The United Arab Emirates, particularly its capital Abu Dhabi and the glitzy, glamorous Dubai, has seen a huge shift in recent years, from desert outpost to destination du-jour. The high-rises are record breaking, the shopping malls world renowned, the beaches pristine and the culture rich and fascinating. We’ve all heard of the Burj Khalifa. We’ve probably marvelled at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. We’ve been baffled by the 300 island, artificial archipelago. But what of the food? Though perhaps less well enunciated and explored, the country’s cuisine is no less enchanting. Don’t know where to start? Here; our 6 IDEAL dishes to try when travelling to the UAE.
Though it may not look like much, al harees is a vital dish in the Emirates, and a delicious one too. A key bowl on the Eid celebration table, the preparation involves a low and slow cook of ground wheat and meat (usually lamb or chicken) in a clay pot, which eventually homogenises into one glorious unit. A ceremonial stirring with a midrib (a large piece of wood) and topping of ghee completes this rich, sumptuous dish. You may find some cooks like to sprinkle some fried onions on top, but we prefer the dish relatively unadorned, and resplendent in its humble beauty.
Though its origins most likely lie in Turkey, Shawarma (in Arabic, ‘turning’; makes sense) is often called the UAE’s favourite snack. And let’s be honest here; what’s not to love? Spit roast, slow cooked, hand carved delicious meat; warm, freshly made pitta; perhaps some pickles; a little chilli; a garlicky mayo. Phwoar.
You’ll see a spit on every street corner, and if you miss it with your eyes, the aroma permeates the air with such confidence you could locate one with your nose alone. The key lies in the spices used for the meat’s marinade (cinnamon, oregano, thyme, tahini, to name but a few) and the contrasting textures offered by the veg. Trust your instincts on this one and dive in. Bliss.
Meat. Smoke. Fat. Bread. You’d be forgiven for worrying about your waistline prior to touching down in the UAE. But the Emirates also provides lighter options in abundance. And rest assured, these aren’t apologetic side dishes designed simply to keep the veggies quiet. Nope, there’s as much effort, love and respect going into the vegetarian dishes here, and it’s tabbouleh which is perhaps the most popular.
In fact, there are strict rules regarding ingredients and portion size which dictate a ‘true’ tabbouleh. Parsley must feature, and generously – it makes up the body of the dish – with mint the only other acceptable herbal addition. Bulgar wheat is there to bring texture and colour rather than define the salad, and diced tomatoes (with perhaps cucumber and spring onion) complete the lineup. The dressing should be reserved rather than raucous, with the simple alchemy of good olive oil, lemon and salt favoured by connoisseurs. You’ll find dry spices in some versions, pomegranate even, but the finest tend towards the ‘simplicity is best’ mantra.
A special occasion dish, this one, and well worthy of its celebratory billing. This is essentially grilled or fried fish (meat versions are available, but for us, the pesci rendition is the best) over white rice which has been rendered an inviting golden hue from an intoxicating dried spice mix and curry like sauce of onion, garlic and tomato. Should you be in town for Eid or a wedding and are lucky enough to be invited for a machboos samak, then accept the invitation with gusto. This dish is not to be missed!
A DISH OF DATES
Those native to the UAE certainly have a sweet tooth and no trip to the UAE would be complete without indulging in a bowl of sticky sweet dates. Not only are they delicious, but they’ve also been a part of the cultural lexicon of the region and an important crop in the Middle East for thousands of years. Tale tells it that Bedouins, nomads of the Arab desert, were known to survive on dates and camel milk alone because of their easily digestible, high nutritional content. Today, Muslims in the UAE and throughout the world break their fast with dates during Ramadan.
There are more than 40 million date palms in the UAE; enough, then, to take some home as a souvenir. If you’re looking for some premium dates (and you should be) you can’t beat a box from Bateel – the swiss chocolates of the date world.
We had to finish our feast here. Traditionally served with Arabic coffee, luqaimat is a popular, significant dessert most commonly enjoyed in the month of Ramadan (though you’ll find it all year round). These are essentially crunchy, sweet dumplings (not so far removed from mini doughnuts) bathing in syrup and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
The key to their success lies in the batter; saffron and cardamom create an alluring scent decidedly appropriate to the region. For the syrup, some family recipes call for more saffron, some for honey, and some dates. We love the latter version; if you’re making your own, then dates will add that extra layer of luxury. Alternatively, take a trip to the UAE during Holy Month and you’ll find every family home whipping up a luqaimat batter. These come with a warning; irresistible doesn’t come close.