With the UAE being a melting pot of more than 200 nationalities, authentic cultural cuisine from around the world is all around us. And, as John Henzell finds, most of it is cheap and cheerful.
If it's cheap and authentic, this group is always ready for a meal
When you want to look at Abu Dhabi's status as a foodies' city, ignore the celebrity chefs who have recently flocked to the capital and focus instead on a small but well-travelled group who meet for a meal each week.
There are no Michelin stars where they go. The restaurants they choose are more likely to feature decor that looks like it could be cleaned with a fire hose.
But as one of the group's organisers, Shaneez Hameed, puts it, the UAE's huge population of expatriates means Abu Dhabi is one of the best places in the world to sample a vast range of cheap and authentic ethnic food.
That's an assessment that is equally true of Dubai, according to food blogger Arva Ahmed, an occasional contributor to The National who specialises in the small, ethnic eateries around Deira. After two years of eating out several times a week, she estimates she has only sampled around one tenth of the restaurants and is always pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food.
With more than 200 nationalities present in the UAE, many of which have started eateries to provide their compatriots with a taste of home, Abu Dhabi and Dubai are being seen as underappreciated foodie destinations on a par with far more famous gourmand cities such as Hong Kong, San Francisco, New York, Singapore, Istanbul, London and Shanghai.
Since the Abu Dhabi group began their weekly cheap eats nights, they have sampled Ethiopian, Indian, Sichuan Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Saudi, Egyptian, Lebanese and others - and have barely scratched the surface of the capital's range of cuisines and, more amazingly, barely spent more than Dh30 per head.
The link bringing them together is they are all members of CouchSurfers, an international travelling organisation.
With four million members worldwide, the group connects travellers with former globetrotters who are temporarily city-bound but willing to host a stranger on their couch and show them around. Abu Dhabi has more than 1,000 CouchSurfing members, with nearly twice as many in Dubai.
And if the range of restaurants is cosmopolitan, the group is even more so, comprising Indians, Canadians, Americans, Britons, Syrians, Jordanians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, New Zealanders, Germans, Peruvians, Italians, Koreans, Czechs, French, Ghanians, Sudanis, South Africans, Romanians, Slovenians, Slovakians, Irish, Palestinians, Lebanese, Emiratis and others.
This week’s CouchSurfers’ meal neatly encapsulated the process. It was hosted by Omar Hassib, originally from Sudan, and who had picked his choice for the best Sudanese restaurant in the city, Abu Al Afowal, to expose the CouchSurfing group to his national cuisine.
But with 30 people expected to attend, they feared overwhelming the small Tourist Club restaurant and so they opted to order takeaways and eat them in the apartment of another CouchSurfer living nearby.
The verdict on the Sudanese food was positive, with one of those present describing it as “the sudani foul was delicious and flavourful, especially when matched with warm crusty bread”.
Hameed, a construction IT professional who has been in Abu Dhabi for nine years, said this kind of culinary experience wasn’t available in his native Bangalore.
“In India, you have limited choices. Here you have a mixture,” he said. “Here it’s cheap and, in other parts of the world, you can find ethnic food but it’s €50 [Dh233] or more for dinner.
“Overseas, ethnic is exotic but, here, what’s exotic for me is someone else’s local food.”
That neatly captures the best aspect of the UAE’s ethnic dining scene: mostly the restaurants are serving food to their compatriots, so it is authentic rather than tamed to suit unfamiliar palates. It’s also very, very cheap.
The CouchSurfing group began their meal nights two years ago and it became a regular weekly event about three months ago. Hameed says the only criterion is the restaurant “has to be something cheap, like a meal for less than Dh30-40”.
For the blogger Ahmed, that principle applies equally to Dubai. Born in Hyderabad, she grew up in Dubai then lived in New York for nearly 10 years. When the 29-year-old former management consultant returned to Dubai two years ago, she discovered that, even in comparison with one of the world’s most famous gourmand cities, it was able to hold its ground as a foodies’ capital.
Her blog, I Live In A Frying Pan, now specialises in the obscure cheap eats where many of Dubai’s best-kept culinary secrets can be found. The range is vast: two years in, she still feels like she has only sampled a handful of Old Dubai’s restaurants.
“When I started my blog two years ago, I was blogging about everything under the sun – recipes and restaurants,” she said.
“I realised over time that it was the hidden, cheap places that were reminding me of the Dubai that I grew up in.
“I was really tired of the hyped restaurants. What I loved about New York – and it would be the same in London or wherever – is you wouldn’t want to sit in a restaurant like Chili’s or TGI Fridays that could be anywhere else in the world. You wanted to sit in a restaurant that felt like it was a part of the place you’re in.”
