown bread and a deli and cheese selection. That sorted, I set off for the shops, purchased the necessary goods and then gathered together a small team of impartial tasters.
We looked at the appearance of each item, the cost, the freshness and, of course, the taste. If relevant, we asked ourselves: if we weren't able to make the item from scratch, which one would make the most appropriate replacement?
Obviously, this is a very subjective test, based upon the taste preferences of a few individuals. If you don't agree with us or think we've missed a trick, we'd be very happy if you let us know.
What we were looking for: A tasty, fresh (no hint of fizziness), authentic hummus that we'd be happy to serve to friends with crudités and flatbreads.
In terms of cost, the four supermarkets price their own brands of hummus competitively, with each one coming in at around Dh10 for 200g, give or take a few fils or a couple of grams. In terms of flavour, though, it was a whole different story.
Spinneys' version was the least liked of the bunch. One of the tasters described it as "beige and bland" and the rest of us couldn't help but agree. With no discernible tahini, garlic or olive oil flavours, we felt it didn't resemble real hummus and the runny consistency was also off-putting.
No one felt quite so strongly about Carrefour's offering which, although acceptable enough, was no match for Choithrams' or LuLu's versions.
On looks alone, the Lebanese-style hummus from LuLu immediately impressed; it was the only one that came drizzled with olive oil and studded with a black olive. The texture, meanwhile, was silky smooth.
Choithrams' hummus had a sharper, more distinct flavour - we could taste the lemon and tahini - and a nutty texture that went down well and meant that these two tied for first place.
Winner: LuLu Hypermarket and Choithrams
What we were looking for: A satisfying lunch on the run. Fresh bread - not too soggy or stiff - decent-quality meat, a flavoursome filling and an absence of limp lettuce and tasteless tomatoes.
Prices varied the most here. Spinneys' grilled chicken, sun-dried tomato and rocket sandwich by Appetite cost Dh22; Carrefour's chicken and falafel version came to Dh11; Choithrams' BakeMart Plus version came to Dh8; and LuLu's cost a mere Dh4.
In this instance, though, it definitely pays to pay. From the thin, uniform white bread to the pale, surprisingly smooth (not to mention sweet) sandwich spread, LuLu's version failed to impress. Choithrams' sandwich was a little better: the bread was fresher, the filling creamier and the pieces of meat more discernible, but it still wasn't great. A good-looking mix of chicken and falafel filled us with hope for Carrefour's sandwich but, alas, it was not to be. The brown bread was leaden and the pieces of chicken were thick and dry. The falafel part was actually quite nice and the sandwich would have fared better had this been the sole filling.
While Spinneys' sandwich cost significantly more than its competitors, it was streets ahead in terms of flavour, freshness and general satisfaction. The chicken actually tasted like real meat rather than pieces of manufactured protein, the rocket leaves were peppery and crisp and the sun-dried tomatoes added interest. Not a patch on a home-made sandwich, but by far the best of this particular bunch.
Slice of cake
What we were looking for: A slice of something sweet and tasty, with extra points for those that tasted like proper, home-baked cakes. Note that because of the array of cakes on offer, we asked the person behind the counter in the bakery section to recommend the best they had.
A few of us had tried the Spinneys carrot cake (Dh12 for this particular serving) before and enjoyed it. The hefty slice features fruity carrot cake flecked with sultanas and interspersed with layers of sour cream icing; really quite delicious.
Although cheap at Dh5 a slice, LuLu's fresh fruit cake was the least loved of the bunch. The sponge was properly dry - to the extent that one taster described it as stale - and the meagre amount of cream had a thick, paste-like texture. The less said about this one the better.
Based on looks alone, we rather snobbishly dismissed Choithrams' vanilla swiss roll (Dh4) on the grounds that it looked garish. Upon tasting, we were surprised to find that the sponge was impressively light and squidgy and the whipped cream tasted fresh. Yes, it was very sweet indeed and the buttercream icing was a touch grainy, but we felt that the simple flavours would make it a real child-pleaser.
Carrefour's rather more grown-up coffee cream slice (Dh4) was even better, though. The plain sponge was commendably light and airy, the coffee cream delivered an espresso kick and the flaked almonds added a nice bit of texture. We also liked the manageable size of this slice.
Winner: Spinneys and Carrefour
Basic brown loaf
What we were looking for: A decent, fresh, wholemeal loaf that tasted good enough to toast and make sandwiches with.
Note that none of the supermarkets offered information about the salt content of their in-house loaves, which is a shame.
Perhaps we got lucky and swung by Carrefour's bakery section just as a fresh batch of bread was deposited on to the shelves. Perhaps its brown loaf (Dh5.95) always tastes this good. Either way, the multigrain sandwich bread impressed; it looked and tasted wholesome, was filling without being heavy and we liked the sesame seeds sprinkled over the crust. When toasted, it was chewy and moreish.
Spinneys' whole-grain energy bread (Dh4.50) wasn't bad by any means. We liked the fact that seeds were spread throughout the loaf and it tasted particularly good when toasted, but just wasn't in quite the same league as the Carrefour version.
Upon first tasting, Choithrams' whole-grain loaf (Dh6.50) was well received and we particularly liked the grainy texture from the nuts and seeds. However, it was soon noted that the bread was distinctly salty and this rather put us off. Lulu's brown loaf (Dh3.75) looked and tasted dry, which meant that it wasn't ideal for making sandwiches with. When toasted, the flavour improved but it was still a rather bland loaf.
What we were looking for: A decent range of deli items and a selection of cheese fit for a cheese board.
All the supermarkets fared well here. The UAE seems to do deli sections pretty well and each shop we visited offered plenty of pick-and-mix mezze items and Mediterranean antipasti (stuffed chilli peppers, marinated vegetables, olives, pickles and the like).
In terms of international offerings, LuLu excelled itself here, with sections dedicated to European, Indian and Filipino sweets and snacks, a plethora of different olives, a decent selection of keenly priced international cheeses and cured meats.
When it came to cheeses, though, it was Carrefour that stole the show, for the sheer variety of more unusual cheeses that it has on offer.
Winner: Carrefour and LuLu Hypermarket