Amid rapid modernisation, this addictively tasty standard-bearer of everyday UAE gastronomy is as popular and under-the-radar as ever. Anna Zacharias travels across the country to find the secrets of the Chips Oman snack.
UAE National Day: in search of the Chips Oman sandwich
The classic version starts with a hot, flaky, fried paratha smothered in processed cheese and a generous splash of hot sauce that soaks into the star ingredient - crushed Chips Oman spicy crisps. And like all great sandwiches, the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.
The childhood favourite is the UAE's culinary equivalent to a hug, comforting and good if not exactly wholesome in all its simplicity. Some would even go so far as to call it the unofficial national dish, outstripping spiced biryani, harees porridge or luqaimat dumplings in terms of popularity.
And it's a sandwich perfectly adapted to its environment. Non-perishable ingredients mean that it can be prepared any time, any place. Thousands are served each day across the country, gobbled down for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and for midnight and midmorning snacks. Canteens once loved exclusively by lorry and cab drivers have become popular with Emirati youth since the humble sandwich hit the big time five years ago. It's ordered as takeout (never dine-in), and best enjoyed with a side of sugary cardamom tea from the comfort of a car.
Its precise origins are a mystery, but most believe the sandwich is a schoolboy creation from the 1980s or 1990s derived from the much-loved Chips Oman milkshake, laban stirred with crushed chips and a few drops of hot sauce.
The wrap is a close relative of other distinctly Gulf sandwiches like the ragagwich, processed cheese and a dollop of honey or fried egg wrapped in a thin Emirati crepe.
The country's most famous Chips Oman cafeteria is Baith Al Baraka (House of Blessings). Located in the Bain Al Jessrain area of Abu Dhabi, over the Maqta Bridge and across the creek from the Grand Mosque, it serves islanders and people from outlying Emirati suburbs. When military and police officers from the Northern Emirates commute to work in the capital, Baith Al Barakais their canteen of choice.
How to find them
The cook Abdullatif Mohammed, a 28-year-old Keralite, is a Chips Oman maker in a kitchen of bubbling curries, averaging 24 seconds for each sandwich - 200 a day. They cost Dh3, twice the price of those served around the corner at Bain Al Jessrain Restaurant.
The sandwich's particular combination of ingredients has led to almost mythical debates about its precise origins. The crisps are a product of a Sohar-based company in Oman, but Emiratis embrace the sandwich as their own. "I visited Oman. I didn't see it," says Sultan Al Mehrezi, 22, an Emirati from Ras Al Khaimah. "It came from before, from my brothers - 30 or 40 years ago maybe. It's not from the restaurant. It came from the people, the children." In his hometown of Masafi, the sandwich is sold from the corner shop.
Ras Al Khaimah's best Chips Oman cafeteria is found in the abaya district, surrounded by cloak and shaila shops at the edge of the Kuwait Street shopping district. Outside every abaya and textile shop is a small frankincence holder to lure shoppers inside.
Blue Sea has no need for frankincense. It entices customers with the smell of frying paratha.
"It's a habit now," says Ahmad Al Zaabi, 21, an advertisement inspector for RAK municipality. "We should eat it. We can't stand a day without eating it."
The suggestion that another brand of spicy crisps could be substituted causes aficionados much head-shaking, tut-tutting and brow-furrowing. "They keep trying new things but they always go back to this one, Chips Oman," he says with authority. "I started [eating Chips Oman sandwiches] maybe before I was driving. We can't get bored of it. Well, sometimes, maybe but after two or three hours we go back to it."
He currently averages four a day. "But not all at one time," he says quickly. "In the morning, in the night." It's a modest consumption, he adds. "My friends eat more than me. Small and thin people eat more than me and don't get fat.
"People shouldn't think it's for babies. It's not for babies. It's for everyone. Even my mum eats it."
Tariq Al Ali, 35, a policeman, is among the small minority of his generation who have not embraced the sandwich. His lips twitch into a frown when it's mentioned. "It's not good," he says. "This is for maybe another nationality, not locals. This is for the child. Girls and boys eat Chips Oman. Adults, khalas [finish]."
When his brother Mohammed, 25, eats Chips Oman sandwiches or mixes the crisps into his biryani, Al Ali dismisses this as a symptom of youth.
"Is it for boys?" asks Bu Abdulla, an Emirati from Dubai, shaking his head. "I mean, I'm in my 40s and I'm eating that especially. You can call it afternoon tea for us."
When the storm lashed Dubai last Thursday, Bu Abdulla hopped in his car at the Deira Souq and drove over the creek to a Za'abeel cafeteria. "Because it's raining and I want to remember," says the senior Dubai official, who did not give his full name. "A week ago I brought the top Arabic singers here and they came every day. It's crowded in the afternoon, crowded in the evening."
Tucked beside Mehan Gents Saloon and the Good Day Grocery, the Oyoun Al Reem (Eyes of the Ghazal) Cafeteria looks like any other canteen from the outside.
This is the birthplace of the Chips Oman sandwich and is where hungry Emiratis in Dubai gorge themselves on this standard-bearer of everyday UAE gastronomy, a towering institution that comes with a twist: sliced halal beef hot dogs in tomato sauce are added to the sandwich that is served in a bun instead of the standard paratha during the day. This variation is known as Chilies Za'abeel.
When celebrities want a taste of the real Dubai outside its hotels and away from the glitterati, this is where they are taken. "You know Shamma Hamdan and Hussain Al Jasmi?" says Eassa Obaid, 13, a Za'abeel resident and cafeteria regular. "They come here. And everyone comes here. Look at all the cars. Look, look, look."
As Eassa lists singers, celebrities and sheikhs, he points to a small parking lot full of SUVs with dark tints. Even at midday in midweek, the parking lot is packed. The only other clue to this cafeteria's fame is a sign on the door written in Arabic: "The mosque shop. Tshileez Za'abeel."
Eassa eats six sandwiches a day. He goes into the kitchen and produces a tab written on cardboard. "200, my bill," he says triumphantly.
"Even Akon [the American rapper] came here," says Bu Abdulla. "We brought here all the celebrities, all the Arabic celebrities ... during the day you'll see all the ministers. We're used to it."
Bu Abdulla recounts one time when he waited as the kitchen made more than 100 Chilies Za'abeel Chips Oman sandwiches for a member of the royal family.
"[This cafeteria], it's old, as much as the palm," said Bu Abdulla. "Before they had a municipality, before they had anything, they had this shop."
It was founded by a Keralite who came to the UAE 40 years ago to work for the police. "He was an office boy," says his son Hashif Hassan, who runs the cafeteria. After five years, he opened a grocery store and five years later he opened a cafeteria in a portacabin beside a mosque. It became known as "the mosque shop". Hassan, 35, took over the role of head sandwich maker five years ago following his father's retirement.
Last year they moved into a permanent space, within sight of Dubai's World Trade Centre at the edge of the Za'abeel neighbourhood.
Its Chips Oman sandwich preceded other cafeterias by at least 20 years.
And a sandwich still sells for just Dh3, no matter how rich its buyer.
"Same same," says Hassan.
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