DUBAI // The promise of fresh vegetables leads hundreds of shoppers to a farmers' market every Friday, where cheery chat flows back and forth above the crisp produce being loaded into grocery bags.
For many visitors the market at the Dubai Mall's Souq al Bahar is a miniature version of scenes in their hometowns in Europe and the US, where such gatherings are common. The entertainment value is also similar.
"Coming here is a whole event, the children love it," said Paula de Montmorin, a Spanish expatriate with two toddlers in tow. "Supermarkets are bland. I love this experience, and that it helps small farmers."
Farmers from Abu Dhabi, Ras al Khaimah, Umm al Qaiwain, Al Ain and Sharjah set up stalls selling vegetables, herbs and dairy products at the market, located on the terrace of the Baker and Spice restaurant in a souq lined with waterside cafes and shops.
Mrs de Montmorin has been a regular since the market reopened in November last year, after a summer break. The market will run from 10am until 4pm until mid-May on the restaurant's terrace.
Many shoppers bring folding trolleys, while several families remove children from strollers and turn them into makeshift handcarts brimming with greens.
"I see all this and I think of my country," said Jelena Belitcenko, a Dubai-based event manager from Latvia. "I'm pleasantly surprised to see this in Dubai. These vegetables have a real smell. Everything is fresh and nice, not like all the artificial stuff in supermarkets imported from outside the UAE."
A first-time customer on this occasion, Ms Belitcenko now plans to do her grocery shopping at the market every week. She left laden with packages filled with strawberries, beetroot, tomatoes and lettuce. And she had plenty of company. A steady stream of shoppers lined up within the first hour of the market opening at 10am. Organisers estimate some 2,000 people shop here every Friday.
In one corner, children squeal with delight as they try to hold chicks in their hands. The squawking chicks are on display in a tray near a stall doing brisk business in eggs. Shouts of "it tickles", and "can we take them home?" ring out across the market.
Another group of children shout as a young boy clambers into a wooden pen, the temporary home of two goats. The five-year-old refuses to leave until a security guard finally lifts him out.
The sunlit setting with the towering Burj Khalifa as a backdrop and interaction with shoppers and farm workers tips the balance in favour of the farmers' market over shopping for groceries in the confines of a supermarket, say regulars.
"People talk to each other here. In big stores, it's all rush-rush," said Terada Shinichiro, a Japanese expatriate working for a multinational tyre company.
"My family likes to buy organic and we like the open air."
They also like to ask about the products on offer. Abdullah, a farm worker from Umm al Qaiwain, said shoppers often pepper him with questions. "They ask if we spray harmful insecticides, they want to know everything," said Abdullah, who uses one name.
"Strawberries, spinach, vegetables - everything gets sold quickly, nothing remains. People come from all over Dubai to buy organic."
The UAE imports 85 per cent of its food and produce is often kept in cold storage for weeks after being picked before ripening, which can impact on the taste.
Mohamad el Chehimi, an operations manager with Baker and Spice, said when the restaurant began two years ago they found only one organic farm in Al Ain from which to source their menu. They now work with six local farms.
"To be organic you have to be mentally organic," he said.
"It is so important for people to have faith in what is grown locally. Here they know it's fresh and has not sat for a long time in an airplane or a refrigerator. We know the produce, we know the farmer."