x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

On the hunt for a healthy meal in the UAE

In a region where restaurants advertise all-you-can-eat offers and roll out international buffets galore, where fast-food outlets compete for customers in every mall healthy eating doesn't come easy in the UAE.

A healthy salmon dish prepared by Gus Moustakas, the executive chef at the Porto Bello Restaurant from the diabetic menu at the Grand Millennium Hotel in Abu Dhabi.
A healthy salmon dish prepared by Gus Moustakas, the executive chef at the Porto Bello Restaurant from the diabetic menu at the Grand Millennium Hotel in Abu Dhabi.

In a region where restaurants advertise all-you-can-eat offers and roll out international buffets galore, where fast-food outlets compete for customers in every mall and corner shops are prepared to deliver junk food straight to your door, healthy eating doesn't come easy in the UAE.

That said, if recent face-lifts to restaurant menus are anything to go by, things are changing. From nutritional information appearing on lunchtime salads and sandwiches, to new menus with a clear health focus, the food industry seems to be waking up to the fact that increasingly, people want to be able to make informed choices about what they are eating. Andreas Borgmann, the co-owner of Kcal in Dubai's Jumeirah Lake Towers, says the idea for this healthy fast-food restaurant - every dish on the varied menu contains 300 calories or less - was born out of a recognition of the importance of transparency. "People in the UAE were becoming more aware of the need to eat healthily, but this was proving to be very difficult. Even ordering a 'healthy' salad from a takeaway is not always ideal, very rarely is any nutritional information displayed on the menu," he says.

Not only are all the dishes on the menu at Kcal (from the beef burger and whole-wheat bun to the sweet banana sushi with chocolate sauce) calorie controlled, they are also approved by registered nutritionists who, Borgmann says "work closely with the chefs to perfect every dish. Each gram of protein, carbohydrate and fat is counted and all our food is grilled or baked, never fried." The bonus, however, is that this information is readily available. "We strive to provide our customers with honest and truthful information detailing the nutritional value of each dish," says Borgmann.

As part of an ongoing initiative, prompted by the results of a global survey which found that 83 per cent of their international guests agreed with the statement "I am focusing more on eating healthy and well-balanced meals today than I was in the past", Fairmont Hotels and Resorts worldwide is attempting to provide its customers with healthier dining options.

Consequently, the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr in Abu Dhabi has launched Lifestyle Cuisine Plus, an eclectic menu available in all the restaurants at the hotel. Diners can select from a list of heart-healthy options (with dishes such as herb-roasted chicken breast with chickpea and tabbouleh salad), a menu suitable for people suffering from diabetes (offering a range of grilled meats and seafood and even a sugar-free apple and cinnamon bread pudding), vegan starters, including roast beetroot salad with horseradish dressing, main courses (such as spicy penne arrabiata) and desserts, as well as items suitable for those following a gluten-free diet (for example Cornish crab cake with cucumber salad, seared scallops and lobster with pea purée).

This enthusiasm for promoting healthy eating is being felt across the region. Just before Ramadan, in late July, the Millennium and Copthorne hotel group began a campaign to provide menus for people with diabetes in all its hotels in the Middle East. The menu was designed by the Grand Millennium Al Wahda's executive chef, Gus Moustakas, in collaboration with a diabetes expert from Mafraq Hospital in Abu Dhabi. It debuted at Porto Bello, the hotel's Italian restaurant.

Moustakas explains that while the menu was created with the intention of providing those who suffer from diabetes with nutritionally balanced options, he also had something to prove. "Healthy meals don't have to be bland or uninspiring. It is very possible to create great-tasting food using natural flavour enhancers - herbs, spices, fruit, things like that.

"The menu is suitable for anyone who wants to eat restaurant food without worrying that the meal is laden with fat and calories," he says. At the moment, diners can choose from dishes such as shrimp and coriander soup, filet mignon with steamed barley and peppercorn sauce and salmon with wilted spinach and cumin black beans.

