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Posts from the ‘United Arab Emirates’ Category

Where to Eat Emirati Food in Dubai

Late last year I was in Dubai, for the second time in less than a year and a half, which seems ludicrous in retrospect. I haven’t written about everything I intended to for varying reasons, mostly un-dramatic. 2014 has been quick and full of fits and starts that have demanded focus and left little time for tying up loose ends. I didn’t leave the country once this year. I also spent my life savings on an apartment you’d never see featured in “The Hunt.”

It goes without saying that Dubai is kind of a weird place and not a place that is on anyone’s food radar like Singapore, also a substantial flight away in another heavily malled city in love with air conditioning and luxury goods.

There is a food culture, though. I’d like to say that it’s on the verge–and it is being tapped into, for sure. Just last week Andrew Zimmern was Instagramming visits to camel farms (there is no way camel meat won’t be a bizarre eat) and fish sauce makers, and Penny De Los Santos, a Saveur photographer, was posting shots of fish markets and chai vendors. I imagine the angle will be Dubai behind the glitz, a.k.a. a taste of the real Dubai.

I could drum up very little interest when pitching in earnest earlier this year. Americans don’t go to Dubai and would need someone well above my stature to convince them otherwise, and foreign publications prefer local stringers. My fascination was and is more along the lines of what is local food when there aren’t many locals? Emiratis make up just roughly 13% of the seven United Arab Emirates’ 9.2 million population.

So, what is Emirati food? It’s not hummus or pita or shawarma, though those Levantine staples in the form of Lebanese food, specifically, enjoy great popularity in the UAE and have blended into the culture. There are definitely flatbreads, rice and grilled meats and seafood. Traditionally, the cuisine isn’t elaborate, especially considering that it’s born of nomadic desert-dwellers pre-oil boom.

emirates shrimp machbous

Shrimp machbous, akin to a biryani and using loomi, a dried black lime powder, and an Arabic spice blend called baharat, served in Emirates business class (the most amazing, unexpected, free upgrade I’ve experienced in my entire life) is a traditional Emirati dish. Of course, I wouldn’t recommend anyone judging anyone’s cuisine based on airline food.

There aren’t a lot of restaurants that bill themselves exclusively as Emirati–whether because the food is considered home cooking, the small number of locals, or that it’s not assumed to be of interest to tourists or expats–though that’s starting to shift. There also doesn’t appear to be a strong urge to appeal to outsiders, and especially not women on their own.

A half week here (during Ramadan, no less) and ten days there is not enough to call myself an expert. I don’t have all the answers, but I do have a few first-hand suggestions for the curious.

al fanar harees

Al Fanar is probably the best known example and goes as far as calling itself “the first and only” Emirati restaurant in Dubai. It also recently opened a new branch at Town Centre, Jumeirah. The one I visited at Festival City is in a mall like most things and a little kitschy with an outdoor tableaux of camel statues and 1960s vehicles meant to evoke an older, simpler Dubai. It also happens to be near a Trader Vic’s and a Jamie Oliver restaurant. Harees, above, is a stiff porridge made from cracked wheat and lamb stewed into oblivion, then accented with clarified butter. I was warned against it being “like Quaker Oats,” which it isn’t really. Previously on Al Fanar.

Milas is a newer entrant (in Dubai–the original location is in the more conservative emirate to the north, Sharjah) and slicker. It’s located in a ground floor section of the Dubai Mall devoted to denim that’s called…wait for this…”The Village, Denim District at The Dubai Mall.” This was the middle of the afternoon, not prime dining time, but I was the only patron sitting “outside.” Lack of diners was a common occurrence everywhere I went. (And some establishments like Bait 1971 seemed to keep hours based on whims–I was only able to try Bait Al Bahar, the more generic Middle Eastern restaurant on the beach.)

milas ipad menu

The menu is not just on an iPad but is presented in a wooden case propped up vertically. Yes, that’s harees on the screen. And yes, two harees experiences (I’d also tried it at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding) was plenty for a short time frame.

