Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 August 2019

Dubai's Ramadan pop-ups and the rise of the one-dirham snack

Hundreds of savoury snacks are fried at pop-up stalls wheeled out during Ramadan, contributing to the UAE's multicultural iftar plate

Employees of Bait Al Shay fry pakoras and samosas to sell to hungry customers. Antonie Robertson / The National
Employees of Bait Al Shay fry pakoras and samosas to sell to hungry customers. Antonie Robertson / The National

Halfway into Ramadan, the traditions on display during the holy month are in full swing. Tents stand on vacant lots, garlands of lights are strung over streets, and, each night, pop-up snack stalls are rolled out before humble cafes, serving pakoras and samosas by the hundreds.

After all, it isn’t Ramadan without pakora. Just ask Ismail Moosa.

Mr Moosa prepares for iftar every night by frying 10 kilograms of pakoras. It takes hours. Each fried vegetable fritter weighs no more than a few grams and has a diameter slightly larger than a dirham.

Ramadan snacks like these are essential to business success for small restaurants and cafeterias in Dubai during the holy month. They supplement income during a month when would-be customers fast during the day and take complimentary iftar dinners at neighbourhood mosques.

Workers refil containers with freshly fried pakora at Bait Al Shay cafeteria in Al Quoz. Antonie Robertson / The National
Workers refil containers with freshly fried pakora at Bait Al Shay cafeteria in Al Quoz. Antonie Robertson / The National

Orders for full meals and sandwiches at small cafeterias may plummet during Ramadan, but the one-dirham snacks keep business ticking.

“This doesn’t stop,” said Mr Moosa, pointing at buckets of pakora in front of him.

Cars park in front of Bait Al Shay, the cafeteria where Mr Moosa works in Al Quoz, from 4pm until 4am to get takeaway parcels of the seasonal treats. By dawn, the cafeteria will have sold 1,200 fried samosas, 500 luqaimat dumplings and buckets of pakora.

Every part of the world has its signature Ramadan snacks. The UAE iftar plate has come to be an amalgamation thanks in part to street pop-ups like these that open an hour or two before sunset and draw in neighbourhood residents.

Even the Iranians next door at Mohammed Gulam Abbas bakery break their fast with a few deep-fried green chillies.

“In Dubai, we’re eating everything,” said Abdul Samar Ali Asker, 58, a bakery employee who incorporates both Keralan and Emirati food into his evening iftar plate.

The Iranian bakery has made its own cultural additions to the iftars of Al Quoz. Ash-e reshteh, a hearty legume and vegetable soup, sells best in Ramadan when people break their daylight fast with dates, laban and soup.

Customers pick up orders of north and south Indian snacks at Ashibilia Restaurant in Al Quoz, Dubai. Antonie Robertson / The National
Customers pick up orders of north and south Indian snacks at Ashibilia Restaurant in Al Quoz, Dubai. Antonie Robertson / The National

A few streets away at Ashibilia Restaurant, Emirati customers pick up their favourite north and south Indian snacks like chana chat, a spicy chickpea salad, and pazham pori, plantain fritters fried in sweet batter.

During Ramadan, the cafeteria sells few meals but does a brisk trade in snacks after sunset, selling a nightly average of 1,200 samosas.

“That’s the Kerala items, speciality items,” said Sheikh Firdus Ammar, 42, a cook at the cafeteria.

Occasionally, residents place orders to be delivered to local mosques to be given to worshippers at iftar.

The snacks can be bought year-round, but only during Ramadan do they sell by the kilogram. Business is helped by the restaurant's location next door to Al Shandaga Traditional Kitchen, where customers pick up heavier Emirati dishes like harees and fareed stew, particularly popular during Ramadan. The combination of slow-cooked Emirati stews and South Asian snacks is popular.

Food is served at Ashibilia Restaurant in Al Quoz. Antonie Robertson / The National
Food is served at Ashibilia Restaurant in Al Quoz. Antonie Robertson / The National

“It’s crispy and people like to eat it,” said Mr Ammar’s colleague, Anwar, 23. “Arabic people nowadays, they are so used to these types of snacks.”

In turn, when foreign residents repatriate after years in the Gulf, they incorporate Gulf dishes into their family iftars.

Anwar, who moved to the UAE from Malappuram three years ago, still misses the fresh fruits of his native Kerala at iftar.

But for Mr Moosa, Ramadan in the Emirates feels like a Ramadan at home. Mr Moosa, now 39, has lived here 19 years.

“You are really feeling Ramadan in Dubai,” he said. “I can pray more in Dubai because we can rest in the day so everybody is praying. In Dubai, I feel very relaxed.”

Updated: May 20, 2019 01:26 PM

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