Traditionally, these dishes have just been served in homes or at major celebrations, but that's finally starting to change as a decent selection of Emirati restaurants crop up across town.
Food is served in the majlis at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding © Glen Pearson
So what exactly is Emirati cuisine? Hearty meat dishes born in the desert and seafood from the Arabian Peninsula, usually served with flatbread and rice. Bezar, a blend of roasted and ground spices including coriander, cumin, turmeric and cinnamon, is added to practically everything, while centuries-old trading partners such as Iran and India have also left their mark on the cuisine. Many of the newer restaurants aren't just sticking to a traditional menu though: camel sliders and chicken tikka-stuffed breads are just a couple of the unexpected Emirati-fusion treats on offer. Here’s where to get your fill.
Contemporary cooking at Aseelah
With dishes like date-stuffed chicken roulade and juicy camel sliders, Aseelah at Radisson Blu Hotel, Dubai Deira Creek serves up the city’s most adventurous and accomplished take on local cuisine. Old-school favourites are not forgotten; chef Uwe Micheel has spent years visiting Emirati families to master recipes like prawns marinated in bezar and aseeda bobar (pumpkin pudding). This stylish spot is the only Emirati restaurant that serves booze, with creative cocktails and a well-priced wine list.
A trio of camel sliders with different toppings, including date and lime jam © NikAndTam
Authentic flavours at Al Fanar
Al Fanar is a kitsch, fun spot, with food and décor harking back to the pre-oil days. Don’t let the Festival City Mall location put you off; designed like an old courtyard house, the restaurant is hugely atmospheric (just ignore the dodgy waxworks). First-timers are encouraged to try chicken machboos (a bezar-spiced rice dish) and tender naghar mashwi (grilled squid). There’s a second branch at Town Centre Jumeriah.
Home-style cooking at Al Tawasol
Locals have been flocking to the family-run Al Tawasol in Deira for food-like-grandma-used-to-make since 1999. Take a seat on a corner of carpet in the main dining area or in one of the private tented majlis and then scoop up succulent lamb machboos and spicy saloona (curry) with your hands. Al Tawasol also does a mean mandi, a Yemeni dish that’s been adopted across the Arabian Peninsula: meat slow-cooked in a tandoor and served over aromatic rice.
A platter of lamb saloona and chicken mandi at Al Tawasol © Glen Pearson
Camel milk treats at The Majlis
With intricate mashrabiyya (wooden lattice screens) and a blue-tiled fountain, The Majlis at Dubai Mall specialises in coffee, cakes, shakes and ice cream made from camel milk. A staple of the Bedouin diet until the mid-20th century, it’s lower in fat, and higher in vitamins and minerals, than the cow equivalent. Try a camelccino made with the café’s own blend of Ethiopian beans, paired with a pistachio-glazed éclair made with – you guessed it – camel milk.
Trendy-meets-traditional at Seven Sands
Spread over two floors at The Beach at JBR, Seven Sands features sleek arabesque interiors and a breezy terrace overlooking the sea. Blending traditional with trendy, the menu is full of Emirati classics, but you’ll also see dishes from the wider region such as velvety hummus and crumbly kibbeh (meat-filled cracked wheat croquettes). Dishes to try? Sambousas – similar to Indian samosas but given a bezar spice twist – and prawn fouga flavoured with bezar, saffron and dry limes.
Prawn fouga (bezar spices cooked together with perfumed stock) at Seven Sands © Glen Pearson
Creative khameer at Logma
Located in trendy BoxPark, Logma is a hip eatery with modern interiors – think funky camel motifs and hanging kerosene lamps – and casual, contemporary Emirati fare. It’s a top spot for lunch with soft khameer flatbread stuffed with fillings such as chicken tikka, or smothered in more traditional cream cheese and dibs (date syrup). Order with a side of Logma’s famous fries seasoned with Khaleeji spices.
Cultural meals at Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding
For a crash course in both Emirati cuisine and culture, visit the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in a renovated wind-tower house in the historic Al Fahidi district. Dishes such as chicken machboos and lip-smackingly sweet luqaimat (doughnuts) drizzled in dibs are served while sitting cross-legged on carpets and cushions on the floor. Hosted by young Emirati volunteers, visitors are encouraged to ask questions about local culture, with no topic off-limits.
A cultural meal at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding © Glen Pearson
Comfort food at Al Barza
Below a kandora shop on Jumeirah Beach Road, a block back from the beach and 500 metres north of Mercato Mall, Al Barza features sandy interiors with dark latticework and an outdoor terrace. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, feel-good favourites include balaleet (scrambled eggs with cardamom-scented vermicelli noodles) and creamy harees (wheat porridge with shredded lamb). More adventurous diners can try tahtah malleh, a salt-cured fish and rice dish that is something of an acquired taste.
Casual bites at Milas
Popular with Emiratis, Milas is a buzzing spot at Dubai Mall that combines glossy black and warm wood interiors with accessible Emirati cuisine. Munch on cumin-sprinkled dangaw (boiled chickpeas) and still-steaming khameer flatbread while you peruse the large menu presented on an iPad. Start with endless cups of Arabic coffee brewed with cardamom and served with sticky dates, followed by the signature mbahar deyay (chicken in a spicy cream sauce with saffron-infused rice).
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