milas amuse

A chickpea and pine nut salad appeared with sesame-seeded, za’atar-spiced oil and what I want to call pita but the menu in English says is Oriental bread.

milas mbahar deyay

Mbahar deyay, which I ordered because it was the signature dish and one person can only eat so much, is very close to an Indian korma. The chicken breast is served in a lightly spiced, creamy sauce with saffron rice garnished with fried onions and cashews. This also came with green and red chile sauces on the side that weren’t Indian in the least and closer to the flavor and consistency of Sriracha. For the record, outside of resorts food is not prohibitively expensive in Dubai even at a relatively upscale mall restaurant. This entree cost about $16.

milas quad

I was kind of digging the purse hook, gold flatware and toothpick caddy (and that palate was used correctly on the website). Oh, and you are brought perfumes at the end of the meal, which are meant to emulate the hospitality you would experience at someone’s home. I would not know because I don’t think just anyone gets invited for dinner at an Emirati’s house.

klayya exterior

Klayya, a cafe in a smaller shopping center that looked to only be a 20 minute walk from my hotel but ended up being a trauma because the sidewalks literally end a few blocks outside of the central cluster I was staying in, was the source of one of my favorite meals. Once again, I was the only customer.

al barsha quad

In case you wondering, no one walks in Dubai even in the winter when the high is only 79 degrees. The way to Al Barsha Mall by car quickly led to lots of sand and dirt for pedestrians, as well as enormous home compounds covered in flags that may or may have not been a result of the National Day celebration.

bateel counter

Where Emirati food might excel, in my sweet-and-savory-obsessed opinion, is at breakfast. Maybe I just really love dates. (Bateel, a chain whose counter is pictured above, is where one satisfies that urge–I love that even a predominately Muslim country will package confections in a Christmas tree shaped box for the holidays.)

klayya breakfast

From 8am to noon, you can order breakfast combos like this ryoog yerana, described as an omelet, with three breads and karak, a local version of chai. Clearly, it’s not an omelet but hard-cooked eggs (I have no idea if runny yolks, my preference, are not standard) sprinkled with cumin seeds and sitting atop a slew of caramelized, charred on the bottom dates. It’s a lot of food–and only $9.50, by the way.

klayya duo

You can’t see all three in this photo, but the tin of breads holds chebab, which is almost exactly like an American pancake, khameer, the Emrirati answer to pita, and regag, a dosa-like crepe.

klayaa duo interior

Candied flavors paired with protein are kind of love or hate. If you like bastilla or sweet and sour pork or monte cristo sandwiches, you will be on board with Emirati breakfasts. This wasn’t technically my first one. Jetlag bolstered by two days of heavy drinking (big resort brunch, then small town hotel bar crawling) almost killed me (I say only in half-jest). My friend’s sister who I stayed with in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi’s second city, on my third night, reported back to her sibling that I might be dead because I hadn’t moved from the couch long past what seemed like a reasonable amount of sleep. When I was finally able to pull myself together that afternoon, I was made a dish involving scrambled eggs, crumbly white cheese and date syrup. It was amazing. I also credit it with reviving me.

mama tani exterior

Mama Tani is a little new school and specializes in using khameer, the traditional flatbread, in less traditional ways. And I almost hate to point it out, but look, no one’s there.

shake shack entrance mercato mall

It’s not a matter of cuisine or name recognition, I’m afraid. This same shopping center, Mercato Mall, along touristy Jumeirah Beach Road also houses one of Dubai’s five Shake Shacks and there were certainly no lines there either.

mama tani khameer

I chose a savory version stuffed with cilantro, cream cheese (not American cream cheese, but a white processed spread* that became a source of obsession) and toasted walnuts, and a rose pista, which is like a thin, icy milkshake made with rose water and pistachios. There are also sweet khameer with saffron, rose and cardamom creams. Oh, and camel hot chocolate.

