Dubai, the Disneyland-esque city on the Persian Gulf, is known for everything being bigger, better, more dazzling and outrageous. There’s an indoor ski center in the desert for chrissake. They have the top-of-the-line, well, everything.
For business travelers or in-and-out tourists this is great, but for more serious travelers and sophisticates it can be redundant and boring. After all, how can you really get to know a place if you can’t eat its (real) food?
But savvy travelers know a culinary secret about Dubai. Starting in early Autumn, when the oven-like atmosphere dissipates, the city’s food and market scene comes alive. And, as expats account for over 84 percent of the country’s population of 9.2 million, the indigenous food scene is fascinatingly diverse.
Amanda Ponzio-Mouttaki, 34, an entrepreneur, was in Dubai last year and wanted to try something different.
“I was traveling alone which was part of why I wanted to do a food tour, to meet some other travelers and have a fun way to explore the city… I was searching for a food tour that would do more than visit Dubai’s fancy restaurants. I really wanted to get a sense of Emirati food and the food of the people that make up the country. Dubai has pretty strict laws when it comes to street food so there’s not as much of a scene there as in other countries.”
Ponzio-Mouttaki did some research and found Frying Pan Adventures and opted to join the Middle Eastern Food tour.
“There is so much food in Dubai it can be hard to know where to start. Having gone a few times now I think getting outside the ‘glittery areas’ is key to finding really good food. Neighborhoods like Deira are great for this. There are no street carts or street food stalls (again due to local restrictions) restaurants are diverse and you can find just about any cuisine available.”
A few of the highlights Ponzio-Mouttaki experienced on her tour: “The best falafel of my entire life, hot konnafa pastry that we were taken into the kitchen to see made and eat immediately, a crash course in Arabic coffee traditions, Iranian ice cream and loads more. It was really an eating expedition through the Middle East!”
The experience was so memorable, Ponzio Mouttaki added, “I still have dreams about the stuffed falafels with hummus, eggplant and cauliflower. I’ve considered flying back to Dubai just to eat these again.”
Lori Rhodes, an expat in Dubai, agrees that the experience is worth it. She went on a tour with Unseen Trails, a company in partnership with Frying Pan Adventures, after following Frying Pan on Instagram and hearing about them through friends. Rhodes joined a Diwali Tour specializing in Indian food and photography that started in Deira and went across the Creek to Karama and Meena Bazaar.
“We brushed up on our street photography skills while learning about the traditions of Diwali and eating our way through the older parts of Dubai,” Rhodes said. “We joined a traditional Diwali celebration in someone’s home and ate sweets that are made only during Diwali which are meant to bring luck and fortune in the new year. We also visited the Hindu temple in Meena Bazaar, which has been around for more than 60 years (which is older than the UAE) and tried the Chicken Tikka from Sind Punjab in Meena Bazaar.”
“Dubai has an incredible food scene. Not street food in the same way that you find in Thailand or Singapore, but a huge variety of amazing local spots on the beach as well as hidden gems in the older parts of Dubai.”
For those who want to explore on their own, Rhodes said, “[Dubai] has excellent places to spend the cool fall and winter evenings at La Mer, a fun beachside neighborhood with great food and shopping options, as well as Alserkal, with local art galleries and an amazing food concept called Inked as well as Wild and the Moon (which was started by two expats in Dubai who just opened a branch in Paris.) We also have spice markets and streets lined with traditional foods and sweets shops.”
For those specifically looking for Emirati cuisine, Dubai by Foot offers a Flavors of Arabia tour where travelers enjoy a three course meal in Old Dubai after walking through the Spice Souk.
“The tour crosses the Dubai Creek and into the oldest neighborhood in Dubai, Al Fahidi Historic Neighborhood, previously known as Bastakiya,” said Arushi, who leads the tour.
The tour kicks off with dates and herbal tea in the Spice Souk and, after taking the abra boat across the creek, diners nibble on hummus, kibbeh, moutabel, sambousek, taboulleh vine leaves and falafel. Afterwards, the tour meanders through the textile souk, down Hindi Lane to Bastakiya where the main course of kebabs, machboos, and fish saloona is served. To top it all off is crunchy luqaimat, a local dessert delicacy and camel milk ice cream.
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