No matter how beautiful a resort hotel may be, the thought of having to eat all my meals there is enough to send me into a panicked state of culinary claustrophobia. I had this fear as I took off for Dubai, where Muslim law largely limits liquor licenses to hotel restaurants, encouraging most of the six million annual visitors to eat where they sleep. Even when management forges relationships with internationally renowned chefs, as they do in Dubai’s best hotels, I like to explore all the options. Once settled into the world’s fastest-growing city, I was determined to forgo wine to check out restaurant choices outside the luxe accommodations.
Combine New York City, Las Vegas, and Orlando, Florida, and you’ll get an idea of what Dubai is like. The most liberal and economically developed of the seven emirates that comprise the United Arab Emirates, Dubai, which is short on oil reserves, has fashioned itself as an international hub of business and tourism. This is no small feat for a country that only 40 years ago was the desert home of nomadic, pearl-fishing tribes and little else. The massive construction sites that line the city’s main road suggest the transformation is far from complete. To add to the world’s tallest hotel and highest indoor ski slope, which Dubai already boasts, state-owned developers are erecting the tallest building (its exact height won’t be disclosed until it is finished, to be sure it remains No. 1), four of the largest landfill real estate developments, the biggest shopping mall and (why not?) a higher ski slope...actually, two.
Among the many things Dubai didn’t have when it set out to become a modern mercantile metropolis were a labor pool and an interesting cuisine. They arrived together. Today, more than 80 percent of Dubai’s population is made up of expats from South and Southeast Asia, other Arab countries (such as Lebanon and Egypt), Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Western Europe. They have come to work, which means they need a place to live, and so they have created their own communities, complete with restaurants. As a result, Dubai’s ethnic eating is surprisingly authentic and diverse.