mama tani doggie bag

I appreciate the attention to design and branding. A British family did stop in while I was there and got food to go, or rather “takeaway” as they say in the rest of the world including Dubai and the UK, which made me think that asking for a doggie bag wouldn’t be a big deal (it’s not). The cardboard Fed Ex-like package kept my khameer safe (who needs refrigeration?) while I continued on my food ordering while not particularly hungry journey. Envelopes are the style, apparently, because I encountered another later.

local bites cafe counter

Local Bites Cafe is on Jumeirah Beach Road like Mama Tani, but seven blocks south, i.e. not walkable as I quickly learned. Distances are so hard to judge because there are two main drags that everything is clustered around and the rest is desert, a bit like Vegas. Because of the city’s vertical nature when represented cartographically, the scale is off and what looks like two inches on Google Maps is close to ten miles.

Local Bites Cafe had customers. A tourist laptop guy and two Emirati women who sat behind me and wanted to order their driver something with cheese while he waited in the SUV outside. Despite the strangeness of having a chauffeur (this isn’t Saudi Arabia–not only can women drive, there are female taxi drivers) it was nice seeing two women out and about with neither men nor children and I don’t mean that to sound condescending.

local bites cafe balaleet

Balaleet is a pretty traditional breakfast that also does the sweet savory thing. It’s vermicelli cooked with saffron, rose water, cinnamon, sugar and cardamom, emphasis on cardamom, and topped with slices of omelet, in this case an adorable cut out heart.

local bites cafe arabic coffee

If you dislike these spices, you’ll be in big trouble if offered Arabic coffee. And you might be. It’s another gesture of hospitality, usually presented with small no-handle cups. My non-Western chain hotel had a pot in the lobby for the taking. Served in a curvy dallah, important enough to appear on the one dirham coin and serve as Local Bites’ logo, the coffee also gets blended with cardamom, saffron, rose water and cloves. It’s not necessarily something I’d want to drink daily on its own in the morning, but it pairs well with dates and these sweetened egg dishes.

emirati cheese spread

*While writing this, I received a very important Facebook alert from my friend in Abu Dhabi coming home to South Carolina for Christmas. Cheese spread processed in the UAE!

So You Think You Can Brunch

You may think you have brunched. You might even think you hate brunch. But that’s only because you’ve never been ferried to your destination–a complex filled with so many food and drink stations that a map is required–down a man made canal with the Persian Gulf and sail-fin Burj al Arab at your side. Omelets, organic eggs or not, and bottomless mimosas will no longer cut it.

view from abra

Having a few Hong Kong champagne buffets and Singapore high teas under my belt, I thought I knew all about luxury hotel excess in faraway places. Southeast Asia ruined me for Vegas; I’ve never bothered with its all-you-can-eat affairs. America, we can’t compete on a world stage. Nowhere is this more evident than in Dubai where they kick our ass in malls, chain restaurants, fast cars, and of course, three-and-a-half-hour eatathons.

Friday is their Sunday and the place to be is at the Al Qasr. (This is actually where I stayed last July, which seems odd in retrospect since I don’t really enjoy resorts but didn’t know that at the time. The downside to Dubai in summer–beyond the inability to take the sun’s searing rays on your skin for more than two minutes–is that you might find yourself in the middle of a religious holiday where being separated from alcohol till sundown completely defeats the purpose of the all-afternoon brunch.)

al qasr brunch boat

Spanning three restaurants and occupying multiple outdoor patios that abut the artificial waterways, there is more to ingest than the mind can take in at once. I mean, there’s a boat, a gondola really, sitting in a shallow fountain, where men who aren’t Italian wear black-and-white striped shirts and red kerchiefs and serve bagna cauda. As to that map, it really exists, but I was not handed one, nor saw anyone else scrutinizing one. However, I was provided with a sample menu beforehand, which turned out to be a 14-page Word document.

