What is the essence of Emirati cuisine?

Dubai's dining scene reflects a multiplicity of nationalities from neighbouring Gulf countries but Emirati cuisine is unmistakable, says Arva Ahmed

In a city like Dubai that is home to more than 200 nationalities, it is only natural that its dining scene dishes out a rich – often dizzying - diversity of food options. Whether the chef is carving up a street-side spit of meat for the ubiquitous Shawarma or raw fish for Japanese-style Sashimi, no visitor will ever starve in Dubai.

But despite this multiplicity of dishes, the one food that remained under-represented at restaurants for a long time was, ironically, local fare. Emirati food tended to be cooked at home, served at weddings or catered from special ‘public kitchens’ that went largely unnoticed by the expatriate population. It is not surprising, then, that many a visitor mistakenly thought they had sampled Emirati food after a Lebanese meal of Shawarma, Hummus and Falafels.

At its core, Emirati food culture comprises dishes born in the desert as well as seafood from the salty waters of the Arabian Gulf. Many of the most traditional dishes are not only shared with neighbouring Gulf populations but also shared with their ancestors from hundreds of years ago.

One of the most salient desert traditions is that of Arabic coffee or Gahwa . This is not just another coffee drink “to go,” but rather a beverage brewed with the express intent of welcoming guests and engaging them in conversation. The etiquette of correctly brewing, serving and consuming Gahwa reveals a nuanced coffee culture derived from deep-rooted traditions of the broader Arabian desert.

It is not surprising, then, that many a visitor mistakenly thought they had sampled Emirati food after a Lebanese meal of shawarma, hummus and falafels.

Another desert tradition is found in the soaked layers of Thareed – a wholesome goat or lamb stew with crisp crepe-like bread (Regag) crumbled into the gravy. While the dish itself may find its origins in Mesopotamia, it is said to have been favoured by the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) and continues to hold a sacred place in kitchens across the Islamic world. Another all-in-one, time-tested meal is the slow-cooked meat and wheat porridge called Harees, whose calorific ghee-garnished surface beams up from many an Emirati Iftar table during the holy month of Ramadan.

With the bountiful waters of the Arabian Gulf in such proximity, seafood has its own special status in local cuisine. Grouper, emperor, red snapper, sea bream, kingfish, blue crab and squid are just a few of the many varied fruits of the sea that are grilled (Mashwi), fried (Magli), simmered in curries (Salona) or paired with rice (Machboos and Biryani).

In the pre-refrigeration days, fish would be gutted and salted for preservation. These preserved fish products continue to be coveted on the traditional Emirati table – be it salted fish (Maleh) teamed with rice or rocket leaves and lemon, preserved and ground anchovies (Sehnah) that are sprinkled over rice, or spiced anchovy sauce (Mehywah) splashed over thin bread with clarified butter or cheese and eggs.

Far from being static, the flavours at an Emirati dining table have been influenced over time by key trading communities – the lands flanking the Arabian Gulf and the Indian subcontinent. Bags of Indian spices perfume the alleys of the old Spice Souk and find their way into the fragrant bezar spice mix used across Emirati cooking. Every household has its own bezar blend of cumin seeds, coriander seeds, cinnamon, black pepper, turmeric, red chillies and sometimes fennel seeds, roasted until fragrant and then ground to a fine powder. A platter of Machboos - or rice cooked in the juices of chicken, meat or fish – is as good as the fragrance of the bezar mix used to season it.

Sweetened and buttered vermicelli with strips of omelette (Balaleet) often serve as a sweet-savoury wake-up call in the morning. Tender pancakes (Chebab), cracker-like bread (Regag) and puffed-up bread pockets (Khameer) are other bread-based favourites dipped in a combination of salty cream cheese or rich date molasses.

Vegetables and vegetarian dishes are not as prolific in Emirati cooking as they may be in its Levantine neighbours of the region. While farming does take place in the cooler Northern Emirates, the extent of produce is simply not as varied and abundant to hold as prime a place in Emirati cooking as do ingredients like meat, flour, rice, milk, yoghurt, clarified butter and dates.

Dried limes (Loomi) used across the Gulf region, Dihin or locally-made clarified butter, Arabic coffee and of course, dates as well as date molasses (Dibs), are mainstays of a traditional Emirati pantry. Dibs finds its most noble purpose when drizzled over the highly addictive Foga or now more commonly called Luqaimat – one-bite rotund fritters doused with date syrup and sesame seeds.

Hummus, that well-loved chickpea dip with sesame-based tahina or herb-rich vegetarian falafels might be ubiquitous in Dubai – but are imported foods from the Levant.

While Foga might be the most frequently consumed sweet snack, even among the expatriate population, the decadent world of Emirati desserts does not stop there. Puddings or Aseeda made with pumpkin or with dates, buttery dates crumble (Batheeth), tapioca pudding (Sago) and roasted flour stirred with butter and sugar (Khabeesa) provide a variety of sweet ending options to an Emirati meal. 

Perhaps the most important theme of Emirati dining culture is one of hospitality. Guests invited into homes are looked after and fed like kings. While few have the rare opportunity of visiting an Emirati home, the city has been finally blessed with restaurants like Al Fanar, Seven Seas and Siraj whose menus serve either authentic or modernised versions of native dishes. Indeed, they have leave visitors absolutely no excuse to mistake Falafels and Hummus for Emirati food.