The city she returned to was almost unrecognisable but, for all the newly built areas, she kept her focus on Old Dubai, where her family had lived since 1989.
“I think when you’re looking at new Dubai, they have gourmet food and dining but I do feel that people are overpaying for what they are getting,” she added.
“When you go into Old Dubai, the service might not be there but the prices are so low. Yesterday I paid a total of Dh25, including a tip, for my share of a meal at a Hyderabadi restaurant that included biryani, another rice dish, a chicken dish, a mutton curry and two desserts between three of us.”
Judging the food objectively was tough because Ahmed’s mother is an exemplary Hyderabadi cook who set a “snobbishly high” standard for regional specialities.
After a meal that included a couple of disappointing dishes, Ahmed’s trio was offered a traditional Hyderabadi dessert.
“It was the highlight of the whole meal,” she added. “Fine, there might be a couple of misses on the menu but I’d rather do that than pay Dh200-plus for a fine-dining restaurant.”
The cheap price comes at its own cost. In New York, she became accustomed to the waiting staff being able to talk intelligently about the food being served, especially if it involved high-end ingredients like foie gras or truffles.
At the Hyderabadi restaurant, when Ahmed and a fellow Hyderabadi told the waiter that the khatta (“a clear sour soupy dish with onions, tamarind and the unmistakable nuttiness of sesame”) they were served did not deserve the term, the response was a shrug.
But for all that, the experiences confirm her passion for hole-in-the-wall places. Part of the appeal is the sense of discovery and the low expectations, which she aptly described in a tongue-in-cheek blog post three months ago as the “oversimplified food-experience graph”.
If the food is good, but she expects it to be good – such as with her mother’s gravied mushed cauliflower – the effect is merely satisfying. But if she has no expectations, such as with the dessert at the Hyderabadi restaurant, and it proves excellent, she’s ecstatic.
By her own estimate, from having eaten out two to five times a week in the two years since she returned, Ahmed has tried about 200 different restaurants.
“I really don’t know the number. I do some places multiple times. I think I’ve done 10 to 15 per cent [of the restaurants in Old Dubai].”
Her passion is such that her blog is morphing from being a work of unpaid passion to a career. Earlier this year, she left her job with her family’s heavy equipment machinery business and is setting up a cheap-eats gourmet walking tour of Old Dubai, to be launched in October.
“The biggest thing isn’t the cheap eats. It’s great that it’s cheap but it’s not just about that or even the value of what you’re getting. It’s about learning something different.
“I found out how to make this three-foot-long Iranian bread. I wouldn’t have seen this anywhere else. For me, it’s the experience. If I haven’t seen it before, it means I’ll have to go back and research it and learn all about it.”
And there is no danger of running out of places to go, even if they do manage to make it to the vast number of cheap restaurants in Old Dubai.
“I haven’t explored Sharjah but I think it will be the cheap-food capital of the UAE,” said Ahmed. “It’s totally untapped.”
Some of the group's favourite places:
Evergreen Vegetarian Restaurant
Where Off Hamdan Street, near Salaam Street What Vegetarian thali
Where Off Electra, near Muroor Road What Paneer butter masala
Where Hamdan Street, near Mercure Hotel What Falafel
Russian Kitchen House Cafe
Where Near Russian Embassy, off Salaam Street What Stuffed cabbage leaves
Where Behind Adnoc on Salaam Street What Delhi chana chaat
Mongolian Hot Pot
Where Airport Road, near Al Wahda Mall What Stir-fried spicy chicken
Where Off Passport Road, near Abu Dhabi Mall What Nasi goreng
Where Off Muroor Road, near Defence Road What Cheese, olive manaqish
Where Defence Road, near Muroor Road What Shawarma with fatoush
Bonna Annee Ethiopian Restaurant
Where Off Salaam Street, near Passport Road What Injera and wat
Where Passport Road near Muroor What Turkish kebab
Where Off 15th Street, near Muroor Road What Labnah pastry
Royal Rajasthan Restaurant
Where Off Hamdan Street, near Liwa Centre What Cashew curry
Butt Sweet House
Where Electra, between Muroor and Airport Roads What Jalebi
Where Satwa Road, near Diyafah Street, Satwa What Nihari (slow-cook beef)
Al Reef Lebanese Bakery
Where Al Wasl Road, near Safa Park, Jumeirah What Tomato, labneh pastry
Aapa Kadai Restaurant
Where Dubai Marina What Mango fish curry