Friday, July 23, 2010

Skillfully Elusive Emirati Cuisine

Loomi Aswad: dried black lime - a common Emirati spice

Since we've arrived in the UAE I have been asking anyone and everyone I come in contact with where I can get good Emirati food. The responses I have received have been elusive, uninformed and uninspired in equal parts. Nobody - especially not expats - seems to know or care
what Emirati food is, much less where you can get it. Everyone at home asks me what "typical" food in Abu Dhabi is, and the sad reality is that beyond telling them vaguely - almost elusively - that it involves "lots of rice" and "lots of meat," I have no idea. Because I have literally never seen or tried it.

To be honest, I am completely overwhelmed trying to find a reasonably priced, yet safe car; the drivers here are ruthless and I have essentially been convinced by everyone from the relocation agent to the real estate guy that I need a "big heavy car" in order to keep myself and Roman in one piece. I am also overwhelmed in trying to buy new furniture that doesn't cost
two arms and a leg. I have to sign up for cable, telephone, internet, water deliveries (tap water is generally undrinkable unless boiled), and still manage to cook dinner too with only 1 pot, 1 pan, salt, pepper and a "grilling spice mix" in my cupboard. Ah the beauties of relocation!

Yet despite these large and numerous monkeys hanging on my back, I have somehow ended up trawling the aisles of various different"hypermarkets" (read: gigantic supermarkets) almost every single day since I've been here. Roman thought it was fun to ride in the supermarket seat the first couple of times as he never got to do that in London, but even he can only take 1.5 hours looking at different noodles and cuts of meat.

Even with all the time spent at
Lulu's and Carrefour I have almost no sense of what a real Emirati meal would look or taste like. In the mall, "Arabian food" is basically chalked up to fast-food Lebanese: Shawarma wraps, fattoush, tabbouleh and hummus - not that I'm complaining. :) And every supermarket has vast cheese, yogurt, rice and meat sections, which does give a hint. But apart from suddenly becoming best friends with an Emirati woman or serendipitously meeting a with-it fellow foodie who has happened to do her research, I am starting to despair.

Maybe the food is so bad, the Emiratis want to hide it? Or better yet, maybe it is so good they don't want big corporate restaurants to ruin yet another national treasure?
Whatever the case may be, today I turned my sights to the internet because the human world was failing me. I came across several blogs that I intend to follow and which have afforded me my first glimpse into the doubtless tasty and existent world of Arabian and Emirati cooking. From what I've read so far, though it does involve complex spices, Emirati cooking may not be nearly as elusive as I first thought. Here are the top 3 and an article I found very helpful on the subject.

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3 Skillfully Non-Elusive Blogs About Middle Eastern and Emirati Cuisine
interestingly, mostly written by part-Westerners

3. Emiratican Kitchen
This blog is written by a half-Emirati, half-Texan woman who married a man from Dubai. She grew up in San Antonia and so along with blogs explaining what Loomi Aswad is (dried black lime, if you don't know; apparently very common in Emirati cuisine), she also posts on how to make homemade tortillas. I love her already.

2. Ya Salam Cooking
Like with many other great food blogs, the recipe for this one started with an enterprising woman with a knack for cooking and a husband who appreciates and fuels that passion. Noor grew up in Tennesse but based on her name must have some kind of Arabic background. She now lives in Saudi Arabia (!) where she loves to cook up a storm of varied and interesting Middle Eastern recipes with the odd American one thrown in.

1. Anissa Helou
Anissa is a professional chef and cookery teacher living in London, but she is Lebanese originally and has spent much time in places like Syria and Turkey. Her blog is a unique mix of travel, food and personal experience. Also, her photographs are visually stunning. I am definitely interested in getting to know more about things like ful medammes and eating camel meat(!).

The Article: UAE on the Menu
This is a wonderful article explaining the lack of authentic Emirati food on the public Emirati tables. What it is, why it's still primarily kept as a family domain, and where to get it if you really, really want to taste the goods.

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  1. I will never again whine about the minor readjustments I've had to make moving from state to state! 8-)

    I understand that UAE's population is nearly 80% foreign-born, explaining why you could find, say, Filipino food much more easily than Emirati cuisine. But these blogs you found, especially Emiratican Kitchen, sound like great places to start discovering it for yourself.

    I heard there's a nice big IKEA there - perhaps a way to keep your limbs intact and furnish your new place? 8-) As much as you can, I hope you'll enjoy exploring your new home!

  2. Tangled - Yes, you're right about there being a ridiculous amount of international cuisine here. Lots of Filipino food as well, as there are many of your compatriots here. :) Will have to dabble.

    I am hitting the IKEA tomorrow...

  3. I feel your moving pain, although I have to say I have never encountered the issues you described here. You have my utmost sympathy.

    Have you tried cooking with the black limes yet? I had a batch that I got at a Persian store and the longer they sat in my cabinet that more intimidated I got. I have no idea why, but I had no idea where to begin with those suckers. I look forward to following your discoveries in the cusines and checking out the blogs you've shared.

  4. Oyster - thanks for the sympathy. :)

    I have not tried cooking with the black limes yet. Apparently they are often used in powder form as well. From what I have read, many Emiratis will throw a whole one into soups (chicken soups especially). Will def be sure to check those out soon, though!

  5. I was born and raised in Dubai but left at 19. As a foodie (Http:// who's going back for a visit, I was happy to stumble upon your blog! I also looked up some reports in The National newspaper.

    It's a shame it's so hard to find/eat true Emirati cuisine. I've emailed the Sheikh Mohammed Cultural Centre to give me some pointers - also, have you tried the centre's cultural breakfasts and lunches? I might also meet up with my dad's local friend who's Emirati, maybe his wife will cook for me!

  6. Hello Nikhat - thanks for your comment and I will definitely take a look at your blog. :) It is a shame it's so hard to find Emirati food - I am yet to do it myself. If you find any good places please do let me know!

  7. Danish A. Shimajiri01 November, 2011 06:38

    Hi Brenda,

    As you said above it is a shame not being able to find any authentic traditional Emirati restaurant in its own home country (United Arab Emirates), but now you can at Al Fanar Restaurant & Café. It is located in Dubai Festival City and serves all the traditional Emirati cuisine that you find at Emirati nationals home.

    Food is very tasty, excellent menu selection and they have themed the entire area so it seems like you have walked into Dubai back in the 1960’s. At Al Fanar you can truly experience the heritage, culture and the traditions of Dubai there. If you love the UAE culture and want to try an authentic Emirati cuisine, you have to visit Al Fanar. Here is their website with their menu and location if you are interested