For my first meal of this trip, I met up with a friend’s sister who lives in Abu Dhabi, a blessing really because solo travel is one thing, but brunch for one is a punishment on par with being made to sit through A Winter’s Tale alone on Valentine’s Day. We went the AED 575 route, which includes “bubbly” and “grape beverages”–the words champagne and wine are not used in advertising out of cultural respect–in addition to cocktails. As of this second, that’s $157, not a small amount of money, though true ballers can cough up an extra $60 for Moet (or save a paltry $27 by eschewing alcohol altogether, which either means this brunch a great value for drinkers or financially abusive to teetotalers).

al qasr pork trio

Halt. You are now entering pork territory. Fair warning.

al qasr spanish

This is really just the Spanish section, though; there’s plenty of gazpacho, paella, tortilla, coca, olives and anchovies among the jamon and chorizo.

al qasr thai

What little I tried of the Thai food was shockingly good. The papaya salad with shrimp was way spicier and fresher than expected for a tourist show, and I was impressed to see chor muang dumplings in all their purple-skinned glory.

al qasr bbq

I don’t know that I would consider spit-roasted chimichurri beef to be American bbq, though mac and cheese, corn on the cob and baked beans were accurate enough. It also didn’t seem prudent to fill up on fried chicken or brisket. Same with the Middle Eastern and Indian food, which are pretty much everywhere in Dubai. We were accosted here by a presumably working Canadian chef, as if he had set a comfort food trap to lure North American women. To his credit, he cut a drinks line to get us alcoholic coconut beverages (more on that later).

al qasr sweet things

Just a fraction of the sweet things on display.

al qasr brunch raw bar plate

Round one: raw bar and sushi.

al qasr brunch spanish

Round two: Spanish. I could pretty much just stick to this theme and be happy.

al qasr brunch thai and chineseRound three: a little Thai, a little Chinese.

al qasr brunch mish mashRound four: A trip back to the Spanish section for squid, albondigas, honeyed eggplant, cheese, figs, and an unnecessary sampling of un-Spanish fudge and chocolate-covered dates (there were culturally appropriate flans and rice pudding, of course).

al qasr brunch more sweets

Round five: my sweets.

al qasr brunch all sweets

All the sweets (and drinks).


al qasr drinks

You can use your legs and pick up all types of alcohol. You can also just stay put and your champagne flute will be topped off without fail.

al qasr coconut drinks

There are also Asian men in not-quite-rice-paddy-hats who’ll hack off the tops of coconuts and pour in Malibu or Bacardi–or both–and hand them to Sienna Miller-looking women in short shorts.

me with coconut

Ok, I had one (or two) too. Enough to make me forget and leave my sweater behind, causing exposed shoulder self-consciousness while out and about later.

Al Qasr * Dubai, United Arab Emirates


Top Six Chains I Didn’t Expect in Dubai

shake shack dubai mall

Yeah, we all know about Shake Shack’s world domination (I saw three of Dubai’s four without even trying) and at this point P.F. Chang’s, Red Lobster, IHOP, Cheesecake Factory, and even Texas Roadhouse are all a given, but what about the lesser chains and outposts?

I didn’t know Ashton Kutcher was responsible for a restaurant, let alone one called Ketchup. Seriously? There are sliders, potato skins and vodka-free cosmopolitans. According to the American website, what you won’t find: “boring background music and atmosphere on par with a senior citizen’s buffet in a Midwestern shopping mall.” It is not clear if there are any remaining Ketchup locations in the US.

bennigan's dubai

Bennigan’s is one of those heritage brands like Kenny Rogers Roasters and Tony Roma’s (I was shocked to hear one recently opened in the Atlantic Center–why is no one talking about this? And yes, there is one in Dubai) that seem to thrive abroad while all but extinct on its home turf. Having not grown up with Bennigan’s, I’m not even sure what its calling card is. Turkey O’Toole™? Not only is the sandwich trademarked, but also the phrase Crowd Pleasers™ used to describe appetizers.

cafe habana dubai

Moving New York-ward, Cafe Habana exists and actually serves alcohol (indoors only). I know, because I was drawn in by the novelty and had the worst Hemingway Daiquiri of my life and paid $14 for the privilege.

rosa mexicano dubai mall

Also, Rosa Mexicano, which is directly next to Eataly in the Dubai Mall.

