Skycrapers, gold and shopping malls. That's what most people think of when it comes to Dubai. It can hard to find the "real Dubai" on a fleeting stopover, but it's there. You just have to know where to look for it.
The easiest way is to head straight to a local expert. Arva Ahmed is a Dubai local who grew up in Deira, one of the oldest districts in Dubai. She started Frying Pan Adventures three years ago, sharing her favourite food haunts of Old Dubai to tourists as well as fellow locals. It's an eye-opening glimpse into the throbbing, warm-hearted and diverse immigrant community that makes up Dubai, a world away from the clinical skyscrapers and air-conditioned malls that most tourists end up in.
Arva Ahmed, founder and General Manager of Frying Pan Adventures
My recent trip to Dubai, hosted by Dubai Tourism, included an annotated version of one of Arva's famous food tours. Her tour groups are limited to a maximum size of eight and they book out early. She runs a Middle Eastern tour (AED415 or AU$125pp for 5 hours) and a Little India tour (AED350 or AU$105pp for 4 hours). Tours include pick-up and return to the Mall of the Emirates.
Arva is bright, bubbly and full of chatter. And she really knows her stuff. She is full of facts regarding food history and origins, all presented in an engaging manner. She's a mini tornado of efficiency too, handing out headsets so we can all hear her regardless of traffic noise, and dispensing tour bags containing water bottles, bottle coolers, wet wipes and a handy food glossary.
She asks that we don't publish the names of the restaurants we visit so that others can enjoy the tour as a surprise. We're guessing it's also so she doesn't lose future business, but that's fair enough. She's worked hard to curate these tours.
I can tell you that our tour starts at the Philippines Supermarket on Murraqqabat Street in Deira. It's a leisurely walk that takes us through several blocks, bordered mostly by Al Muraqqabat Road, Al Rigga Road, Abu Baker Sidiqque and Maktoum Street.
Where did we go? Come along for the ride...
Jordanian falafel wraps
We started in Jordan where we gazed with wonder as falafels were made fresh on the spot, before hitting the deep fryer with a mouthwatering hiss and sizzle.
It's essential to squash the falafel by hand to release the flavours
As we watch customers trail in to order falafel wraps, we're told that squashing the falafels flat is vital to release its flavours. It also ensures that each mouthful has equal amounts of falafel filling.
Adding tahini sauce to falafel mahshi
Falafel mahshi are a specific type of falafel found in Jordan, made with chickpea and herbs sandwiched around a thin middle layer of chilli and onion paste. It means that when you bite through that golden crunchy exterior, you meet soft fluffy chickpea filling as well as a spicy red sauce. It was amazing.
We sat down to enjoy a mini Jordanian feast including a special dish of mansaf, lamb cooked in fermented goat yoghurt.
Next stop a Syrian dessert house where we drool over mountains of baklava and huge trays of the most incredible kenafeh, a syrup-soaked semolina slice filled with a soft white cheese that's gooey.
Filo pastries with nuts and sugar syrup
Lebanon and Turkey
The sugar hit continues at a Lebanese bakery. They have every kind of baklava you could imagine plus shortbread biscuits, pastries and more.
Shortbread biscuits with pistachios
Arva pouring us tea
Kunafa cheese pastry with sugar syrup
Sweet pastries with ashta clotted cream and pistachios
Posing with the paddle used to make dondurma stretchy ice cream
Need ice cream? Another Syrian dessert house stop includes a look at their dondurma ice cream paddle, used to pound stretchy ice cream made from salep, a special orchid root.
Masgouf giant carp butterflied and grilled vertically on wooden stakes for 3-4 hours
There's a brief foray into an Iraqi restaurant where we stare mesmerised at the firepit, used to grill whole butterflied carp, a traditional dish known as masgouf.
And we could have watched the pizza tossing show for hours, as dough was kneaded and tossed in the air to make fateer, a type of Egyptian pizza.
