Built on islands, it is inevitable that seafood features highly in the cuisine of Abu Dhabi. But there is more to local flavours than kingfish or fillet of hamour. Sampling the cuisine of the regional expatriate communities who have helped build the capital is a highlight, with Indian and Lebanese food scoring high on the list for good value.

Where to Eat

Abu Dhabi's top fine-dining restaurants tend to be found in the five-star hotels and newer shopping malls. In contrast, the streets one block south of Zayed the First Street, between Al Markaziah West and Al Manhal, present a geography of regional cuisine from Syria to Yemen, with each independent eatery occupying its own shopfront.

What to Eat

Abu Dhabi is a great city for sampling traditional Middle Eastern food. This usually involves small hot and cold dishes (mezze), such as hummus, muttabal (purée of aubergine) and sambusak (cheese-filled pastries), which are enjoyed over long chats and a watermelon juice to aid digestion. This is followed by rice and meat in various preparations with unleavened bread. Dessert is an afterthought.

When to Eat

A much loved city tradition is Friday brunch. This lavish buffet starts mid-morning and continues to mid-afternoon. Afternoon tea is another Abu Dhabi favourite offering an affordable opportunity to enjoy a fine dining environment. Dinner cruises set sail in the early evening, but most locals pile into the coffeehouses for light bites, coffee and shisha late into the night.

Eating Etiquette

If you find yourself cross-legged on the timbers of a dhow with a communal plate in front of you, it's good to know a few tips about local protocol. Here are some of the main things to think about when dining the traditional Arab way:

  • It's polite to be seen washing hands before eating.
  • It's considered rude to eat with your legs stretched out.
  • Don't take the best parts of the meat – if you're a guest, your host will be sure to lavish them on you.Strictly use only your right hand (the left hand is reserved for ablutions) for eating or passing food.
  • Discard unwanted food in a napkin rather than returning it to the communal plate.
  • Leave a little food on your plate to avoid inviting famine.Feel free to pick your teeth after dinner.
  • Don't leave the meal before coffee is served…
  • …but don't stay for too long afterwards. Most of the chatting is done before dinner, less during and almost none after!

Self-Catering

Big, central supermarkets with convenient opening hours include Carrefour, which has lots of products from Europe. North American expats tend to prefer Spinneys. A popular local chain is Abu Dhabi Co-op. All have additional branches around town (see the websites for locations).

Regional Menu Decoder

Al Khalidya, Breakwater and Al Bateen are three of the best districts to try some of Abu Dhabi's best regional foods. By best, we mean not just the most inventive uses of local ingredients (laban, goat meat and camel's milk) in fine dining restaurants. We also mean the most delicious traditional fare in cheap and cheerful restaurants found near Sheikh Zayed the First St in Al Khalidiyah.

In the more local haunts, descriptions of dishes are not always available and English may be limited, so here's a quick primer to help with the menu:

baba ghanoush smoked aubergine dip

kibbeh minced lamb, bulgur wheat and pine nut patty

harees slow-cooked wheat and lamb

mandi baked chicken and rice

madfoon slow-baked lamb on rice with chilli sauce

shawarma compressed meat grilled on a vertical spit, garnished and rolled in Arabic bread

kunafa parcels of sweet cheese dipped in syrup

umm ali bread-based pudding with sultanas, nuts and nutmeg