Want to know where the locals eat? Just ask an insider
Sister act Arva and Farida Ahmed have been walking hungry visitors through Old Dubai on their Frying Pan Adventures food tours since 2013, cherry-picking the tastiest hidden gems.
We speak to Farida Ahmed about her favourite spots to experience the tastes of Dubai.
What is the philosophy behind Frying Pan Adventures food tours?
We've always been a foodie family – so much of our lives revolve around food – so the tours began when we realised the best way for guests to acclimatise is through their stomach.
How locals and expats eat is always interesting, and it's the easiest way to understand someone's culture and create bonds with the people. The minute you sit down to a meal, it evokes a memory or is a memory waiting to happen.
Our food trails take guests to between three to eight dining spots, from street stalls to restaurants, so people can literally get a taste for Dubai.
How would you describe Dubai's food scene?
An eccentric mezze of dining experiences. If you look on a map, Dubai is in the centre of the world, so it's no surprise that so many cultures are represented here as it's so easy to assimilate and meet in the middle.
Since the first dhow reached here from India, there has been an influx of expats. Each traveller brings memories of food, recipes, stories, ingredients.
The best part about Dubai is that you have high end dining, but also Old Dubai's more humble eateries, where locals have traditionally gone for their meals. In Old Dubai, you can have an authentic, delicious meal for less than AED20.
What one dish is a must-try?
Machboos is a lovely fragrant Emirati dish - rice with beef or chicken that is cooked with slow simmering. As Bedouins did not use as many spices, it focuses on slow-cooked, meaty flavours: a simply spiced, hearty meal. For Emiratis, machboos is about sharing amongst large groups, family-style, for celebrations like Eid and weddings. It is a feel-good, comfort food. I like the version at Al Fanar in Festival City (+971 4 232 9966).
What other national cuisines can you find in Dubai?
Indian food, of course. Dubai has so many regions represented. Punjabi is the most popular, with South Indian food found in some of the older areas. There is also lots of restaurants that focus on Pakistani, Chinese, and Thai. Filipino kitchens are also popular, perfect for a fried chicken fix.
What's Dubai's most underrated meal?
I always think the restaurants I go to in Old Dubai are underrated because they're so off-the-radar, unless you've grown up here with them and know where to look. I've been going to Manvaar in Karama (+971 4 336 8332) since I was 15. The cook specialises in Rajtan, North Indian food. It's not butter chicken, but a desert state food, very home-style. I've never been disappointed.
What's your favourite food neighbourhood?
There's so much to discover in Old Dubai.
What's your favourite romantic restaurant?
I have always loved Traiteur, at the Park Hyatt Dubai (+971 4 317 2221). I love their curated menu. Everything they do they do well. They have a fantastic crepes Suzette. The other must-visit for a romantic meal is Cave Dubai at The Conrad (+971 4 444 7111). It’s quite private, with lounge bed seating in a corner. It's the only place I've been to that will let me kick my heels up, snuggle up and eat fondue with my husband under the blankets.
Where do you eat for a special celebratory meal?
With family celebrations, we'll stick to Old Dubai, but when it's just the two of us, we'll go upmarket with a table for two. For our anniversary it was La Petite Maison in DIFC (+971 4 439 0505), always a favourite for French food.
Dubai's best desserts are found at....
For a quick pick-me-up, I love the Japanese bakery Yakitate in Deira (+971 4 455 1683). The sweet buns are amazing. For Indian sweets, we go to Sreeraj Lassi in the Meena Bazaar (+971 4 353 0800). They are really good year-round for lassi (a yoghurt-based drink) and Indian-style ice-cream. Appetite by 1762 (+971 4 800 1762) do excellent home-style Western baked goods with sustainable, quality ingredients. I always order the carrot cake squares and millionaire's shortbread.