Dubai may have a love of all things glitzy and glam, but traditional, street-style food is still very present in this air-conditioned shopping, eating and drinking paradise. In just five decades, Dubai is already home to a multicultural melee, and unlike other global cities where one native dish reigns supreme, Dubai’s signature cuisine is as varied as the globe.
The many nationalities that have flocked to Dubai have not left their cooking pots at home. To find these traditional tastes, steer clear of the newer developments of Dubai Marina and Downtown Dubai and instead, head to the city’s older backstreets to uncover some delicious and inexpensive local eats.
Levant cuisine has become synonymous with Arabic restaurants across the city, but Zaroob offers a fresh, fast food-style take on the usual shawarma, grills and flatbreads. The live cooking stations and open kitchens produce sights and smells reminiscent of a Middle Eastern street market, and the name of the restaurant actually translates as 'small alley'. Neon pink and green lights distinguish it from a run-of-the-mill kebab joint, while the interior looks as though it has been designed by art students.
The Taiwanese national drink is not strictly a food and not strictly on the street, but it is worth a mention simply because it is so delicious. For the uninitiated, bubble tea is a blend of cold tea and milk or fruit juices, with added tapioca pearls (the bubbles). Endless combinations are on offer at local brand, Bubbles & Boba, which has an outlet on Level 2 of the Dubai Mall.
Dubai is not short of a Pakistani restaurant or 10. But there is only one that every expat can name: Ravi’s. Despite its near infamous status as being one of the only 'authentic' places that everyone loves to 'discover', its popularity never wavers because the food is always top notch. Plastic chairs and tables sit haphazardly on the corner of one of the only pavement-lined high streets in one of the oldest parts of town. Patrons of every nationality people-watch as they mop up the delicious curries, the cheap tables heaving under the weight of the puddle-sized naan breads. And despite its enduring popularity, no matter what you order at Ravi’s, the price is rock bottom.
Head over the creek to the original old town, Deira, and you will be overwhelmed by how different the vibe is; you could almost have stepped straight into the Indian subcontinent. Do not get confused though, Chinese is what you are after – and the best place is China Sea on Al Maktoum St. This family-run restaurant’s decor lies somewhere between a Communist canteen celebrating Chinese New Year and a 1960s garden party with wicker furniture. The waitresses speak little English, but do not let their brusque manner put you off. Menus come with pictures, and all the enormously portioned dishes are wheeled at high speed to the tables on metal trolleys. Some dishes are even prepared table-side, so if you like the look of someone else’s dinner, be prepared to point and ask.
With more than half of Dubai’s population hailing from India, it’s no wonder that dishes from the subcontinent can be found at every turn. To taste some authentic Indian eats, head to Bikanervala. This eatery originated in India and claims responsibility for introducing kaju katli – the quintessential Indian sweet served at festivals and special occasions – to the city of Mumbai. There are 11 branches of Bikanervala in Dubai, but our favourite is the courtyard outlet at Al Seef. The menu is packed with curries, tandoori and north Indian staples, and if you're short on time, you can just grab and go from the chaat cart.
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Last updated in August 2017