Despite not being listed on the website and saddled a distancing prefix, Maison Bagatelle is somehow loosely affiliated with the Meatpacking original. Being un-licensed, though, it bears little resemblance. It’s just a cafe more akin to the ubiquitous PAUL. Alcohol-free probably equals douche-free, at least.

entrecote cafe de paris dubai

Ok, this is Entrecote Café de Paris in the Dubai Mall, which is different than Le Relais de L’Entrecôte in Dubai Festival City Mall, but you know, the same thing as the Le Relais De Venise L’Entrecôte in NYC. I can’t keep all the iterations straight–there are three run by the descendants of the original founder.


I regret missing Hot Dog on a Stick because I would have loved seeing what the uniforms looked like. There’s no way the original striped mod set exposing shoulders and knees would be allowed.


Solero Tapas & Bodega

twoshovelIf you wondering if you could find Spanish food in Dubai, the answer would be yes. Why, is a separate question. Honestly, the only reason I paid week-old Solero a visit was because my hotel was “dry,” I wanted a glass of wine (something non-residents can’t purchase in stores without a license) and this new tapas bar in inside the Kempinksi Hotel inside the Mall of the Emirates was technically across the street (the NYC equivalent of being on the other side of a BQE overpass).

salero pa amb tomaquet

Pa amb tomàquet, the simple toasty snack that I never bother attempting because how often do you get a tomato with enough juice and flavor? I have no idea where tomatoes come from in Dubai in December, but this rendition wasn’t an atrocity.

salero pulpo a la gallega

Neither was the cazuela filled with stacks of meaty coins of octopus, doused with smoked paprika and olive oil. Being mildly pork-deprived, the logical choice would’ve been a plate of jamon, but I feared not only the dirham to dollar gouging but the metric to imperial conversion. I always screw up ordering in measures that aren’t ounces or pounds and end up with double instead of half of what I’d intended. Pulpo a la gallega was safer–and satisfying. I decided to stay a little longer and sip a gin and tonic, despite my aversion to dining alone.

The staff, both service and behind the open kitchen with bar seating, was almost wholly imported from Spain (minus the one Chilean cook I spoke to). Even the DJ appeared be playing Spanish pop hits of the ’80s, which only the hard-partying couple next to me, two chefs from another restaurant, seemed to know, based on their shrieks and hollers. The rest of the diners were far more subdued. There were even a few obviously Muslim women present–I mention this only because there’s a security guard outside the door at the mall’s entrance who on a different occasion had steered a group of curious men away by saying, “That’s a bar.” It’s really more of a restaurant, though.

Solero Tapas & Bodega * Kempinsski Mall of the Emirates, Sheikh Zayed Rd.  * Dubai, UAE

Six Cuisines in Five Hours: An Old Dubai Crash Course

Four hours,  forty-nine minutes and thirteen seconds spent sampling food from all ends of the Middle East does not an expert make, but it’s a pretty good crash course, nonetheless. Beyond the obvious Levantine favorites like hummus, tabouleh, shawarma, and a few long ago forays into Atlantic Avenue’s Yemeni restaurants, I’m stunted when it comes to regional specialties.

Dubai is funny in that there are still perfectly accessible vestiges of the pre-glitz era, entire neighborhoods even. Just cross the creek into Deira and you’re in the Queens of the Emirate. Any eating that required being outside for more than three minutes was nixed on my previous Ramadan-hindered visit, which meant no strolling and no chowhoundy missions. Plus, who has an appetite when it’s 112 degrees? (Boo to Celsius. Tell me it’s 20 degrees or 40 degrees and I’ll comprehend nothing.) Even during the winter there aren’t many pedestrians minus the occasional sun-burnt Brit. Lest you think I exaggerate, the bus stops–many sponsored by Tim Hortons–are air conditioned. I’ve yet to master exposure on photos in the dark with bright blown out signs, so evidence deleted.

