Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 October 2019

There's no better global food city than Dubai, let me explain why

Most people have no idea of the depth and breadth of the culinary treasures that hide in the suburbs of Dubai

If you venture out to the city’s cheap and cheerful eateries you’ll also meet some of its best folk, like Majeed Al Ustad, the passionately hospitable Iranian whose family run Ustad Special Kabab Iranian restaurant in Bur Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
If you venture out to the city’s cheap and cheerful eateries you’ll also meet some of its best folk, like Majeed Al Ustad, the passionately hospitable Iranian whose family run Ustad Special Kabab Iranian restaurant in Bur Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National

There is no better food city in the world than Dubai. It’s a bold statement, but I stand by it, and here’s why: the saffron chicken at Al Ustad Special Kebab. The bal kaymak at Kaftan. The burek at 21 Grams. The barbacoa taco at El Mostacho. The meskouf fish at Samad Al Iraqi. The roti canai at Mamak. The ramen at Daikan. The Gujarati thali at Rasoi Ghar. The explosively spicy hand-pulled noodles at Chongqing. The sujuk fatayer at Mama’esh.

These are some of my favourite things, and I could go on and on and on.

These Dubai dishes are served from Umm Suqeim to International City, and all cost less than Dh60 (noodles at Chongqinq are a paltry Dh10 per sloppy, delicious plate). Between them, the dishes represent the cuisines of Iraq, Palestine, Turkey, India, Malaysia, China, Japan, Mexico and the Balkans, and they collectively sum up how cosmopolitan Dubai is.

I am often frustrated by the two-­dimensional (and frankly quite racist) visions some people have of Dubai. News flash: a 12-hour transit in which you hop on a bus and go to a mall does not mean you know a city. Or, even more common, if you’ve never been to a place then you aren’t an expert on it (I’ve had to eye-roll my way through many a dinner party overseas in which a person who has never even skimmed the Middle East tells me what I should think of the city I’ve called home for 10 years).

Most people truly have no idea how vibrant Dubai is beyond its more obvious sites. People from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Britain, Syria, New Zealand (like me), India, Palestine, Azerbaijan, Ukraine – again, I could go on – all live side by side here. Being in the UAE means learning about different cultures, respecting the unique traditions people hold dear and, much to my delight, eating their diverse foods.

Within 500 metres of my apartment on Al Wasl Road I have an Emirati seafood spot, a Bosnian restaurant, a Keralan fried fish spot, an Australian cafe, a Syrian restaurant and, again, I could go on

I’ve lived in Europe, in the antipodes, in South-East Asia, and in other parts of the Middle East, and I can hand on heart say that, at least for me, there’s no better global food city than Dubai.

Sure, New Zealand has seafood to die for, but their Lebanese offerings are limited. I ate phenomenal food when I lived in Malaysia, but you certainly won’t find the range of Caucasus cuisine in Kuala Lumpur that’s on offer in Dubai’s newer suburbs.

The diversity of this city filters down to its food, and it’s a better place because of it. Within 500 metres of my apartment on Al Wasl Road I have an Emirati seafood spot, a Bosnian restaurant, a Keralan fried fish spot, an Australian cafe, a Syrian restaurant and, again, I could go on. Sometimes my friends bemoan the fact they can’t get something they love from back home here, but their complaints leave me unstirred: go out and find something new.

When I have visitors in town, I now almost refuse to show them the “ski slope”, which is often requested (you can catch a Careem there if you’re that keen). Instead, I like to take them on my own little food tour.

I explain to them that in Dubai, you don’t “go out for a curry”, you choose your Indian restaurant based on distinct regional and dietary specifications. I show them that in Dubai, you don’t simply “grab some hummus”, you instead will find variations of the dish based on the Levant country that inspired the eatery you’re in (Beiruti is my favourite, although the levels of garlic can, at times, be anti-social).

I walk visitors to my local mosque bakery on a Friday morning to show them that in Dubai, you don’t just add a naan on to your curry order if you want a tandoor-baked bread. You certainly can, but you can also go to Quraishi Bakery in Al Manara for freshly baked Afghan bread that is so moreish you can eat it plain.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - August 22 2013 - Sayed Gul,32, bakes Afghani bread at the Ibrahim Al Nubi Ali Bakery in Safa Al Qouz residential area of Dubai for residents of that area. He has been living in the UAE for two years. Tags: STANDALONE (Razan Alzayani / The National) *** Local Caption *** RA0922_ibrahim_bakery_003.jpg
Sayed Gul bakes Afghani bread at the Ibrahim Al Nubi Ali Bakery in Al Quoz. Photo: Razan Alzayani / The National

Or you can drive up to Hor Al Anz and order a foot-long sangak bread, a traditional Iranian concoction that’s sprinkled in sesame seeds and cooked on piping hot pebbles (it’s best eaten almost immediately). Again, I could go on, but basically, find a mosque in more traditional parts of the city and you’re highly likely to find a small bakery run by passionate people, pumping out the bread of dreams.

And that’s exactly the thing I love best about the food scene in the city: the passionate people. From the laid-back Thai team at Sticky Rice to the renowned Keralan crew at Calicut Paragon and the flamboyantly hospitable Iranian family at Al Ustad Special Kebab, if you venture out to the city’s cheap and cheerful eateries you’ll meet some of its best folk. And they’ll tell you a story of their culture through their food.

Updated: September 19, 2019 05:57 PM

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