It’s Not All IHOP and Cheesecake Factory in Dubai
You could easily visit Dubai and never encounter harees. It’s associated with Ramadan, for one, and Emirati food is more at-home food than restaurant fare, and well, there aren’t a ton of Emiratis in the city–17%, more or less–the bulk is made up of expats and guest workers. It’s definitely easier to find Indian, Middle Eastern of all stripes, or American, for that
To wit, I ate at a Belgian chain (owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev) my first night in Dubai. Beef carpaccio and frites. Not really on purpose, but because it was one of the only still-bustling places (I hate empty restaurants) open in our hotel complex after arriving late on a Saturday. Despite all the dietary and dress rules we encountered, smoking is not much of a frowned-upon vice. It was too hot for sheesha outdoors this time of year, but you can smoke in bars (which are only attached to hotels and serve alcohol at inflated prices) as well as in quite a few restaurants like this one.
And a British restaurant, Rivington Bar & Grill (it’s owned by the same company as Le Caprice and The Ivy) that I didn’t even realize was a chain. You could eat at sundown, around 7:15pm, but could not order a drink until 8pm, a rule I still don’t understand. Potted duck with piccalilli and plaice with lemon and caper butter. There’s nothing like a nice shepherd’s pie while the temperature soars well into the triple digits.
But two of my precious few evening meals in Dubai were allotted for local food. Al Fanar bills itself as the only (and first) Emirati restaurant in town, which isn’t exactly true, there are a few others. It’s part of a sprawling mall complex, which should be no surprise, since practically everything can be found at a mall. It is also across the walkway from a Jamie Oliver restaurant and a Brooklyn Diner USA people in the desert can pretend they’re eating in Midtown.
The theme is old Dubai, meaning mid-century pre-oil days. You can pose with statues of donkeys, toiling men and pickup trucks (with a Trader Vic’s coming soon banner overhead). There was a very old air conditioner poking from one of the interior walls–odd for such a new structure–and we couldn’t determine if it was part of the yesteryear motif or not.
For iftar there was a prix fixe of sorts with a variety of entrees that shifted day by day during Ramadan with a choice betweensalads, appetizers, soups and beverages. When I asked for the harees, which isn’t always on the regular menu, I was steered away, “It’s like Quaker oats.” (This reminded me of a meal, a decade ago, at Ferreira Café in Montreal when I
wanted the accorda, a stiff bread soup, and wasn’t allowed to have it. I also see that it’s no longer on the menu.) Interesting brand name drop, but yeah, I knew it was pretty much a porridge. I still insisted that we (or rather, I) wanted it because where or when else would I ever be able to try it?
Sure, harees is kind of weird, though I wouldn’t liken it to oatmeal. Essentially, it’s cracked wheat (bulgur?) slow-cooked with lamb (or chicken) until porridge-like, then blended until thick and elastic and drizzled with clarified butter. I had imagined that the lamb would be shredded, not disintegrated, for a little textural intrigue. There is a subtle nutty, grain
flavor, but overall it’s fairly bland. I would’ve been fine with one scoopful, but the serving was enough for a large family.
The only thing I really didn’t like was the laban, a super-sour yogurt beverage. And I’m clearly alone because they sell enormous jugs at the supermarket (and at Turkish McDonald’s, not in the Middle East, though).
I encountered harees the following night during a visit to Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. (I swear, I didn’t spend every waking moment in mall, and even wore a poorly wrapped shayla.) It’s a popular venue for foreigners–more expats than tourists–to learn about Islam (when it’s not Ramadan they host breakfasts and lunches) visit a mosque and be able to ask dumb questions, or pointed ones, for that matter, even if the answer may be a little squirrelly. (All of the twentysomething women and men, who reminded me of the equivalent of Christian youth outreach types trying to make church seem cool, were wearing traditional dress, but if I were to have asked a question it would’ve been why when out and about do the women have to wear the full black abaya and head scarf while the men with them get to wear tee shirts and shorts.)
There was a spread of traditional food. We were encouraged to dive in and told that there was no such thing at lines during such gatherings, which made me think of Macau and Hong Kong where I was headed next. (I never rode a subway or took an elevator in Dubai–I wonder if they let people off before pushing on. For the record, Thais had very polite subway-riding etiquette in Bangkok.) I’m all about cultural understanding, but I’ll still be annoyed if you bumrush on public transportation.
And later, desserts. Dibs, i.e. date syrup is awesome.