Bitter greens and chilli sauces
We stopped for a proper feed at a Yemen restaurant. Men and women eat in separate dining rooms here, but you can also book a family room, furnished like a Bedouin tent with rugs on the floor and wall hangings. Take your shoes off and sit cross-legged on the floor like a true local.
Mandi chicken and lamb cooked in a tandoor oven
Mandi refers to meat that's cooked in a tandoor oven, and the chicken and lamb that arrives is aromatic and meltingly tender. Arva gives us a less in how to eat with our hands too - it's messy but fun, and does give you a greater appreciation of flavour and texture.
Dried seeds, nuts and fruits from the Iranian spice shop
An Iranian spice shop provides an up-close look at just some of the dried seeds, nuts and fruits used in cooking. It also prompts me to buy some zereshk or barberries later on in my trip. They're delicious in pilafs but also make great partners with dark chocolate in desserts.
Bamieh fried dough with rosewater and saffron syrup
There's a whole display cabinet filled with sweets too.
Our final stop is at an Iranian restaurant, loud and happily chaotic with a live band and a room full of families clapping along in unison.
Making sangak, a traditional Persian bread
We're more distracted by the bakers oven, churning out fresh loaves of sangak, a traditional Persian bread.
Sangak bread was a key food supply for the Persian army
The dough is kneaded out and then dimpled using wet fingers, creating little indents across its surface.
Sangak bread in the oven lined with stones
The dough is cooked in an oven lined with small stones. Sangak actually means little stones.
Freshly baked sangak Persian bread
Sangak means little stones - they often stick to the bread during cooking and must be removed
When the baked bread emerges, there are often small stones that have become caught in the dough. These are removed before the bread is hung up to cool.
Whole sangak Persian bread being hung to cool before eating
Feta cheese, walnuts and herbs for the sangak Persian bread
We tear apart fresh lengths of bread and eat these like the locals do, with feta cheese, walnuts and an assortment of herbs. The bread is soft with a slight crisp to the edges.
Baghali rice with broad beans and pilaf rice
We finish up with slow-cooked lamb, baghali rice with broad beans and pilaf rice with barberries.
Biscuits and bamieh rose syrup donuts
And of course there's always room for a little dessert too.
Our intrepid host, Arva Ahmed
Puranmal Vegetarian Restaurant
On our own adventures around Dubai, Billy and I hit the ground running, keen to delve into Dubai's underbelly of deliciousness.
Panipuri shells ready to be filled
Billy led me to Puranmal Vegetarian Restaurant, a spot popular with locals that he'd noticed on his last trip to Dubai.
Filling the panipuri with sauce
There's a proper restaurant inside but we approached the snack bar window instead where a smiling chef was ready and waiting for our order.
Panipuri with tamarind, coriander and green chilli sauce
We start with a round of panipuri, each one prepared individually. I knew we'd ordered four and was wondering why he paused after the first one. I didn't realise he was waiting for me to eat it before he started the next until Billy nudged me in the ribs laughing.
The crisp panipuri shell is filled with water flavoured with coriander, tamarind and green chilli. You place the whole thing in your mouth and feel the entire thing collapse, an explosion of crunchy shells with cool water spiked with chilli. It's only when you finish eating and return the tray that the chef prepares your next panipuri.
Panipuri with tamarind chutney and sev fried noodles
Our next one has less liquid, filled with a tamarind chutney and a top layer of sev fried noodles. It's sweeter and tangier and I relish the extra crunch.
Vada snacks made with mashed potato
We finish up with vada, a deep fried snack made from mashed potato mixed with green chillies, ginger and mustard seeds.
Mashed potato, green chillies, ginger and mustard seeds inside the vada
It's creamy, spicy and just hits the spot. A perfect series of snacks for about $AU3 each.
Shake Shack at Mall of the Emirates
So Shake Shack doesn't exactly constitute authentic Dubai cuisine, but if you haven't included New York or London on your itinerary, it's worth hunting down if you're in need of a burger fix.
