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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Heart of Sharjah food tour is brimming with memories and munchies

Frying Pan Adventures and the Heart of Sharjah project serve up the culture, tradition and foods that have stood the test of time in the old districts of Sharjah in a limited-edition tour – #savourSHJ trail – this month.
Arva Ahmed, left, and Fatima Salim Shuwaihi lead the #savourSHJ trail. Satish Kumar / The National
Arva Ahmed, left, and Fatima Salim Shuwaihi lead the #savourSHJ trail. Satish Kumar / The National

The Heart of Sharjah is a district full of contrasts. For old-timers, it is an area of the city – home to Shurooq, Al Shuwaihean and Al Mareija area – that is ageing gracefully with the help of the government’s 2025 cultural restoration project. For newcomers, the exposed original foundations of coral and seashells provide glimpses of 1950s UAE.

While the structured souqs are gradually taking shape where once a pleasant chaos of merchants’ stalls stood, it is still home to plenty of tales of Iranian traders, pearl-diving history and Indian food vendors.

But sniffing out these sweet stories and lingering aromatic food requires guides who can regale visitors with their own childhood and family memories.

That’s what Dubai-based food- tours company Frying Pan Adventures, in collaboration with a team from the government initiative Heart of Sharjah, is out to achieve with its limited-­edition #savourSHJ trail, will run on January 16 and 28.

Arva Ahmed, co-founder of the company, and Heart of Sharjah events head Fatima Al Shuwaihi – Al Shuwaihean area is named after her family – present the culture and traditions of Sharjah on a plate.

Food and nostalgia

“The tour is all about food of nostalgia,” says Ahmed during a preview. It begins in the Al Shurooq area, lined with the foundations of old houses that have been excavated and restored by the government.

“It’s how Fatima and I remember eating while growing up.”

Al Shuwaihi says: “It is also a delicate balance between old and new to attract people back here. And we aren’t just talking about fancy cafes, but also little Indian guys who opened up stalls and have expanded them into small cafeterias now.”

There are eight food stops on the tour, which lasts for almost four hours. They illustrate the sheer diversity of the emirate. Treats offered include brewed karak chai at a majlis; soft, fluffy pockets of Afghan bread stuffed with potatoes; deep-fried sambusa crushed with Chips Oman in samoon bread from an Indian cafeteria; an egg and tomato dish from a Syrian haunt that has become a popular stop for thespians before rehearsals; and roasted nakhay (baby chickpeas) from Iran.

Our stop at one of the tiny cafeterias in the old souq evokes a charming memory for Al Shuwaihi.

“This is one of the oldest cafeterias in the area,” says Al Shuwaihi.

The Emirati guide was born in the Heart of Sharjah’s Bait Al Serkal building that housed the 150-year-old Sarah Hosman Hospital, the first in the Emirate.

“When my family lived in this area, a Mr Ibrahim of the cafeteria used to carry a carton of sambusa in samoon bread on his head and walk around the neighbourhood selling it.”

Ahmed balances out these personal experiences by adding well-researched details about the origins of certain dishes and their introduction into modern Arab cuisine.

Another tour highlight is the Omani halwa factory, tucked in the heart of the 200-year-old Souq Al Arsah. Our group is not only treated to the caramelised sugar, nuts and saffron-laden Middle Eastern dessert, but we also get to take in the overpowering concoction of smells from the cardamom and ghee at the halwa workstation, too.

The trail also underscores how young Emiratis have revived an appetite for traditional local fare such as Maleh (salted fish) and the soda drink dubbed Namlet.

The name of the latter, we learn from Al Shuwaihi, stems from a cultural misunderstanding.

“In the olden days, the elderly people misunderstood the word lemonade as namlet and that’s how the name has come about,” she says

Step back in time

The tour is also a chance to examine the progress made by the Heart of Sharjah project, which began in 2010. We are taken to the Archaeological Findings Room, which displays the original foundations of the souq that were unearthed after a radar survey of the area.

We are also invited to meet retired Emiratis, who recall colourful tales of their youth and the Emirate’s history over a game of cards and dominoes at the Majlis Al Shaabi.

Along with the Zam Zam textile market, the area is a treasure trove of everything from stylish abayas to 180-year-old pots.

We also check out some of the souq shops that have stood the test of time and appeal to a younger crowd, thanks to a facelift that includes sliding glass doors and sturdier metal fixtures.

It is this seamless blend of the old and new that makes the #savourSHJ trail so compelling. Stories proudly blended with history have carved a space in today’s modern environment – it is a small yet fitting tribute to what Sharjah was and is still all about.

The #savourSHJ trail runs on January 16 and 28 from 10am in the Heart of Sharjah. The tour costs Dh299, inclusive of refreshments. Participants will be given discounts on the Careem cab service. For details, visit www.fryingpanadventures.com/sharjah​

aahmed@thenational.ae