Think you can smell a waft of maple syrup, the unmistakable aroma of Timmies or the pull of poutine? You are not alone, because across the UAE, there is a distinctly Canadian feel in the air.
A rash of Canadian-themed restaurants have sprung up recently, offering traditional fare for homesick Canadians hungry for a taste of smoked meat or those bite-sized doughnut centres called Timbits.
It began when the Second Cup coffee chain arrived on these shores, swiftly followed by Tim Hortons, Canada’s largest fast-food chain and a national institution that introduced its coffee and doughnuts in 120 outlets across the emirates.
Hot on its heels was the South St Burger Co, while individual outlets such as the newly opened Maple Leaf restaurant in Jumeirah are already proving a hit with the UAE’s 40,000 Canadian expatriates, offering an authentic taste of poutine, Montreal smoked-meat sandwiches and beaver tails.
To the uninitiated, poutine – slang French for “mess” – is a tangle of twice-cooked homemade fries doused in chicken or veal gravy and dotted with fresh cheese curds. Beaver tails, common in Quebec, are doughnut-like pastries dusted in sugar and cinnamon. And smoked meat, originating from Montreal in French Canada, refers to the process of salting and curing beef brisket with black pepper, garlic and coriander.
Meanwhile, over in Jumeirah Lakes Towers, a bistro named Fraiche has put its own version of poutine on the menu and recreated the look of a cosy Montreal cafe, complete with exposed brick walls and wooden tables.
Even the Canadian ambassador to the UAE, Arif Lalani, has become a fan and has been spotted tucking into smoked meat at the Maple Leaf.
“I am proud of the recent success Canadian restaurants have enjoyed and had the pleasure of digging into one of my favourite foods,” he says. “This is authentic Canadian comfort food at its best – can’t beat that, eh?”
The increased competition between the different venues is threatening to trigger poutine wars.
“That’s not poutine,” says Maple Leaf’s co-owner Ahmed Al Ghussein of his rival’s dish at Fraiche, where they use beef gravy and imported French cheese instead of white cheese curds, which has a chewy consistency like halloumi.
But the difficulty of getting authentic ingredients has posed some challenges to recreating dishes, especially in a country where, for several months of the year, the thermometer hovers close to 40°C.
To make smoked meat, Maple Leaf’s chef Serge Takelian invested in a smoking machine from a hardware store and uses organic Australian or New Zealand beef rubbed in Montreal steak spice in an elaborate process that takes 12 days. The poutine gravy, also cooked on site, is made from roasted chicken bones and takes up to three days. The restaurant even makes its own cheese curds.
“For me, it is like listening to a certain song that brings back memories,” says Ahmed’s brother Moutaz, 32, who co-owns the restaurant.
“Montreal is known for these kinds of foods – even McDonald’s serves its own version of poutine. For me, it represents coming home.”
Both brothers, the sons of Palestinian refugees who emigrated to the UAE, spent part of their childhood in Canada after the family moved there in 1988.
They went to university in Montreal and stayed there after the rest of the family returned to Al Ain.
Although the Al Ghusseins returned to help run the family businesses in 2009, they still make regular trips back to Canada.
“When we fly into Montreal, the first thing we do after leaving the airport is pick up a smoked-meat sandwich before we have even reached home or unpacked our bags,” says Ahmed, 37. “The mixture of meat, spices and pickles is just incredible.”
The brothers decided to invest Dh1.5 million in creating their own cafe to remind them of Canada, adorning the walls with pictures of national heroes – from the singer Céline Dion to the racing driver Jacques Villeneuve. The Canadian flag takes pride of place behind the serving counter.
Despite not having advertised the venue since it opened in July, Maple Leaf has already gathered a following among royalty and expats, including two young sheikhs who dine there five times a week.
The Quebecers Francis Brosseau, 35, and Marie-Eve Côté, 34, both sales managers, have become regulars.
“Poutine is our national dish and now we have it here, we do not miss home as much,” says Côté.
Her husband adds: “On every trip home we would go to Reubens in Montreal, which is famous for its smoked meat sandwiches, and I would say: ‘This is my last fix for a year.’ But now I don’t have to wait.”
It was nostalgia that prompted the Jordanian-Palestinian Yousef Al Barqawi, 29, to open Fraiche.
A former financial analyst with a masters in philosophy from Concordia University in Montreal, he had no experience in running a restaurant but had an epiphany when coming around after an operation in April last year.
“There was one thought on my mind – to open a restaurant,” he says. “I wanted the kind of place I would like to go to, the sort of places I missed in Montreal where you could have a leisurely breakfast over coffee.”
Growing up in a household where big family dinners played an important role, he learnt to cook from a young age and completed a six-month part-time course at the International Centre for Culinary Arts in Dubai.
Al Barqawi ploughed Dh2 million of his savings into the restaurant and hired a British chef, who experimented with Canadian recipes and ingredients such as maple syrup, and opened Fraiche in July.
“There is a big Canadian contingent here in the UAE,” he says. “Montreal left a profound impression on me and its approach to food and life really resonated with me. I wanted to recreate that here.”
Where to go for Canadian food
Tim Hortons (everywhere) – double doubles (coffee with two sugars and two creams), bagels, Timbits
Second Cup/ Java U/ Café Supréme (branches across the UAE) – coffee
Cinnamon City (Abu Dhabi) – pastries
Maple Leaf (Dubai) – smoked meat sandwiches, poutine, beaver’s tail, wings
Fraiche (Dubai) – poutine
Seagrill, Fairmont the Palm (Dubai) – poutine
New York Fries (Abu Dhabi/ Dubai) – poutine
Yogen Fruz (Abu Dhabi/ Dubai) – frozen yogurt from Canada