Digging into the sweet, creamy flesh of a Medjool date with a cup of strong, black Arabic coffee is the perfect way to end your Emirati meal. But let me start from the beginning. Standing at the crossroads of the East and the West, Dubai has become the centre of the world, in quite a literal sense. With expatriates streaming in from all parts of the planet, the Emirate has a plethora of restaurants serving a varied range of Western cuisines—from the traditional European powerhouses of French and Italian cooking to the new trends from Japanese and Korean food.
But it is the traditional Emirati food that should be on your wishlist the next time you head here. Combining elements of the Levant (Eastern Mediterranean region of Western Asia) and the old Persian style of food, it traces its roots back to the Nomadic Bedouin culture. There are meats of all kinds—mostly goat, lamb and beef with an occasional celebratory bit of camel thrown in—marinated lightly in spices like turmeric, cinnamon and saffron, grilled generously or part of a curry, served with a side of dips, rice or flatbread.
Begin your journey at Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Centre for Cultural Understanding at (SMCCU) at Al Mussallah Road. Here local chefs specialise in their national cuisine, with the help of government initiatives to preserve the heritage of the Emirates, and showcase the best of Emirati hospitality to the world. It is one of the best places to sample the full variety of authentic Emirati cuisine while learning about the culture at the same time.
Relax on the floor cushioned with dominant colours of maroon and gold in the courtyard steeped deep in Arabian architecture replete with yellow sandstone walls, just like the sands of time. Dig into age-old recipes with your host as he enthrals you with stories, quite like the Arabian Nights. Visitors can take part in breakfast, lunch and dinner tours and lectures through an advance booking. The centre will give you a sneak peek into the customs of a Bedouin meal—starting with traditional dishes Saloona (a vegan Arabic curry) with Millet Pilaf and biryani, and ending with Liqaimat (fried dumpling rolled up in date syrup).
Considered the national dish of the Emirates, Kabsa is a fragrant mixture of basmati rice, lamb or chicken and vegetables spiced up with cardamom, cinnamon, saffron, nutmeg and bay leaves cooked in one pot and often served in a huge mound at the centre of the table, to be eaten community-style with friends and family. Al Fanar Restaurant and Cafe serves up the city’s most delicious Kabsa. Its venue at the Festival City Mall at Dubai Creek is perhaps the chain’s most impressive, with a rustic interior adorned with coral walls, an old blue Land Rover, heavy wooden tables placed around a date palm tree, and balconies complete with Arabic-carved gates overlooking the dining area.
The next stop on your itinerary, Dubai’s Spice Souk, is an invigorating aromatic experience. The atmosphere here is laden heavy with the sweet smell of different herbs and spices piled high from the shops at every turn. Tucked into Dubai’s Deira district just north of Dubai Creek, the Dubai Spice Souk offers a unique shopping extravaganza. Dig in for a vast array of dates such as Khalasah, Ajwah, Medjool, Al Khunazi and Rotabh along with spices like saffron, dried hibiscus flowers, chamomile flowers, cloves, cardamom and pepper in all colours and varieties exclusive to Emirati food. You need to haggle hard, smile a lot and even accept an occasional cup of flower tea.
In search of some camel meat dishes? Head to Siraj at the Souk Al Bahar with a unique blend of flavours from the Emirates and the Levant. Although the Meat Margooga (AED69/`1,400) and the Emirati Mixed Grill (AED95/`1,900) are interesting to try out. The former is a thick tomato gravy-based dish cooked with dough balls while the latter is a typical kebab platter with flavours much subtler than the ones you eat back home, thus bringing the focus on the pure taste of the meat; it is the camel steak (AED125/`2,500) that you must try out. Served with Arabian curried potatoes and a Zaatar Pesto sauce, the leaner meat has a rich umami taste which combines quite well with the slightly spiced sides. There might not be a lot of vegetarian options, but the warm Date and Kale Salad along with the healthy, veggie-rich Signature Halwa Salad are the perfect way to tease your tastebuds.