Dubai, being the most populated city in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is the center of food culture for the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Sprawling from its crevices comes the spice markets that contain the richest and most diverse ingredients from Saudi Arabia all the way to the east of the Philippines. If one is wondering how McDonalds or any one of the other western fast food chains taste over there since it is halal, I would kindly ask them to wear a very heavy weighted vest and walk off a very tall bridge. Dubai is a city both rich and poor, young and old, a city where the rich and ultra-wealthy expend their energy by shopping and red-lining their super cars under the desert sun, and the poor struggling to make a few dollars a day, trying to sell knick-knacks and cheap material goods. Millions of people flock to this city in hopes of recreating themselves. With its shady government influence and regulations, it’s no wonder businessmen from all over the world try to take advantage of the system. With an influx of so many different influences coming from all over the world, one thing can be certain and universally agreed upon, Dubai’s food culture is anything but dull.
The staple dish that goes with absolutely everything, from vegans to the biggest carnivores is Naan. Naan is a type of flat bread, “A typical Naan recipe involves mixing white flour with salt, a yeast culture, and enough yogurt to make a smooth, elastic dough”(http://www.videojug.com/). One could cause a fight in the middle of the street by yelling, “who has the best Naan?”. The thing about Naan is that there are so many places that make it and have it, but each place makes their Naan a little differently. Some slap the Naan on the wall of a fireplace, waiting for the little bubbles to rise before they eventually take it off the concrete walls and serve it on paper plates with a side of hummus and the main dish. Some places fry the Naan in a giant wok, waiting for the edges of the bread to turn golden brown to then take it off, oil still sizzling off the Naan as they serve it. Each chef has its own way of cooking their Naans, and they typically add their own set of spices in what they believe to be the right amount of ingredients. When one takes a bite of the delicate bread, the taste of generations upon generations of family recipes and wisdom could strike most corners of the pallet one didn’t even know existed. It’s a simple dish, it is easy to make it good but extremely hard to make it great. After one is done paying their usual thirty cents for the whole basket of Naan, one could walk a few yards down the street and be in another food place and have a totally different experience.
Local chefs, from street vendors to cooks in highly reputable restaurants, all tend to use a lot of spices so one must learn to be adaptable to the different cuisines. Many of the spices that these chefs use come from a few places in Dubai. One being the Old Souk (old spice market). To get to the Old Souk, one has to walk to the ports of Bur Dubai, a dock that caters to the fishermen and working class district of Dubai. From there, the only way to get to the spice market is by boat. The fair is usually one Durham (around thirty-three cents), and the ride is about 10 minutes through choppy water. The boats themselves are extremely dilapidated. With cracks and holes along the hull that’s patched up with shoddy tape, no guard rails, seated on a cracked stool a foot away from the water, surrounded by twenty other people who are in the same situation on this little boat. Anxiety certainly creeps up. In the middle of the journey, I catch a glimpse of two sides of the city in the middle of the water. With one side having tall, ornate buildings made of glass, and concrete, and the other side small high rises and sand colored buildings. After about a ten-minute journey through the water, looking up, I am met with the Arabic words along a huge building that reads Old Souk. This is where the chefs, the cooks, the mothers and the wives come to get their goods and spices for the day’s needs.
Here one may find goods ranging from cheap knick-knacks, to fake purses, cell phones, rugs, to a whole array of spices. They’re plenty of shopkeepers that are outside their stands, hauling in the tourists selling their cheap goods, but the spice owners sit back and let the people come to them. They’re usually the ones having lines out their doors. The smell of cooking is never far away. The smell of chicken on the grill, or beef being slowly turned and roasted on a spit. In some remote places along the spice market there are makeshift stands with people grilling behind their small personal sized grill. There is a vibrant energy that runs through this place. A clash of many different people yelling, cooking, eating, haggling, and people jostling around. Wear a helmet when you come here.
When dining out in a restaurant, or sitting on a stool right next to the makeshift halal carts in the city, tea is always served no matter how hot or humid it is in the desert sun. It is usually called Chai in the local middle-eastern culture. Chai is a blend of either green or black tea, honey, and/or milk. In a city so hot and humid, one doesn’t rush around much, so chai is a staple drink with almost every meal. One can have it with some bread and hummus and that would be a meal in itself for many people.
Around the streets of Kuwait Road in Dubai, there are rows upon rows of food shops. Around the daytime when the sun is up, there are a few stragglers outside on these streets munching on something small, but during the night, thousands of people gather around. Some are eating whole chickens, others gyros, naan, ice cream, hummus, rice, you name it. The smell is nothing short of rich. It’s a treat for the nose as it is for the mouth when walking through one of these roads. The restaurants and stands are usually open till 3am on any given day of the week, sometimes later. No need to read any Yelp reviews. Just taking a walk and observe where the people are eating. When the masses gather around one food stall or restaurant, its a usually a good indicator that the place is worth a try. Since each meal is usually around a dollar and fifty cents, one can pack up and walk to another restaurant just a few feet away.
Filipinos have a strong influence, especially in the service and restaurant industry. On Kuwait Road, there is one restaurant in particular that is on the corner of a pretty low- lit street, but looking through the window at any given night, it is usually packed with people with lines waiting out the door. Walking through the entrance and ducking through the thick clouds of cigarette smoke from the Asians in front of the restaurant, the rumbling and noise can be felt from the soles of feet to my nostrils. The smell comes stronger as I approach the head of the restaurant. When I stepped inside the restaurant, I was pretty much the only non-Asian there. Each corner of each table was a person hunching over their meals, slurping soup or eating noodles, or tasting other items off the menu. I was met by a short, stern looking Filipino woman in a full suit who sat me down in the middle of the restaurant surrounded by people who were watching me. I asked her for a recommendation as Filipino food is not my specialty. The two words that came out of her mouth I will remember forever. Asado Siapo. Asado Siapo is sort of a huge dumpling with a sweet type of beef, or pork in the middle. Usually dressed in with some type of sweet sauce, in this case, it was unicorn blood. It is large, soft and doughy. Before taking my first bite, it was as though the whole entire restaurant quieted down, people stopped eating, and just observed the dumb foreigner to see if he could handle the food or not. After my first bite, the corners of my lips began to perk up and i noticed myself smiling. A small victory for me and the restaurant resumed back to life.
Dubai is a wonderland of culture that offers a myriad of different types of cuisines that caters to even the most dull of pallets. With each dish comes a taste of the cultures history. Whether it be from where one gets their Naan or who serves the best Keema, a different dining experience is sure to be had everywhere. With over 160 nationalities inhabiting Dubai, there is no single dish that encapsulates the whole entire city, but rather a world of dishes from each country. Ranging from the spice markets to the most expensive of restaurants, the spices will always remain king in each dish. There is no room for fear, but rather the necessary attribute that piques the interest of “foodies” that flock here is curiosity. The only thing that one needs to do in this vast and cultured city is to take a bite.