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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

A voyage of food discovery: Dubai's walking food tours

We talk to the blogger Arva Ahmed, whose love of seeking out unassuming restaurants with speciality dishes in Deira has prompted her to launch Frying Pan Food Adventure tours, to share her favourites with the public.
Arva Ahmed, centre, with one of her walking food tour groups at Samadi Sweets in Deira. Jaime Puebla / The National
Arva Ahmed, centre, with one of her walking food tour groups at Samadi Sweets in Deira. Jaime Puebla / The National

Deira, with its bright lights, busy streets and jumble of grocery stores, electrical shops, mix and match hypermarkets and countless little cafes, restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints is, says Arva Ahmed, her "hood". And not only does she know this area inside out - a feat in itself - she can tell you exactly where the best food is to be found.

Ahmed is blessed with a knack of unearthing hidden food gems in old Dubai. She has an ability to make sense of this melee of restaurants (and the countless dishes that they serve) and home in on the items that they do best.

To do this, she says that she relies partly on instinct; a certain feeling telling her to try a place that would need to be properly gussied up before most people give it a second look. But this sort of acumen requires hard work, too. She has invested time and effort trawling the city by both car and foot - eyes peeled, nose quivering - in search of the next spot to pique her taste buds. "I get excited when there is an element of discovery about eating and that's why I've always focused more on smaller, lesser-known restaurants," she says. "I love the idea that it gives me something new to share with the world. So many of these places look like such shacks. You have no expectations of them when you walk in and then suddenly they surprise you with something you wouldn't have tried anywhere else."

In 2010, Ahmed began sharing her discoveries via her blog I Live in a Frying Pan (tagline: "Sizzling up hole-in-the-wall ethnic eats of old Dubai") and has, quite rightly, come to be known as something of an expert on the subject. She also writes Food Obsession each Thursday, in this Arts&Life section. Combine this passion with a keen business mind (she has an MBA in Marketing and Operations and set up a catering service from her dormitory room while at university) and perhaps it's not surprising that in November 2011 she struck upon the idea of launching her very own food tours. Frying Pan Food Adventures is set to open to the public in the next few weeks, with a view to exploring the eateries that Ahmed knows so well, yet remain unexplored territory for many, including long-term residents.

"This all started because I wanted to find out how I could connect with the city and help people to understand that there is a whole other side of Dubai, a part that feels authentic," she explains. "Dubai began as a trading port; what happens when you have trade is that you have so many different cultures coming in and trying to make the place their home and that is reflected in the food."

As she set about turning this into a reality, Ahmed says that her goals for the tour began to change."I want people to understand that Dubai can play an important role in maintaining the culinary history of the Middle East," she says. "The city is doing a fabulous job of preserving regional specialities and giving people the opportunity to taste dishes from Iraq, from Lebanon, from Syria, that they wouldn't otherwise be able to try."

When she eats food from a certain country, Ahmed says that, however briefly, she wants to feel like she is part of that culture. It is this ethos that in part informs her tours. "During that time, we won't just be eating, we'll be talking about the history and the culture of the food and its country, discussing the politics or sharing interesting facts. It's important to me that I provide a story to go with the food," she says.

Experiencing the tour first-hand

It's 6.30pm on a Thursday evening and Muraggabat Street in Deira is buzzing. The weekend is here and there's a sense of anticipation in the air - or perhaps that's just among the group that has gathered to take part in the Arabian Foodie Pilgrimage led by Arva Ahmed.

Knowing her crowd, Ahmed quickly seats all eight of us (her ideal number for the tour, as it happens) at the first restaurant. After a brief chat with the manager, she's off, introducing herself and the tours in effervescent, energetic fashion and handing over a goody bag filled with essentials - water bottle, map and wet wipes included.

We kick off the evening by trying fluffy and light-as-you-like falafel mahshi and hummus, before the first of two revelations from this Palestinian restaurant. First up, musakhan, a sort of open chicken pie featuring moist roasted meat and soft, slowly sweated, sumac-tinged onions arranged on top of thin layers of bread that quickly soak up the sour-sweet juices. After that, we move on to something sweet. "You can never just talk about kunafa, you have to eat kunafa," says Ahmed - and so we do. Served extra hot, as requested, it is perhaps the best version of this dessert I have ever had: sour, salty, creamy and sweet and topped with crunchy ground semolina.

Minutes later and we're on the move, this time in the direction of a baklava shop to sample sweets. What's key here is portion sizes; there are eight of us, yet Ahmed only orders one of each dish, meaning that we nibble and taste, but don't fill ourselves up, which is a very good thing considering what lies ahead.

It would be a shame to spoil the surprise for those who take the tour in the future, but let's just say that the rest of this eating odyssey includes freshly baked manakeesh spiked with sumac and sujak from a Lebanese fast-food place on Al Rigga road, as well as a brief sojourn in a Yemeni restaurant where we removed our shoes, sat on the floor in our private carpeted (indoor) tent and ate chicken mazbi and mundi with our hands.

After a brief stop at a spice shop (with Ahmed's tips for seeking out quality saffron thrown in, we ended the evening with an Iranian-inspired feast which featured the much-loved chelo kebab, bowls of tangy fesenjoon and rice laced with barberries (zereshk polo), among other dishes. I left the restaurant replete and relaxed, as I'm sure did the rest of the group. From the online booking process through to the informative text message that I received on the day, Frying Pan tours provided an efficient, personable service. Not only that, while Ahmed knows her subject inside out, she's also charmingly self-deprecating and the best type of teacher: one that feeds you bites of information and then asks questions and ignites conversations. I'm certainly keen to try the other tours that Frying Pan offers. For a taste of Dubai that you might otherwise miss out on, I recommend others do the same.

The tours

Cost - Dh350 per person for the standard tours.

Duration - Three-and-a half to four hours. The tours begin at 6.30pm at a designated spot. Participants can either meet there or catch a specially provided bus at 5.45pm from Mall of the Emirates (return transport provided). Depending on the tour, you will visit four to six restaurants, trying approximately eight dishes.

Little India on a plate

A whistle-stop exploration of Meena Bazaar or Little India, as it's otherwise known. Sample street snacks, watch bread being traditionally prepared, sip cooling lassi and tuck into an uber-version of chicken tikka, if you so wish.

Arabian foodie pilgrimage

An informative jaunt through Deira, taking in Lebanese, Egyptian, Yemeni and Iranian dishes.

Cook up your own tour

The chance for a group to have a tour tailor-made for them, whether it be friends celebrating a birthday or a company on a team-building mission. More themed tours, including a North African food safari, will be added in time.

 

Be one of the first to take a Frying Pan Food Adventures tour: watch www.fryingpanadventures.com for news of the upcoming launch date, search Facebook and Twitter

eshardlow@thenational.ae