Traffic whizzes past me on Al Muraqqabat Road, only a few kilometres but a world away from the anodyne malls and vertiginous skyscrapers of downtown Dubai. I am about to embark on a three-hour Middle Eastern-themed food trail through Deira, the oldest part of the emirati city.
The tour is conducted by Frying Pan Adventures, owned by Indian sisters Arva and Farida Ahmed, both Dubai residents. And they know their biryani from baklava. The concept involves Arva guiding us through Deira’s warren-like landscape, which features plenty of eating pit-stops where we try signature dishes from different parts of the world.
With a dazzling array of nationalities calling Dubai home, the city-state is the perfect place for such an outing. This is a land of immigrants, and a rich variety of cuisines forms the warp and weft of its gastronomic fabric. “Remember, Dubai comprises only 10 per cent native Emiratis. The rest of its population are expats from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Somalia, as well as Western countries and the neighbouring Middle Eastern states. As a result, the country is bursting with some incredible eating places,” Arva explains while handing out the tour itinerary and maps to our group of four.
Deira is perhaps the most multicultural slice of real estate in a city defined by diversity. It also has oodles of personality. Its bustling streets, packed with atmospheric shops and restaurants, have Iraqis, Egyptians, Ethiopians, Chinese, Indians and Pakistanis living cheek-by-jowl, creating a fertile ecosystem for cross-cultural intermingling. In between exploring its labyrinthine alleys, you can also check out a jumble of grocery stores and hypermarkets. Cheap shopping finds are a bonus (I am typing this article out wearing an AED 20 bracelet which was mistaken for an AED 200 one).
Unlike the poncy menus of Michelin-starred eateries that are hardly representative of the traditional foods of the Middle East—or even its gastronomically obsessed neighbours such as Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Palestine, Iran, Iraq or Egypt—Deira serves food of the masses. Affordable and authentic, this is hearty fare unblemished by ‘fusion’ or ‘modernity’. Egyptian koshari, Iraqi kebabs, Lebanese shawarmas, Pakistani nihari, Turkish knafeh, Ethiopian injera... all made fresh by chefs in front of you.
Arva explains that as there will be a lot of eating during the evening, we should “pace ourselves”. Read: stagger our intake wisely! Our first pit-stop of the night is at Sultan Dubai Falafel, on Al Muraqqabat Road itself, next to Kings Park Hotel. We crowd into the restaurant’s tiny kitchen where fresh falafel is being made. The space—redolent with a gazillion herbs, spices and oils—is an olfactory delight. The chef reminds me of the many-armed Durga as he whips up falafel batter with one hand, bungs in spices with the other, then drops the mixture into searing hot oil before pulling out the emerald-coloured balls as they crisp up.
The balls (made of mashed fava beans) are so light they could float. There’s falafel mahshi (chickpea falafels stuffed with a chilli paste called shatta, sumac spice and onion), hummus with a green capsicum, green pepper, garlic and lemon sauce called tatbeela, foul (slow-cooked fava beans), pickles and fresh plump khubz (bread) from the bakery next door. The falafel sandwiches ooze a flavour-charged garlic-chilli chutney with fresh tomatoes and lettuce adding a nice crunch.
“Did you know,” Arva says mid-chew, “that there are more cookbooks printed in Arabic than any other language? People from the Middle East are obsessed with food. O-b-s-e-s-s-e-d.”
We move next to a Palestinian restaurant, Qwaider al Nabulsi, a cheaper establishment with plastic tables and chairs spilling out onto the street. No Michelin stars for this place; the fare here is cheap and authentic but oh-so-delicious. We sit in an al fresco area under the spiky leaves of a date palm tree as the waiter unleashes one dish after another until the table starts creaking. We begin with the Jordanian mansaf, goat meat and rice cooked with preserved yoghurt called jameed. The concoction of melting meat and the umami of the rice—held together by soft, sweet, fresh cheese—transports me to a place I’ve never been before. The pièce de résistance, however, is musakhan, a Palestinian chicken pie featuring moist roasted meat and soft, slowly sweated, sumac-tinged onions arranged on top of thin layers of bread that quickly soak up the sour-sweet juices.
Arva teaches us how to tackle these dishes with our hands. “If you eat with a fork and knife, it’s like making love with the help of an interpreter! So please don’t disappoint me,” she urges us. We happily oblige. Eschewing the proffered cutlery, we stuff the last morsels of the delicious pie into our mouths with our hands. Stomachs bursting, we now troop into a cavernous kitchen for knafeh, one of the Middle East’s most popular sweets. But first, we watch the chef make it.
Knafeh, elaborates Arva, is a sweet Arabic cheese pie typically served for dessert, though the Lebanese have cleverly repurposed it as a street-style breakfast. The dessert’s architecture makes for engaging viewing as well. The chef first smears ghee on a huge metallic tray, and then layers it with a molten akkawi cheese base (similar to a stringy, melting mozzarella). He then uses semolina kataifi noodles to construct a crunchy topping over it. The whole pie is then sloshed with copious amounts of liquid sugar and butter. We have the concoction straight from the pan while it’s still hot.
More desserts greet us at our third stop, Samadi Sweets, a huge Lebanese confectionery emporium and café located a few metres from the Palestinian restaurant. The shop is famous for its crisp baklava, another popular Middle Eastern dessert with a disputed provenance, chewy ma’amoul (spiced date cookies) and moreish slices of nammoura (a dense semolina cake doused with sugar syrup). Lebanese-style pastries, doughnuts stuffed with nuts and honey, tantalising varieties of cookies, caramelised pastries, nutty delights (including pistachio, peanut and sesame), cakes and marzipan, all line Samadi Sweets’ beautiful glass counters.
The shop has a European décor, including Art Deco chairs and dark wooden tables in the middle where locals sit and catch up over coffee and ice cream. Arva tells us she’s been visiting this shop since she was a little girl. She shows us the purse-shaped ka’ak bread which is stuffed with kunafa and syrup for breakfast by the Lebanese. We try several varieties of baklava as well as the star dish—karabij sweets crowned with natef, a meringue-like cream made from the roots of the soapwort tree. All is washed down with a fragrant cardamom tea.
Our last stop on our eating odyssey is Sadaf Iranian Sweets and Spices on Al Maktoum Road. It’s like stepping into a Middle Eastern Willy Wonka’s factory—brass buckets piled high with dried figs and saffron-scented pistachios, dried blueberries and Arabian nougat. Hundreds of varieties of nuts—some familiar, others exotic—are showcased in sacks or glass cases. Iranian saffron, considered the world’s best, can be tasted and bought at this spice boutique.
We sit around a table and begin our sampling. First off is bastani, a traditional Iranian ice cream. As I slurp up the chilled faloodeh (sweet, icy vermicelli noodles doused with rosewater) and ice cream, Arva explains the dish’s versatility. “Add a neon yellow scoop of saffron bastani and faloodeh becomes makhloot. With a drizzle of lemon juice and a sprinkling of crushed pistachios, it takes on the avatar of a Persian sorbet.”
I amble out of Deira aching but satiated. The night is beautiful; a glittering vault of stars above and a pleasant zephyr add to its allure. Among dozens of skyscrapers, I can see the Burj Khalifa, sparkly like tinsel, monumental like the Empire State Building. On the roads, fancy sedans are carrying the chi-chi folks to sample posh nosh at five-star hotels. I smugly congratulate myself on having tasted Qwaider al Nabulsi’s musakhan instead.