Old Dubai is a melting pot of cuisines where foods from Sri Lanka to Goa to Yemen to Morocco are within wafting distance from each other. It’s a food lover’s paradise for sure along Dubai’s bustling creek but it can be overwhelming to figure out where to venture and sit down, what to must-have. If you have all the time in the world and a firm understanding of each and all cuisines you can potentially come across here (including India’s complex range of regional cuisines) you can probably fare well on your own (eventually). For everyone else there is Frying Pan Adventures, a food tour company that offers a range of ‘food trails’: gastronomic exploration tours around this intriguing part of Dubai under the guidance of a food nerd (her words, not mine) with an exceptional brain database for gastronomic detail including tales of heritage and provenance.
Random picks on a food trail:
From India: Pani Puri
Pani puri are crisp-fried hollow dough spheres (puri) that are filled with spicy ‘water’ (pani). When asked for your heat tolerance, this is a moment to remember that ‘medium’ in Indian heat speak is probably already more than you can handle. You pop a pani puri, filled and ready into your mouth whole and one go and as you bite and break the puri, your mouth fills with all the flavors: the savory chew of chickpeas and potato, the sour and sweet from the tamarind and date water and… then there is that heat you asked for. So, be cautious and enjoy this wonderful burst of savory, sour and crisp. And have another one!
From Iraq: Masgouf
Butterflied and pierced on sticks, Masgouf is giant Iraqi carp that is roasted in the radiant heat of a roaring wood fire until its flesh flakes tender. When ordering, the clue is in the ‘giant’: This is a really big fish and weighs at least 4 pounds. It makes it perfect to share with 2-4 people! Watch for bones and eat it with a chunky curried sauce of tomatoes, onions, tamarind, turmeric and other spice. Pillowy charred Iraqi flatbread, pickles and a green mango chutney complete this taste of an ancient traditional dish from the delta between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris.
From Morocco: Tangia and Bastilla
Described as a ‘man’s dish’, tangia is lamb that is slowly cooked for a good sixteen hours in a covered earthen pot. Apparently, it was a communal dish that men (craftsmen and artisans) made on Thursday to enjoy Friday after prayer. Traditionally the pot with lamb was placed among the coals that heat up the bath water of a public hammam where it cooked all night until the lamb was succulent and tender and full of flavor from saffron and preserved lemon. We modernized the tradition by having the guys in our group spoon some of the tangia on the plates around our table.
The Bastille came out big as a pie — it is of course: a pie. Bastilla is typically made with poultry (chicken or pigeon) that is crumbled and cooked with saffron and almonds, and then wrapped in smooth thin layers of warka (also called Brik pastry: similar to phyllo but more elastic and less prone to tearing when handled). Stuffed and wrapped snug in pastry, the pie is baked until golden and crisp and finally dusted with powdered sugar. It is a little moment of food heaven when you bite into that crispy pie, licking some sugar and then tasting the rich mix of meat, toasted nuts and fragrant spice.
From Iran: Makhloot
The baker in a busy Iranian restaurant upstairs from a small shopping mall was raking pebbles in the wood-fired oven, stretching and shaping dough and shoving it right on top of the hot pebbles. He was making sangak: pebble-baked bread, and hence the name: sang means stone, and sangak “small stone”. We didn’t come here for the bread, though. Our food goal was Iranian makhloot, an ice cream dessert described as a 2-in-1 sundae of fruits and frozen vermicelli, topped with ice cream called bastani flavored with rosewater and saffron. As delicious and unusual in flavor as the makhloot was, that pebble-baked bread, served in a basket with fresh herbs and sheep’s cheese was irresistible and really all I wanted.
Different food trails lead to different experiences. Walk past rows of shoes, take off your own, enter a tent and sit down around a carpet for a Yemeni mandi: pit-roasted chicken and rice; nibble on a Nepali momo a chewy savory dumpling while admiring the colorful display of fabrics sold by the yard and ignoring the guys trying to sell you a new watch; or stand outside on the curb waiting for a piping hot order of fateer, thin, folded and stuffed Egyptian pancakes. Whatever the food you taste, know that in Old Dubai there is more — so much more for every morsel that you taste! That culinary concentration just a metro-ride away, is one of the things I miss most about living in Dubai.
For an insight into Arabian Gulf coast cuisine and learn about traditional Bedouin dishes and how perl divers used to cook rice in dibs (date syrup), find this little treasure: Cardamom & Lime: Recipes from the Arabian Gulf by Sarah Al-Hamad.
Florian Harms and Lutz Jakel dedicate an entire chapter to Dubai in their coffee-table book The Flavours of Arabia, zooming in on the cosmopolitan character of Dubai with beautiful photography, bringing recipes from chefs liaised with some of Dubai’s icon hotels.
This is a post in a series of Street Food Stories — see also Puerto Vallarta.
Did you take a food trail with Frying Pan Adventures? Or have a great experience with a street food trail anywhere else? Let me know!
One more thing: CEO and founder of Frying Pan Adventures also writes a blog. Be warned: it will make you drool: I Live In A Frying Pan.