Dubai is a place that anything is possible with foodie experiences ranging from historic spice souks to dining at the most expensive hotels in the world. Cultures from all over the globe, Indian spices,Levantine specialties, Persian influences and the Bedouin lifestyle all combine to influence the cuisine and culture of Dubai. Be prepared for a shock of cultures when you visit Dubai. As well as meeting residents from every corner of the earth, you will casually mingle with traditionally dressed Gulf Arabs in their dishdashas and abayas. The glitzy city with luxury shops, ultra-flash malls and indoor ski fields is layered with crowded spice souks, Arabic chatter in coffee shops, and the sound of mosques at prayer time… it is all part of everyday Dubai culture.
For centuries, Far East and neighbouring Arabic countries have been anchoring in Dubai harbor and trading their exotic herbs and spices at the spice souk. On the Deira side of the Creek, just off Old Baladiya road you will find a kaleidoscope of coloured pyramids powders, nuts, dried fruits and plant seeds piled high and precariously stacked up against one another. The air is heavy with flavour, pungent smells, sweat and traders calling out their wares. The term souk is Arabic for market, but culturally, souks were so much more than places to buy and sell goods. Festivals and social activities unfolded there, and they often served as the cornerstone of nomadic life. Aromatics were among the earliest commodities of prehistoric trade and it is thought that, at various periods in history, spices have been as valuable as gold and silver. In various forms, spices have served as appetizers, digestives, antiseptics, therapeutics and tonics for thousands of years. In ancient times a spice was defined as anything that had an aroma. Herbs, spices and incense could all come under the label spice and that is exactly what the souk represents. The souk will show you, a spice can be burnt like incense in religious ceremonies, added to coffee, chewed as breath freshener or bought for medicinal qualities.
For centuries, tables of the Middle East have delighted taste buds with a combination of exotic seasonings, sweet and sour tastes and aromatic fragrances. The king of all spices that is just as valuable as gold is saffron. You can tell its quality by dipping it in water. If the water goes red, it’s not good (fake saffron); if it goes yellow it’s good quality. The best Saffron is from Iran and is 20 times the price of Saffron from India. You can expect to pay about Dh20 for one gram of the good stuff. Arab traders are like the Mafia of spices and historically monopolised the movement of herbs and trade between Asia, India, Africa and Europe. Over thousands of years, Middle Eastern cuisine has absorbed the flavors of almost every spice in existence.
Explaining the differences between cuisines, it is obvious that region and tradition rule supreme. Flat bread, meat and chickpeas, for example, are universal staples but have different cooking methods. The way the food is prepared reflects the character of each country, as food and culture are intertwined. Take the humble falafel. The Lebanese use garlic and coriander while Egyptians often use white and black pepper and dill. Then you have the Iranians who like to include all spices and marinate the ingredients, then add more spices during cooking and then even more spice for decoration. Cumin, ginger, chili are favourites. Olives, olive oil, chickpeas, dates, figs and pomegranates have all influenced Lebanese cuisine. Sweet spices such as sweet pepper, black pepper, cinnamon, coriander, sumac, zaatar and thyme are also Lebanese favourites, and all can be found in abundance in the Dubai spice souk.
In stark contrast we covered the dining experience in hotels and restaurants in Dubai. Before I talk about the seriously fancy and extreme options, we also covered some of the mega malls. For example, at the Mall of the Emirates you can dine on a Pretzel burger with bratwurst and sauerkraut for $80 AED teamed with a Schnapps Sampler of five flavour’s for $95 AED at a German themed restaurant called Apres overlooking the indoor ski field. As a gauge, $1AED is worth about 40 cents in Australia and although the UAE is predominantly Muslim, you can buy alcohol at hotels and some mall restaurants. This brings in the customs and cultural aspect of visiting the UAE that is good to have an understanding of before you travel. The customs are very different to Australia and you may offend without realising and end up in big trouble fast. Be aware of your actions especially during the holy month of Ramadan or if you intend to visit religious areas. You are strongly advised to familiarise yourself with, and respect local laws and customs. In 2019, the holy month of Ramadan is expected to start on the 5th of May and finish on the 4th of June.
