Eating in Dubai is a multicultural experience, with a virtual UN of cuisines to choose from. Middle Eastern and Indian fare are most prevalent, but basically you can feast on anything from Afghan kebabs to fish and chips in the city's myriad eateries. These run the gamut from simple street kitchens and fast-food franchises to family restaurants and deluxe dining temples.
What's Trending Now?
Organic, Seasonal & Farm to Fork
Taking global fare local is not a trend unique to Dubai, but it's arrived here with a vengeance. As awareness has grown, the demand for certified organic produce increased right along with it. Farms in Dubai and beyond have expanded their operations, and new farmers markets to stock up on the good stuff have been popping up all over. Even the big supermarkets have gotten in on the locavore – many now post the origin of their produce next to the price tag.
From heirloom tomatoes to beetroot, it's amazing what will grow in the desert given the right techniques and microclimates. The organic trend also extends to milk, cheese and other dairy products as well as to free-range eggs, local honey, dates and other goodies. A local pioneer is Ripe Organic (www.ripeme.com), which launched in 2011 and operates a store, a farming network and the community-oriented Ripe farmers markets, now with four locations, plus an online ordering option. The weekly Farmers Market on the Terrace is another place for sourcing pesticide-free produce.
Restaurants serving Emirati food used to be rare, but thankfully this is changing. Modern Emiratis are accustomed to an international diet, but there are also a number of traditional plates rooted in the Bedouin tradition that have, over time, become infused with spices and ingredients from trading partners from India to Persia and Morocco. Typical dishes are one-pot stews featuring a combination of rice or some form of wheat, vegetables and/or meat or fish. Many are flavoured with cinnamon, saffron and turmeric and topped with nuts or dried fruit. During Ramadan, traditional dishes feature strongly in the iftar, the big feast served after sundown that breaks the fast.
Classic dishes include harees, a porridge-like stew made from cracked wheat and slow-cooked chicken or lamb. Fareed is a lamb stew layered with flat bread, while machboos is a casserole of meat or fish, rice and onions cooked in a spicy sauce. Fish features prominently on local menus and is usually served grilled, fried or baked. Look for samak (fish in gravy). The salt-cured variety is used in a local dish called madrooba.
Bedouins have known it for centuries, but the health benefits of camel milk have started to make international headlines. Slightly pungent and salty in taste, it's lower in fat and has triple the amount of vitamin C and iron when compared to cow's milk. The number of cafes offering 'camelccinos' (camel milk cappuccino) or milkshakes or smoothies made with camel milk is growing at a steady clip. Camel cheese, chocolate and ice cream are also now a staple on supermarket shelves. Restaurants have also started to put camel dishes on their menus, although camel meat is not actually a staple in Emirati cuisine.
Vegetarians & Vegans
Dubai can be good for vegetarians, with lots of Asian and subcontinental cuisine on offer. Health-conscious cafes and restaurants have been sprouting faster than alfalfa and serve up inspired menus that leave veggie and tofu burgers in the dust.
Many of the Indian restaurants, particularly in Deira and Bur Dubai, have extensive vegetarian menus. Even those that are not dedicated vegetarian restaurants still do fantastic things with vegetables, paneer (cheese) and rice. You can also fill up fast at Lebanese restaurants with all-veg mezze, while Thai places have plenty of coconut-and-chilli spiced veg curries and soups.
Vegans may be more challenged, but certainly won’t be limited to a few lettuce leaves and a carrot stick, and dedicated vegan restaurants are starting to take root. Many fine-dining restaurants have vegetarian (if not vegan) dishes as well.
Dubai is a fast-food haven, and we're not talking golden arches (although they're here as well). If there ever was a local snack food with cult status, it would have to be the shawarma, strips of marinated meat (usually chicken or lamb) and fat roasted on a rotating grill, slivered and stuffed into a pita bread.
The selection of Middle Eastern mezze is simply stunning, ranging from humble hummus (chickpea dip) and creamy moutabel (aubergine dip) to kibbeh (meatballs) and tabbouleh (parsley, tomato and bulgur-wheat salad). India contributes not only its famous curries and biryanis (rice dishes) but also various chaat (street food snacks) like bhaji (fritters), samosa (savoury pastry), puri (deep-fried bread) and dosa (paper-thin lentil-flour pancakes). Kebabs are also a fast-food staple.
Dubai has big international supermarket chains with a bewildering selection of high-quality, international food items. Carrefour is probably the best stocked, but the quality tends to be better (and prices higher) at Spinneys and Waitrose. Both stock many products from the UK, North America and Australia and are predictably popular with Western expats. Some branches have separate ‘pork rooms’ that are off limits to Muslims. Choithrams is cheaper and caters more to the South Asian communities. In 2017 it became the first supermarket chain in the UAE to replace plastic bags with paper bags. The Union Coop is probably the cheapest supermarket chain of all, with some 20 stores located throughout Dubai; the Coop is where you will see the most locals shopping. Many supermarkets are open until midnight; some never close.
