Dubai’s passion for gastronomy is no secret. The food scene emulates the city's multicultural melting pot, a palatable blend of fine dining restaurants and fusion flavours. But before international influences seeped into the city's palette – a time well before tall towers reached for the skies – one genre of cooking was borne of the nation's heart and its identity: Emirati cuisine.
Eating off the land and sea
Dwellers of the past
had to find sustenance in the local landscapes. As it was a challenging environment for conventional agriculture, they foraged desert plants and trees for food, while farmed animals such as lamb and camel – both in the desert and along the mountain regions – were used for milk and meat. Bedouins used special cooking techniques like zarb
, a special barbecue-style cooking technique where meat is placed in an oven with hot coals under the desert sands.
Meanwhile, fishermen and their families living along the coastal regions developed their own ways to preserve fresh catches such as fish and shrimps – methods that are still used in popular modern-day recipes, such as maleh
(salted fish). Date palms, abundantly available in oases, also became a key source of nourishment that has stood the test of time.
"[This is why we have] different dishes from people living by the sea, and people from the desert," explains Sulafa Al Sayyah, author of the Emirati Cuisine Traditional UAE Recipe Box, highlighting the roots of many delicious dishes that are part of traditional Emirati menus today.
The culinary crossroads of the East
Since the fifth century, the UAE and Dubai in particular established itself an essential pitstop for foreign merchants. Its prime position along silk and spice routes, and the city's role as a trading port for fishing, boat-building and pearl diving, played an increasingly important part in the evolution of Emirati cuisine.
Al Sayyah explains, "Emirati cuisine is a blend of so many cultures, particularly from Asia. Traders in the past brought back influences from many places with their travels." These exotic spices soon found their way into age-old recipes and Arabian, Indian, Iranian, Mediterranean and Turkish culinary influences began to underline the food of the UAE.
Introducing faraway flavours
Al Sayyah describes ghee as one such influence. Clarified butter, with origins in ancient India, is a prominent component of cooking. The signature Emirati bezar seasoning – comprising spices such as cumin, black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, red pepper and turmeric – is often mixed with ghee for an aromatic blend that's used across many local dishes.
Even the crimson stems of the exotic saffron spice made their way to the UAE from Iran, adding a fragrant and decorative element to dishes like balaleet, an Emirati breakfast dish featuring fried egg and vermicelli.
In the face of foreign influences, the knot tying cuisine to hospitality – a distinct trait of Emirati identity – remains strong as ever. After all, visitors to the city are welcomed at most hotels with a friendly pour of gahwa
(Arabic coffee) and a serving of dates.
"Sitting around the table brings about much conversation – food is our way of communicating and showing generosity," adds Al Sayyah.
The best in Emirati cuisine
Dubai today invites people to share their cultures and even explore those unfamiliar to them. Culinary practices from around the world – Japanese, Pakistani, Mexican, Indonesian, South American and beyond – define the city's eclectic food scene, while Emirati cuisine reserves its rightful place at the head of the table.
Events such as Dubai Food Festival
and cultural holidays throughout the year offer a time for local food to shine in the spotlight, as leading restaurants
in the city impress with inventive locally-influenced fusion fare or homestyle Emirati fare served with flair.
Visitors can even try their hand at making signature Emirati dishes at home, thanks to Al Sayyah's box of authentic recipes that's available to buy at select retailers across the city. Inside you'll find cards with step-by-step instructions on creating generations-old specialities like chebab, a local pancake usually served at breakfast.
Preparation time: 60 minutes
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups of water
2 tbsp milk powder
3 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp yeast
1/2 tsp saffron
1/2 tsp cardamom
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
Ghee to taste
1. Mix all the ingredients together to form a batter, and leave to rest for 45 minutes
2. Add a few drops of ghee to a heated non-stick pan
3. Place a small amount of batter on the pan and wait until it turns golden brown
4. Flip to brown the other side
5. Serve with cheese, date syrup or honey