Shackburger AED25 or AU$7.35
We checked out the Shack Shack at Mall of the Emirates, a huge shopping mall featuring over 400 retail stores. There are two huge food courts and Shake Shack is a hive of activity.
Red velvet concrete frozen custard AED21 or AU$6.15
The ShackBurger is good but doesn't seem as tasty as the one I had in Madison Square Park. The red velvet concrete is so sweet it makes me wince, and we're a little surprised that the prices are as high as they are too.
Ski Dubai - Mall of the Emirates
Ski Dubai indoor ski resort inside the Mall of the Emirates
Not far from Shake Shack, you'll find a glass window that gives a view into the Snow Park at Ski Dubai. Ski Dubai opened in November 2005, featuring an 85m tall indoor mountain with five slopes, including the world's first indoor black run.
Body slide inside the Snow Park at Ski Dubai
It's surreal to see ski fields and snow in Dubai but kids can't get enough of it. The Snow Park has ski lifts, places to make snowmen, toboggan rides and even a circular body slide that resembles a mini luge.
Shake Shack - Dubai Airport
Shake Shack at Dubai International Airport
And guess what. There's a Shake Shack at Dubai International Airport, good news to anyone transiting through and in need of sustenance.
Double ShackBurger AED45 or AU$13.20
Shake Shack is right down the end of Concourse A of Terminal 3, near Gate 11. It can be a fair walk if your gate is down the other end but travelators do make the journey slightly quicker.
Cheese fries AED25 or AU$7.35
Billy goes for the Double ShackBurger this time. The cheese fries are ridiculously more-ish.
'Shroom burger AED30 or AU$8.80
I have the 'Shroom burger instead, a hefty portobello mushroom that's stuffed with meunstar and cheddar cheeses, crumbed and deep fried.
Melted cheesy goodness
Whoah baby. Who needs beef when you've got this much cheesy awesomeness?
Shack Attack concrete frozen custard AED25 or AU$7.35
Round things up with a Shack Attack concrete and you'll be hyped up with enough sugar to keep you buzzing until boarding time.
The Textile Souk
The Textile Souk, also known as the Old Souk, can feel heavily touristy, especially as shopkeepers cajole you with offers of pashminas, cheap saffron and imitation Rolexes.
Indian street snacks from Al Shaab Restaurant near the Textile Souk
Keep going and you'll find a couple of Indian stalls. The actual dining rooms are tiny but most locals just stop and buy a few deep-fried snacks from the stands sitting out on the street.
Mini samosas and Indian street food snacks
Nothing is labelled and there aren't any prices, but point at what you want and they'll cheerfully make you a grab bag of treats to eat on the run. They'll often try and get you buy more than you want, so don't be shy in telling them when they've packed enough.
Mirch pakora - battered and deep fried green chillies
The mirch pakora, battered and deep fried green chillies, were a highlight. We spent about AU$7 between the two of us and feasted like kings.
Masala vadai fritters
Giant fish purchase at Dubai Fish Market in Deira
If there's one thing you must do in Dubai though, it's visit the Dubai Fish Market. We landed in Dubai at 5.15am and I had no other thought in my head than to check in at our hotel and then head straight on over in a cab while we had free time in our itinerary.
Cleaning and gutting shed where purchases can be cleaned and filleted to order
The main fish market in Dubai is in Deira, separated from the Gold Souk and Spice Souk by a major freeway. It's a huge complex that is strikingly free from tourists. If you want to mingle with locals like a local, this is the place to be.
Fish market customers present their purchases for cleaning and filleting
We stumbled upon the filleting station first, a tiled building echoing with shouts, orders and conversation. It's here that customers come to after buying their fish next door. The fishmongers will clean, gut, fillet and slice your fish however you please for a minimal fee while you wait.
