Want to try Arabic food in Dubai? Don’t miss the shawarma. (Photo: Paul Thuysbaert)
If you’re keen to feast on the Emirati delicacy of baby camel, you’re likely out of luck — unless you get invited to a local wedding. The next best thing? Camel milk, in a range of flavors and easily purchased from the supermarket. Other quintessential eats can be sampled everywhere from your hotel to the bakery, so don’t leave the United Arab Emirates without trying these Arabic foods.
Dates and Cardamom Coffee
Arrive at an Emirati home and you’ll be shown to the majlis, a formal meeting room separated from private family spaces. After setting a box of tissues in front of you (to wipe away the inevitable perspiration from your brow), your host will undoubtedly offer a dish of delicious Emirati-grown dates and a tiny cup of aromatic cardamom coffee. Drink three cups to be polite. Many hotels in Dubai have adopted this ritual to welcome guests in the lobby. Don’t decline! It may be your only chance to sample a slice of authentic Arabian hospitality.
Originally from Turkey, shawarma has been adopted by Emiratis as their go-to fast-food snack. The beloved flatbread roll is like a pita roll or wrap in the West. It’s eaten in the evenings, and well into the night, at Arabic eateries, which stay open late or for 24 hours. Look for a sweaty guy carving crisp, succulent slivers of lamb or chicken off vertical rotisseries into warm Arabic flatbread, spread with garlicky sauce or tangy salad. The best are at branches of Automatic, which are dotted around UAE cities. On occasion you might spot camel shawarma — if so, give it a try!
Biryani, from the Indian subcontinent, is another dish that was enthusiastically adopted by Emiratis. Layers of rice are combined with cooked meat, vegetables, ghee and spices such as cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander, pepper and bay leaves. Cooked in a sealed pot, the finished biryani is sprinkled with fried onion, raisins and cashews. Served at home and also a take-away favorite, biryani appears on menus at most Indian restaurants. Try it at Foodlands eateries across the UAE.
The kebab is to the Middle East what the burger is to the United States. There are infinite varieties, but the essential component is marinated meat — barbecued on skewers and served with chargrilled vegetables, rice or flatbread, and washed down with strong black tea. In the UAE, the king of kebabs is the chelo kebab, of Persian descent. It’s a delicious ground beef kebab spiced with turmeric, sumac and saffron, rubbed with butter, and served with white rice and salad. Try it at Special Ostadi, which holds a place in the heart of many an Emirati and expat.
If you only sample one dessert before you leave the UAE, it’s a tough call as to whether that should be knafeh — a cheese pastry soaked in sweet syrup and found across the Middle East — or the distinctly Emirati dessert luqaimat. Luqaimat are glossy, golden puffs of deep-fried dough drenched in date syrup, which remind Emiratis of their childhoods. Watch the local ladies in black abayas (loose-fitting full-length robes) and bronze burqas (masks that conceal the nose and mouth) make them at heritage villages across the UAE.