Arva, a food blogger who grew up in Dubai and still lives in Deira, started a food tour business called Frying Pan Adventures this year, and it’s become popular for a reason. While I’ve always shied away from guided group activities while traveling (and in life, generally) it’s very useful in a city where it’s easier to read up on ventures by ’90s chefs like Gary Rhodes or find the latest American import than where to get the best kunafa or find lesser known items like Iranian sangak.

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Rashed Ali Cafeteria

threeshovelFor a country where drunkeness–public or otherwise–is seriously frowned on, the United Arab Emirates certainly produces one of the most mind-bending late night snacks I’ve ever encountered. It’s hard to imagine a brain on mocktails coming up with something so ingenious.

Rashed Ali Cafeteria is in a strip mall in Al Ain, the second-largest city in Abu Dhabi, which didn’t seem all that large. It’s open 24 hours.  At 2am on a holiday weekend Saturday, there were still cars pulling up and doing the classic honk-and-order. Drivers in the UAE turn any business (including liquor stores where leaving your tinted windowed SUV could draw undue attention) into a car hop with a few short beeps.

rashed ali cafeteria

The order: four San Franciscos, 5 dirham apiece or roughly $1.35. I have no idea if that’s the official name–or the price– because I didn’t see a menu and my driver who I’d met the day before, an expat sister of a Brooklyn friend, speculated that was the “white girl price” because it had been cheaper before. (There was also paranoia that the server was being rude and wouldn’t give us change from the 20 dirham note because he suspected we had been drinking.)

rashed ali san fransico

Four originally sounded excessive but these sandwiches that a New Yorker would call gyros are petite. What they consist of I can only guess. Presumably, the main ingredient is hot chicken, orange-ish, hinting at tandoori spices. The bread isn’t pita or khameer, an Emirati pita–there is a whole canon of Arabic breads I’d never encountered before–but chewy, pliable and buttery like a roti or what they would call paratha (which I kept hearing as “burrata” because P’s are pronounced like B’s). I’m pretty sure it’s a paratha.

so much liquid cheese

What sealed it for me was the processed cheese (not burrata).  Numerous  brands–Borden,  Kraft, and something called Puck–vie for shelf space (sometimes it’s refrigerated, sometimes not) for their plastic squeezable containers and small glass jars. Called spreadable cream cheese, it is not that. The taste and consistency is more akin to white Cheez Whiz, obviously an angelic version.

rashed ali san fransico bitten

And it is the gooey, salty schmear that elevates the San Francisco to greatness. The heavy layer of un-crushed wavy potato chips doesn’t hurt either. I ate two, one on the car, one back in the apartment, conked out, and didn’t wake up until the next afternoon.

Rashed Ali Cafeteria * Slemi, Al Ain, United Arab Emirates

Photos, Finished

If photos are your thing, here is my Dubai Flickr set that’s a million times more full of stuff than what I posted to Instagram. I ate some real food from all corners of the Middle East. I also ate at California Pizza Kitchen and Shake Shack. I  tweeted a lot (and lost a few followers–bye, self-serious food bros). Sorry, I can’t stop and I won’t stop with the international IHOPs and Cheesecake Factories. 2014 is going to be the least service-y year yet. Guaranteed.

24 Hours in Dubai

costa coffee festive
People may complain about the pervasiveness of American culture, but abroad it’s Britishisms all the time.  At the airport Costa Coffee (yes, yes, a British chain) the advertisement for mince pies (also, mince for ground as in ground beef will never be right) set me off. Thankfully, the sight of the turkey, stuffing and cranberry sandwich tempered my Thanksgiving outrage a bit. Also, did you know that Costa Coffee recently started offering camel milk?


I said “takeaway” and hated myself for it when I over-ordered at the mall food court and didn’t want to leave food behind. We all know what to go means, right?

carrefour turkeys

The only mention of Thanksgiving was this frozen turkey display at Carrefour. This is also a four-day weekend in Dubai, but it’s for National Day, which means a lot of flags.