Farmers markets have also proliferated in recent years. On winter Fridays you can stock up on local produce at the Farmers Market on the Terrace in Business Bay and at the Ripe Market in Dubai Police Academy Park. The latter also has a second branch at Al Barsha Pond Park near the Mall of the Emirates on Saturdays and an indoor summer market at the Times Square Centre.
Top 5 Food Blogs
Dubai is a fast-changing city, so it’s only natural that the gastronomic scene also develops at lightning speed. Fortunately, there are plenty of passionate food bloggers keeping an eye on great eats and new openings. Here are our top five, but there's plenty more you can find on www.fooderatiarabia.com.
Dubai Confidential (www.dubaiconfidential.ae) Lifestyle blog that also includes some savvy restaurant reviews and recipes.
FooDiva (www.foodiva.net) Greek-Cypriot-British expat Samantha Wood writes insightful and impartial reviews and even has her own free app.
Mark My World (www.markmyworld.me) Marketing exec Mark Anthony Monzon blogs on everything from tech to lifestyle but also provides regular updates on new restaurants and the best of their menus.
Out and About UAE (www.outandaboutuae.net) This blog has been developed by 30-plus expats who have been living in the UAE since 2013. Every restaurant mentioned has been reliably tried and tested.
Dalia's Kitchen (www.daliaskitchen.com) A German Syrian by birth, Dalia Soubra is a prominent culinary personality in Dubai and has a great blog (with videos) for foodies who want to introduce a little Middle Eastern influence into their dishes.
A Question of Pork
Pork is available for non-Muslims in a special room at some larger supermarkets such as Spinneys. In many hotel restaurants, pork is a menu item and is clearly labelled as such. For those used to eating pork, the ‘beef bacon’ and ‘turkey ham’ alternatives that are commonly available are often nothing more than a reminder of how tasty the real thing is.
Dubai's Food Trucks
Gourmet food trucks, the hipster export hit from the US, began rolling into Dubai in 2014 and quickly caused a minor food revolution. Now all sorts of contenders are popping up near sights, at festivals, on beaches, at markets and wherever else folk might be in need of quick sustenance.
The truck that launched it all was Salt, a classic silver Airstream whose Wagyu burgers quickly garnered a cult following. Two Emirati women entrepreneurs came up with the concept and then relied entirely on the power of social media and word of mouth to attract customers (dubbed 'Salters'). The truck is now a permanent fixture on Kite Beach, where it's been joined by a changing roster of other – still mobile – kitchens.
A corporate take on the street food truck craze is Last Exit, a series of four themed food truck parks set up on the last exit of the highways leading out of Dubai. The original one is located on Hwy E11 (Sheikh Zayed Rd) en route to Abu Dhabi. With a kids' playground, prayer rooms and ATM machines as well as chains like Poco Loco and Baja Fresh in the mix, it's a far cry from the original improv concept. Here are a few roaming faves still in keeping with the original concept:
Calle Tacos (www.calletacos.ae) This hard-to-miss tangerine-hued truck attracts loyal foodies inhaling such Mexican treats as nachos, burritos and, of course, tacos, served alongside 'secret' salsas created by the owners' families back in Mexico.
GObai (www.facebook.com/gobaifoodtruck) The name is a mash-up of Goa and Dubai and so is the menu, which lures munchers with fragrant curries to lamb burgers.
Casa Latina (www.facebook.com/CasaLatinaFoodtruck) Caribbean and Latin American fare, including waist-expanding but oh-so-delicious cheese sticks (tequeños).
The Shebi This silver Airstream peddles Indian-Lebanese fusion fare such as butter chicken shawarma, but is probably most famous for its pulled-beef burger topped with Sriracha mayo.
Vida Food Truck More Airstream action from this truck run by Downtown Dubai's Vida Hotel, which serves international comfort food such as mac and cheese or smoked brisket sandwiches.
Ghaf Kitchen (www.facebook.com/ghafkitchenDXB) Look for the 1960s Citroen van at the Waterfront Market, and bite into a succulent sea bream burrito with homemade relish.
Need to Know
As a guideline, figure on hotel restaurants being open from noon to 3pm and 6.30pm to 11pm daily. Many low-key indie eateries remain open throughout the day, except on Friday, when some don't open until the afternoon.
- Reservations are essential at top restaurants and recommended for midrange eateries, especially for dinner. Be prepared to give your mobile number.
- For top tables, make weekend bookings – Thursday and Friday nights, and Friday brunch – at least a week ahead.
- Reserve through the restaurant (phone or online), www.opentable.com, www.reserveout.com or www.zomato.com.
Many restaurants, particularly in hotels, automatically tack on a 10% service charge to the bill, which rarely gets passed down to the employees. Leave an additional 10% to 15% in cash, particularly at low-end restaurants. If service is perfunctory, a mere 5% is fine. If it's bad, leave nothing.