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Desert Discoveries - Discover the incredible tastes and textures of traditional Emarati food


Words: Stella Rosato    Photography: Helen Cathcart


Traditional Emirati food has been bubbling away in Dubai’s back streets for years. Andrew Whiffen, Director of Food & Beverage, Raffles Dubai, leads us on a culinary journey in search of gastronomic gems off the beaten track

The heady aromas of cardamom and frankincense pervade the early morning air around the narrow walkways of Dubai’s Spice Souk, one of the city’s oldest closed markets. Sacks full of the spices, berries, nuts, roots, bark and fragrances that have enticed the city’s cooks and food lovers for generations are refilled for the day’s trade as Andrew Whiffen, Director of Food & Beverage at Raffles Dubai, looks on. The souk is one of Whiffen’s favourite places to start the day.

Spice of life:seeing locals spending hours chatting and drinking over coffee illustrates perfectly how people have always enjoyed their free time in this part of the world

The Spice Souk is part of Dubai’s labyrinthine Old Souk district that lies on the Deira side of the city’s Creek and is just one of many little pockets of traditional Emirati life that Whiffen is drawn to on his frequent culinary trips around the emirate. It is often within these enclaves that lesser-known gastronomic gems can be found – places that remain firmly out of the travel guides.

“These older quarters of the city are such an important part of the Dubai experience, yet many visitors don’t venture beyond the five-star restaurants, the shopping and the beaches,” Whiffen explains. He arrived in Dubai in 2008 as Executive Chef of Raffles Dubai. Although his job now frequently takes him away from the kitchen, Whiffen remains a chef in heart and soul – with a determination to get under the culinary skin of the regions in which he works.

It is often within these enclaves that lesser-known gastronomic gems can be found

We cross over Dubai Creek from Deira to Bur Dubai on an abra (water taxi) and then meander through the textile souks lining
the waterfront. We’re heading towards Al Satwa – a noisy, colourful, vibrant neighbourhood filled with fabric stores, tailors and haberdashers, and home to thousands of Dubai residents from South Asia. When they want to eat, they head to Ravi, a linoleum-floored, hole-in-the-wall where, like many of Whiffen’s favourite eateries, the insalubrious surroundings belie the terrific food.

Food for thought:Dubai provides a wealth of culinary experiences, from small cafés dishing up simple food to five-star restaurants

The place hasn’t changed in decades; crammed with blue-collar workers, western expatriates and Emiratis, the clientele rub shoulders seated at plastic chairs and tables that spill out into the street where they dip melt-in-the-mouth naan into pools of spicy curries. The menu is extensive but the nihari stew – tender morsels of meat studded with peppercorns – is a favourite for breakfast, while chicken tikka fresh from the grill accompanied by aloo paratha (bread stuffed with potato and chilli and fried in ghee), is hard to beat.

After a hearty breakfast, we drive down 2nd December Street (National Day on the Emirati calendar) to the imposing Jumeirah. Within the graceful architecture of the mosque’s cultural centre, the Majlis café has brought a unique offering to the emirate’s culinary scene. Most things available on the café’s menu – lattes, milkshakes, pastries, chocolate, ice cream and cheese – are derived from local camels’ milk.

Most things available on the cafe’s menu are derived from local camel’s milk

Several kilometres up the beach road in the neighbourhood of Umm Suqeim, Dubai’s bustling fishing industry thrives as it has for more than 100 years. This area has undergone some restoration of late, with traditional sandstone and wind-tower buildings housing the new fish market and harbour offices. The Bu Qtair eatery remains untouched located in a simple Portakabin set between two dhow (traditional wooden sailing boats) building yards and serves no-nonsense meals to fishermen and labourers, as well as the odd sheikh on occasion. The fish – local hammour, sherri, perch and prawns – are delivered fresh from the sea every morning and, along with curry sauce and salad, are the menu staples. Lunch for two rarely costs more than 60 dirhams (£9.50).

Taste tour:fish fresh from the coast, herbs, spices and melt-in-the-mouth naans add to Dubai's rich gastronomic experiences

Back in Dubai and next door to Raffles Dubai, Whiffen heads for another souk – the Khan Murjan located deep within a secluded area of the luxurious Wafi complex. “Unlike the spice souk, this market was only built several years ago but in a traditional style,” he explains. The food outlets in the souk feature live stations allowing visitors to see bread being cooked. As for restaurants to be found at Raffles Dubai, Whiffen cites the award-winning Tomo restaurant as a gem among Dubai’s gastronomic experiences. Not just for its superb Japanese cuisine, but the extraordinary view from its outdoor terrace: “Just look at this – possibly the best view of the Dubai skyline in the city.”

As dusk falls, Whiffen has one last favourite place to visit - Qbara, a new opening in Dubai with incredible décor in the Wafi Fort Complex: Old Afghan doors, thousands of them. On the walls, on the ceilings, above the bar that seemingly ripple, open and close in spectacular light shows. Then the menu, which describes itself as “Arabic lore with an unmistakable modern twist”. It means little – until the soft-shell crab sharwarma that still smells of the sea and the deconstructed falafel sandwich, sweet, tangy and sharp, hit the table.

The food outlets in the souk feature live stations allowing visitors to see bread being cooked

The chef behind Qbara is Colin Clague, the British talent who also opened Zuma and The Ivy in Dubai: “Many of my team are Arabic and I asked them to show me what their mothers cooked when they were kids. We then honed it, seasoned it, added some unexpected ingredients and changed the presentation.” “I think this is the future for local cuisine,” says Whiffen. “The tastes and textures that have been bubbling away in the back streets discovered only by a few, now presented in a fresh, exciting way.”

Restaurant Address Telephone Email/Website
Ravi, Al Satwa Al Dhiyafa Rd, Dubai +971 4 331 5353
The Majlis Cafe Jumeirah Beach Road, Dubai +971 4 353 6666
Bu Qtair Eatery 4 D Street, Dubai +971 55 705 2130
Khan Murjan Restaurant WAFI, Ground Floor, Oud Metha Road, PO Box 721, Dubai +971 4 327 9795
Tomo Restaurant Exit 56, Dubai +971 4 357 7888
Qbara Sheikh Rashid Rd, Dubai +971 4 7092500
Raffles Dubai Restaurants Sheikh Zayec Road, Wafi, Dubai
PO Box 1218OO
+971 4 324 8888

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