My hotel room, which is slightly larger than my Brooklyn apartment which isn’t super tiny, has a kitchen. Unfortunately, there is an electric tea kettle but no coffee maker. I’ve scoffed at foodies who travel with pour over coffee contraptions, but now I’m not laughing. I resorted to buying a jar of private label instant espresso that was imported from Poland.

so much instant coffee

This is only one-third of the instant coffees displayed at the Carrefour inside of the Mall of the Emirates. The mall is a three-minute walk from my room.

cheesecake factory mall of the emirates

I’ve wondered why American malls don’t contain grocery stores when it’s commonplace in other countries. I will concede that shopping carts in a crowded (Thursday night is Saturday night here, if you didn’t know that already) mall isn’t the wisest idea. Someone has one half-way through the entrance of the Cheesecake Factory. There was still a wait for tables at 10pm.


It has now taken me 96 hours to get this short post uploaded because my laptop internet won’t stay connected long enough to insert photos. At least that now gives me the chance to share a picture of a guy driving down the street with his pet monkey hanging out of car…or not–it’s taking over 20 minutes to email the photo and instagram crashes my ipad, which I resorted to because the laptop won’t work. You are really missing out. Ok, the mall has better free wifi.

A Member of the 88%

Today I learned that 88% of residents of the UAE
dine in mall food courts,
which was no surprise whatsoever. (And that the waits for a table at the Cheesecake
Factory, which I'm still sore over missing by a few weeks, are as rough, if not
worse, than at any American location. Also, Cheesecake Factory is surprisingly
high on the wish list of a number of New York Times commenters.)

Mall of the emirates empty dining

This empty warren of seats at the Mall of the
Emirates during Ramadan isn't technically a food court (there were two of those
elsewhere) but where you could dine "al fresco" if eating at the waiter
service restaurants just to the left of the frame like California Pizza Kitchen
and Chili's, as well as Iranian Pars, Lebanese Al Hallab and South African The
Butcher Shop & Grill.

In the real food court, late night for a second
dinner, I nearly took a chance on the Zinger Shrimpo dishes at KFC (Singapore
isn't the only country with weirdo shrimp on the menu) but decided that with
limited time it would be better to go homegrown. We hit the food court at Mall
of the Emirates late night for a second dinner.

Al farooj xtra fire

Al Farooj is the UAE's popular fried chicken
franchise. I don't even know if I can call it fast food since it took close to
twenty minutes to get one spicy chicken sandwich, a.k.a. Xtra Fire.

Al farooj extra fire chicken sandwich

Fried chicken, chicken
sandwiches and wraps that wouldn't be completely out of place in the US are its
main thing, but the sides are where it gets interesting. American jalapeno
poppers and mozzarella sticks mingle with more local tabbouleh, hummus and
stuffed grape leaves. We just got fries.

Hatam mixed grill

If I had one more sit-down meal at my disposal it
definitely would've been Persian food since that's scarce in NYC. Instead, I
settled for a mixed lamb and chicken kabobs at Hatam, an Iranian fast food
joint. The butter, that comes in a little plastic packet to drizzle over the (large
for me) serving of rice wasn't solid but liquefied like popcorn butter.

Hatam mall of the emirates

I regret
not getting to sample sangak, this giant Iranian bread, or fesenjan, the
renowned chicken, pomegranate and walnut stew, but this wasn't half bad for a
food court meal.

It’s Not All IHOP and Cheesecake Factory in Dubai

Al fanar harees

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

Belgian beer cafe carpaccio
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.

Rivington trio

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.

Dubai festival city
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.

Al fanar outside duo

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.

Al fanar meal

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?

Al fanar harees scooped
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).

Smcfcu harees duo

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.)

Sheikh mohammed centre for cultural understanding iftar

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.

Smcfcu desserts duo

And later, desserts. Dibs, i.e. date syrup is awesome.