During the Ramadan, observers of Islam fast from sunrise to sunset. During the daylight hours of the fast, no food or drink is consumed – not even water. Followers of Islam believe that fasting teaches patience, modesty, and spirituality. Meals are served before sunrise, called suhoor, and after sunset, called iftar, and are eaten with family or with the local community. Ramadan is strictly observed by all adult Muslims with only a few exceptions for the elderly, sick and pregnant women. Both of the suhoor and iftar meals contain fresh fruit, vegetables, halal meats, breads, cheeses, and sweets. The meals are served either at home with family, in the community mosques, or other designated places within the Muslim community so dining out is hard during this time and you will be limited for choice. Most hotels offer one restaurant which is open during the daytime, but it is screened off from view. Some food courts in the shopping malls are open but again screened off and you can only consume food and drinks in this area. Last year some rules were relaxed, and some places remained open with some even serving alcohol but this can’t be guaranteed. All rules are issued by the government just before Ramadan starts.
If you are staying at a beach hotel you will not notice much difference but if you are out and about you must respect the law and not consume food, drinks, chew gum or smoke in public. I was in Dubai during Ramadan on one occasion, but I was staying with locals who knew where to go and what to do. In fact I had one of the best nights out at a bar called 360 degrees that overlooked the Burj Al-Arab. The very fancy cocktails here included shots of Jägermeister served in a half a passionfruit skin floating on the top of a tropical mojito. As I have said before… what is not to LOVE about my job!
Now back to the foodie business… after sunset all restaurants are open, and alcohol is served. During this time many shopping malls open later, usually past midnight which adds a whole new dimension to late night shopping.There are other important things to be aware of as a general rule and I don’t want to scare you off but it’s better to know before you go. Importing pork products into the UAE is illegal. There is also a zero tolerance for drugs. The penalties for trafficking, smuggling and possession of drugs (even residual amounts) are severe. Sentences for drug trafficking can include the death penalty and possession of even the smallest amount of illegal drugs can lead to a minimum 4-year jail sentence. The Emirati authorities even count the presence of drugs in the blood stream as possession. You need a licence to consume alcohol if you are a resident in Dubai. And non-Muslim residents can get a liquor licence to drink and buy alcohol at home and in licensed venues. These licences are valid only in the Emirate that issued the licence. Residents must also get a permit to be able to drink in licensed venues.
Liquor licences are not available to non-residents, but it is possible for tourists and visitors to buy and drink alcohol in licensed venues, such as hotels, restaurants and clubs. Generally, the legal age for drinking alcohol is 18 in Abu Dhabi, but a Ministry of Tourism by-law prevents hotels from serving alcohol to those under the age of 21. The legal age is Dubai is 21 so it’s better to check and be clear about the internals laws.Now back to the foodie bit and we go fancy. I’m talking 24k fancy. The Burj Al-Arab is the world’s tallest hotel, standing 321 meters on its own artificial island. Designed to resemble a billowing sail, the exterior of the buildingis lit up by a choreographed colored lighting show at night. Decadent in every way possible, the Burj Al-Arab is one of the most expensive hotels in the world, with the most luxurious suites costing more than $15,000 for one night.
For those without unlimited credit, the way to experience the over-the-top opulence is to go for dinner at the underwater Al-Mahara restaurant, where floor-to-ceiling glass panels in the dining room walls allow you to view sea life while you eat, or you can enjoy lunch at California-style fusion restaurant Scape. For the ultimate panoramic views over the city, book afternoon tea at the Skyview Bar (a minimum spend is required) on the 27th floor. It was at the Burj Al-Arab I ordered dates for desert and they came served coated with 24K gold leaf. If you think that is over the top you can get a gold leaf facial from the day spa – apparently, it’s a popular menu item.
Dubai is the kind of place that after a visit your bucket list just gets bigger. I’m definitely going back to tick off the desert activities next time. Red dunes and 4WD, buggies, camels and BBQ desert feasts are up there with sand boarding and catching a camel race. Robot jockeys controlled by operators who drive alongside the racing camels in SUVs were introduced in 2002 – with the driver usually honking the horn loudly and continuously, so as to spur on the camel to greater speed. With that I will leave you to explore what’s there is to do in Dubai.