A handful of restaurants across the UAE are finally catering for diners with food intolerances, writes Erin McCafferty.
A new food dawn
One of the great things about living in Dubai and Abu Dhabi is the wealth of good restaurants on offer.
Whether you fancy cheese manakish straight out the oven, or freshly made sushi rolls; handmade pasta cooked al dente and smothered in olive oil, or dim sum with just the right amount of bite, there’s somewhere that will cater to your taste.
Add to this that many people enjoy a high disposable income, and it’s not surprising that eating out has become very part of the culture here.
For people with food galleries it is, however, a big problem. And the numbers diagnosed either with coeliac disease or food intolerances is on the increase.
Dr Maria Ridao Alonso, the medical director of Dubai Herbal and Treatment Centre, confirms this: “The number of people seeking food intolerance tests in the UAE has definitely risen in the last year,” she says. “There are more people coming to my clinic requesting intolerance tests than ever before.”
One of the largest factors in food intolerance is gluten, a protein composite found in foods that are made from grains and wheat. And while gluten-free food products are now available in many supermarkets, there are few eating establishments in either city that cater for intolerances, and not one that specialises specifically in gluten-free dining.
To make matters worse, many menus do not specify whether or not a meal contains gluten or other foods such as shellfish or peanuts, which may cause an allergic reaction. This is despite a government ruling in March of this year, Dubai Municipality Food Code, which stipulates that menus must highlight such ingredients.
It’s a fact that’s noted by Dr Ridao Alonso. “It would help to have menus with symbols stating which food contains gluten or eggs or dairy,” she says. “At the moment, it’s very difficult to find restaurants in the UAE that are aware of food intolerances and cater for them adequately. There are only a few that offer gluten-free bread and pasta, and unfortunately only a few that have staff who understand what you mean when you tell them you cannot eat gluten.”
If someone does suffer from gluten intolerance, she says that it’s essential that they avoid certain foods. “These include all cereals containing gluten – barley, Kamut, spelt, wheat, oats and rye – as well as food that has cereal as an ingredient. That means that normal bread, muesli, pasta, cereal bars, breaded meat or fish, sauces that contain wheat and most brands of soy sauce are off limits. Their diet is severely limited and many meals have to be altered to be eaten.”
She recommends plain food in which hidden ingredients are unlikely. “Grilled fish or meat, potato or rice and steamed vegetables” are safe options. “Stay away as much as possible from sauces, curries and other food with mixed ingredients.”
It’s an issue that one Dubai resident, Zoe Da Silva, encounters regularly. The 33-year-old, who works as an operations manager at a fitness firm in Dubai and is a mother to a two-year-old daughter, was diagnosed with coeliac disease 18 months ago.
“Eating out here is usually problematic for me,” she says. “There are no gluten-free restaurants in Dubai. It means I have to make do with the few that cater to coeliacs.”
When Da Silva was first diagnosed, she avoided restaurants completely for six months and chose instead to eat at home. “At first, I survived on just fruit, vegetables and meat. But I lost a lot of weight as a result and, because I work in the fitness business, I can’t afford to. It was quite depressing, really, because I love food,” she says. “I need a lot of energy for my job, so I used to get away with eating whatever I wanted.”
These days, Da Silva eats a more varied diet. She makes most of her meals at home from scratch using only gluten-free and, when possible, organic food products. But sometimes she likes to eat out, which takes a bit of planning.
“Often I don’t feel like cooking. Besides, I used to really enjoy eating out and especially here where it is very much part of the culture.”
Although there’s no official list of restaurants offering gluten-free menus, the UAE-based website glutenfreeuae.com does offer an ad hoc list of establishments in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi which are gluten-friendly to varying degrees.
Da Silva recommends calling ahead to see what’s available on a restaurant’s menu. “Some of the restaurants here are very accommodating,” she says. “But if in doubt about any meal, I would say don’t eat it. It’s simply not worth it.”
The restaurants she does recommend include the Organic Cafe, Carluccio’s, Mango Tree and Balance Cafe, all of which are in Dubai. “Balance Cafe in particular is great, as half the menu is gluten-free. And Carluccio’s has a separate gluten-free menu, so I go there a lot.”
Indeed, more than most, Carluccio’s – an Italian restaurant that’s part of a global chain, with five outlets in Dubai and one scheduled to open later this year in Abu Dhabi – is aware of the growing number of people here who cannot eat gluten.
“It seems to be a big problem in this part of the world,” says the Carluccio’s head chef Alessandro Zulian, who comes from Rome but has been living in Dubai for almost a year. “I notice a big difference in comparison to Italy.”
He explains that Carluccio’s can make most of its dishes gluten-free. “We make spaghetti and other types of pasta; as well as gluten-free sauces; rice dishes and sushi,” he says, adding that the restaurants also have a variety of soups and salads which are gluten-free, and even a chocolate mousse which contains no gluten. “We also specialise in gluten-free ice cream,” he adds. “A lot of people aren’t aware that even ice cream can contain gluten.”
Another establishment aware of the particular dietary requirements of its customers is the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr hotel in Abu Dhabi, which, along with all the Fairmont hotels worldwide, has a policy of accommodating guests with food intolerances.
The Fairmont Lifestyle Cuisine Plus programme offers meals for guests suffering from diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and coeliac disease, as well as food allergies. They even go so far as making a dietary profile of every guest once they’ve checked into the hotel.
“One of the first things we ask each guest is whether they have special dietary requirements,” explains Kaesta Mcfee, the sous chef at the CuiScene restaurant in the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr. “If ‘Mr Smith’, for example, has previously checked into one of our hotels somewhere else in the world, his profile will pop up on our system here as soon as he arrives. We immediately know exactly what he can or cannot eat, and the kitchen is automatically alerted.”
Such is the attention to detail at CuiScene that chef Mcfee often personally accompanies guests around the restaurant buffet, explaining what they can or cannot eat.
“We’re happy to accommodate special food requirements as long as we know about them in advance,” he says. “We need at least two to three hours, for example, if we’re going to make a gluten-free sponge cake.”
It’s a matter of safety, he adds. “The last thing we want is for one of our guests to get sick as a result of dining at our restaurants. We’re here to take care of them in any way that we can, and making sure they eat well is a part of our role.”
Another hotel chain which attempts to cater for specific dietary requirements is Jumeirah. Although they do not offer specific menus for the gluten intolerant, they will cater for any guest who makes it clear that they can’t eat certain foods.
“We at Jumeirah understand the extra precautions that are vital when serving a coeliac guest,” says Gabriele Kurz, the Madinat Jumeirah’s well-being chef, whose role it is to oversee the menus at the resort’s 25 restaurants.
“We offer a good selection of generic, gluten-free items on our menus at all of our restaurants in the Madinat Jumeirah,” she adds. “While many of these are not highlighted as gluten-free, we’re happy to explain how they’re made, and specific gluten-free dishes can easily be prepared for guests upon request.”
In her opinion, the demand for gluten-free food is not limited to the UAE; it’s a rising trend in the western world. “The good news is that a coeliac person still has ample choice of food items,” she adds. “Basically, all fish, meat, poultry, vegetables, fruits, herbs and nuts are gluten-free. A number of starches can also be consumed, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, quinoa, rice, lentils, millet and polenta.”
The preparation of a dish is important too, she says. “Traces of gluten can be found in ready-to-eat preparations such as ketchup, mayonnaise, soy sauce, some yogurts and ice creams. They will not harm anyone living gluten-free as a lifestyle choice, but they will certainly be harmful to a person who is coeliac.”
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