Recently, I stumbled across an old photo album (if you call 2013 old) from a previous trip to Dubai. The biggest highlight of this trip for me, was a walking food tour that my Dad and I decided to do – not just because of all the ridiculously amazing food involved, but because it was such a great way to learn about different cultures and the way they cook and eat their food. It also opened a door to new flavours that I’d never had a chance to experience before – Arabian, Syrian, Turkish, Iranian, Lebanese, Jordanian and Yemeni.
Here’s a small glimpse of what a five-hour food education looks like.
Everyone loves a good falafel, right? Except, how can you tell if it’s a really good falafel or just an average imitation of one? You go to Dubai and walk into one of the oldest and most popular local joints for falafel, that’s how. Watching the Chef move light lightning between the falafel mould (yes, it’s done properly), the chickpea and chili paste was crazy! Assembling the finished product – Falafel Mahshi – with Hummus (definitely not your garden-variety bland stuff) in pocket-bread was extremely satisfying. We also ate some Jordanian Lamb Mansaf – cooked in a yogurt-based sauce – which was a bit sweet for me, though the meat was really, really tender.
The memory of my first bite of Kunafa – a Levantine cheese pastry drenched in sugar syrup – is still vivid in my mind. When our guide, Arva, mentioned a cheese sweet dish, I cringed, expecting some ghastly combination. What really happened, was love at first bite. Once you cut through the crispy layer of semolina to the gorgeous, stretchy, mozzarella-esqe Nabulsi cheese and take that first morsel, you’ll know what I’m talking about. The sugar syrup was so light, it just enhanced the flavour of the pastry. Heaven, absolute heaven. I refuse to even look for this gorgeous thing anywhere else and will go back to this very restaurant in Dubai, JUST for this. The Maamoul cookies stuffed with dates were also a favourite, and we ended up taking a small box of them home.
A short walk ahead, we reached an Arabian sweet-shop, where we sampled some delicious local treats. The Baklawa in particular, was so good, it made me weak at the knees! Arva took time to explain each dish to us and even explained the Baklawa Wars which took place between the Greeks and the Turks (and is still going on to this day) and explained the different baklawa names, which are based on the style or shape of the pastry. Everything is prepared and cooked in ghee and sugar syrup, which results in melt-on-your-tongue, buttery, flaky pastries – though nothing is overpoweringly sweet – and also involves a lot of dried fruit and nuts – dates, almonds and pistachios in particular. It’s sinful and delicious and if you don’t watch how much you eat (it’s hard to stop), you’ll go back home with the waistband of your jeans feeling just a little too tight!
The most unusual thing we tried here was the soapwort cream – made from the root of the soapwort plant, which is commonly used in the manufacture of soaps and detergents. Apparently, some people found the taste incredibly soapy and some of us (including me) found it to be quite pleasant tasting and not soapy at all – something Arva attributes to our tastebuds, and the different alkaline levels in our mouths. In case you were wondering, the soapwort cream is edible and non-toxic and went really well with the Karabji (pistachio cookies) that we tried. Of course, we also had some Arabic Gahwa coffee, which was strong enough to cut the sweetness from the pastries.
Next, we moved on to more savouries – in particular, a fast food joint that made the most delicious breads in their own brick-oven. This is where I fell in love with Za’atar (BTW here’s my recipe for super zesty Za’atar Chicken) – after trying the Za’atar and Cheese Manousheh. I also really enjoyed the Sujuk and Cheese Manousheh – sujuk is a spiced beef sausage, kind of like a Middle-Eastern version of the Italian sausage, or pepperoni.
After a quick pit-stop for some artisanal Syrian Boodha ice-cream to cool down with (it was gorgeous, by the way, and very stretchy), we then moved on to an Iraqi restaurant. Here, we had a chance to witness how they cook their fish – in a wood-fired pit. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to try any, but if the smokey aroma was any indication – it must have tasted really good!
Next on the tour was a quaint little restaurant where we were seated in bedouin-style tents, on the floor, to sample some Yemeni food. We had a lovely thick, spiced yogurt drink and some Mandi (roast) and Madhbi (grilled) Chicken with fragrant, buttery rice. Spicey and aromatic, almost like a Yemeni version of pulao or biryani and absolutely lip-smacking good.
Arva took us to a specialty shop, where we stood amidst mountains of the highest-quality Dried Fruits and Nuts you’ve ever seen. Macadamia, Pecan, Pistachio, Pine Nut, Almond, Walnut, Cranberries, Dates, Apricots – you name it, they had it. Beautiful but really expensive! We had a short lesson on how to determine good-quality Saffron (you drop a strand in water and observe the colour change), I really wanted to pick up the Saffron Rock Candy, but it was quite expensive. There were also a selection of baked goods and sweet dishes available, but after all the earlier sweet dishes we’d eaten, I wasn’t up for it.
Our last stop on the tour was for some Iranian food, beginning with the Sangak – bread baked on hot stones – like an Iranian flatbread version of the Indian ‘naan’ – which we witnessed being made and then got to devour with some fresh, creamy, salty Feta and Rayhaan leaves (basil). We ended the meal with a traditional version of Faloodeh with Saffron and Pistachio Ice cream.
Five hours later, we were sweaty and exhausted, but supremely pleased with the outcome of this food trail! Scroll down for more photos from the tour, and check out Frying Pan Adventures and ask for Arva – she’s the loveliest guide, and an all around friendly person. Remember to wear comfortable shoes and pack light – don’t bother with bulky handbags or backpacks – plus, you’ll end up buying extra food to take back along the way.
Happy Eating (and exploring)!