Ivan Sanchez, the chef de cuisine at Ember Grill and Lounge, The Address Dubai Mall, put together the Healthy Glow lunch menu after listening to feedback from guests. "More and more customers were beginning to request healthy dishes or ask for items to be modified, for less butter to be used in the preparation or for the dressing to be served on the side. It became clear that rather than heavy, rich dishes, people were keen to try more healthy options, particularly at lunchtime," he says.

The Healthy Glow menu features plenty of fruit and vegetables, favours grilling or steaming over deep-frying and uses very little butter or cream. Options include beef fillet salad with mango salsa, roasted chicken and lime soup, grilled sea bream with chickpeas and seared tuna salad (recipe below). The menu is served at lunchtime on weekends and has proved so popular that Sanchez hasn't felt it necessary to offer the usual à la carte choices. It is a far cry from a traditional Dubai brunch and yet, he hasn't received any complaints, which certainly says something about our eating habits.

Salmon with baby spinach and cumin black beans (From the diabetic menu at the Grand Millennium Al Wahda)

Serves 2

2 x 180g pieces salmon fillets, skin on

For the black beans:

1 tbsp olive oil

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed

onion, peeled and finely chopped

160g cooked black beans


For the raspberry vinaigrette (optional):

60g raspberries

20ml extra-virgin olive oil

10ml raspberry vinegar


For the spinach:

1 tbsp olive oil

1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed

200g baby spinach


To garnish:

handful mixed salad leaves

4 cherry tomatoes, quartered

salt and black pepper


Season the salmon fillets with salt and black pepper. Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Add the salmon fillets, skin-side up and cook for six minutes, then carefully flip the fish over and cook for a further two minutes.

While the salmon is cooking, heat another tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan. Add the cumin seeds, followed a minute later by the garlic and onion. Cook for three to four minutes, until the onion has softened slightly. Add the black beans to the pan and toss together to combine. Season with salt and black pepper and leave to warm through while you prepare the rest of the meal.

If you decide to make the vinaigrette, tip the raspberries, olive oil and vinegar into a small blender and blend until you have a smooth, emulsified liquid.

Place a pan over a medium heat, add the olive oil and garlic and cook for two minutes. Tip the spinach into the pan, season and cook for one to two minutes, or until the leaves just begin to wilt.

Divide the black beans between two plates and place a pile of wilted spinach on each one. Arrange the salmon fillets on top of the black beans, add the salad leaves and cherry tomatoes and drizzle over the raspberry vinaigrette, if using.

Seared tuna salad (From Ember's Healthy Glow menu)

Serves 2

For the tuna:

1 tbsp olive oil

2 x 100g pieces tuna fillet


For the dressing:

20g dried hibiscus flowers

75ml boiling water

10ml fish sauce

1 tsp brown sugar

2 tbsp olive oil


For the tomatoes:

100g tomatoes, as many different varieties as you can find

lemon, juice only

2 tbsp olive oil


To garnish:

2 large handfuls mixed lettuce leaves (lollo rosso, red chard, mizuna, etc)

2 scoops avocado sorbet (optional restaurant garnish)

salt and black pepper

To make the dressing, tip the hibiscus flowers into a bowl, cover with the boiling water and leave to infuse for 15 minutes before straining through a fine sieve.

Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan over a high heat. When you can feel a strong heat rising from the pan, add the tuna fillets and cook for 1 minute on each side. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Pour the strained hibiscus liquid into a bowl. Stir in the fish sauce and the sugar and whisk together vigorously, until the sugar has dissolved. Add the olive oil and season with black pepper; you won't need to add any salt because the fish sauce is already quite salty.

Roughly chop the tomatoes, tip into a bowl and drizzle over the lemon juice and olive oil.

Slice the tuna fillet horizontally into 3cm thick slices (it should be pink in the centre) and season with a touch of salt and black pepper.

Pour half of the dressing over the mixed lettuce leaves and toss together to coat. Drizzle a little of the leftover dressing over the base of two serving plates and arrange the tuna slices on top. Place a pile of tomatoes on one side of the tuna and a handful of dressed lettuce leaves on the other.

Chef Sanchez garnished the dish with a spoonful of avocado sorbet for a restaurant-style finish - the recipes works perfectly well without this.