Fishmongers in action
There are close to 100 fishmongers all working on cleaning fish for customers
Cleaning and gutting fish
Cleaned and diced fish ready to be picked up by a customer
The main fish market area
A covered outdoor shed plays host to the main fish market area. There are dozens upon dozens of seafood stalls here. I notice that the stall holders are all men, and customers are 90% male too. I feel conspicuous but not uncomfortable, and we're struck by how friendly everyone is towards us, keen to sell us their seafood, but also happy to pose with it even when we explain we have no kitchen or stove to cook any seafood.
Fresh fish on ice
Neatly stacked prawns
Fishmonger keen to pose with a lobster from his stall
All the seafood is displayed tidily and with pride
Weighing fish using old metal scales
You call that a fish? *This* is a fish
Seriously big prawn
The fish market was my favourite place in Dubai. Just remember to bring covered shoes and revel in the morning hubbub.
Butcher cutting up a lamb
Adjoining the fish market, you'll find the butchery, accessed by thick PVC door flaps. There are two narrow corridors to enter, lined each side with small butchers.
There are about twenty butcheries alongside the fish market
You won't find styrofoam trays filled with sliced fillets and covered in plastic wrap. This is old skool butchery with whole carcasses hanging by hooks, cows heads in buckets and all kinds of offal for the appreciative.
Meat for sale includes beef, lamb, mutton and goat
Al Hamriya Fruit and Vegetable Market
Fresh fruits and vegetables
Go back out into the fish market and keep on going and you'll stumble into Al Hamriya Fruit and Vegetable Market. There are noticeably more female customers here, and the displays provide a contrasting riot of colour compared to the fish market and butchery.
If you're looking for the real taste of Dubai, it would have to be the date. The medjool date is probably the most common date exported around the world but it's not the only one. Did you know there are more than 2,000 varieties of dates around the world?
Local buying dates
The variation across dates is incredibly noticeable. We tried several types of dates from our friendly stall keeper and noticed how they differed in juiciness, sweetness, chewiness and texture.
Our favourite date after extensive taste testing AED30 or AU$9 per kilo
Billy and I were unanimous in our preference. We liked the safawi dates the best - not too sweet and slightly dry and chewy. They weren't the most expensive date but they were still cheap by Australian standards at about AU$9 per kilo.
Zadi dates from Iran AED10 or AU$3 per kilo
More dates than a single girl could ask for
Daily Life in Dubai
Fresh fruit and vegetable juice stall
It's easy to dismiss Dubai as another commercial city devoid of soul but there are definite pockets of local vibrancy if you're prepared to scratch beyond its surface.
This is my final post on Dubai - I hope you enjoyed the journey as much as I did. Here are a couple of pics I snapped throughout my trip of daily life in Dubai.
Iranian mosque with blue mosaic tiles in Bur Dubai
Delivering tea in Meena Bazaar
Hand-pulled delivery cart
Paved streets within the textile district
Cyclist returning home
Grab Your Fork visited Dubai as a guest of Dubai Tourism, including attendance of the Frying Pan Adventures tour. All other experiences in this post were independently organised and personally paid for.
Dubai Fish Market
Deira Corniche, Al Khaleej Road, Deira, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Opening hours: Daily 6am - 1.30pm and 4pm-11pm
Puranmal Vegetarian Restaurant
Meena Bazar, Bur Dubai (opposite Dubai Museum), Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Tel: +971 (04) 351 3803/1466
Open 7 days 9am-11.30pm
Shake Shack - Dubai International Airport
Terminal 3, Concourse A, near Gate A11
Garhoud, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Open non-stop 24 hours, 7 days a week
Shake Shack - Mall of the Emirates
1st floor next to West Food Court
Al Barsha 1, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Tel: +971 (04) 347 5513
Open daily 10am - 12 midnight
Ali Bin Abi Taleb Street, Bastakiya, Bur Dubai, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Open Saturday to Thursday 10-1pm and 4pm-8pm; most closed Friday but some open after 3.30pm
Related Grab Your Fork posts:
Dubai 2014: Burj Khalifa, Burj Al Arab and camel milk chocolate
Dubai 2014: How do they make airplane food? Emirates Flight Catering tour
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4/27/2014 01:23:00 am