Unwilling to eat all of his meals in posh resorts, writer Mitchell Davis escapes into Dubai’s "real" world and finds terrific and affordable ethnic restaurants, from Lebanese to Indian.
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.
Several factors keep tourists from exploring these ethnic restaurants. Navigating the many nameless streets to find businesses without addresses is an intimidating endeavor. (Know a few landmarks and leave the driving to the cabbies.) Although every restaurant I visited had a menu in English, the translations weren’t always meaningful. On occasion I could sense the staff’s wonderment about how or why we found our way in. Once or twice I even stumbled upon an illicit beer or a contraband protein—in one restaurant, what the menu described as "meat" tasted remarkably like pork, illegal in nontourist spots.
For the most part, the restaurants outside Dubai’s hotels are humble places where the food is cheap and good, dinner is served late and the sense of authenticity is all the more welcome in a city caught up in a race to realize its over-the-top ambition.
Though barely large enough to hold its five tables, the City Moon Café serves as both an eating place and a cultural center for Dubai’s Singaporean community. Owner Siti Fatimah Osman presides as den mother and executive chef. After running three restaurants and a mini-mart in Singapore for 20 years, Osman decided it was time for a change. Six years ago she packed up and headed for Dubai, where her new café quickly attracted a loyal clientele. The chalkboard menu changes daily, but no one bothers to read it; instead, everyone walks into the kitchen and points to whichever salads, stews and noodle dishes they want. You can count on finding traditional Singaporean dishes—a mix of Malaysian, Chinese and Indonesian flavors—such as rojak and gado gado (peanut-dressed salads), nasi lemak (coconut rice with chicken curry) or kwey teow (stir-fried rice noodles). The iced lemon tea that’s poured here is one very good answer to Dubai’s oppressive heat. Details Karama, near the Pizza Inn restaurant, behind Spinneys Trade Centre Rd. near Kuwait St.; 011-971-4-396-0140.
By default, Lebanese food has become the national cuisine of the United Arab Emirates (the roasted meats and stews of traditional Emirati cooking are too limited to be a real contender). At Wafi Gourmet, located in a mall, displays of sweets, nuts, dried fruit and other local delicacies (all for sale) are interspersed with various kitchen stations where cooks prepare the food for the restaurant. A bread maker shuttles puffed pita pillows around a large wood-burning oven; a grill master tends long metal skewers of various meats and kofta (ground meatballs) over an open fire. The traditional salads and spreads—hummus, moutabbal (eggplant spread), okra with dill, chicory with lemon—are all supremely fresh and delicious. Details Wafi City Shopping Mall; 011-971-4-324-4433.
If you gathered India’s best street-food vendors and assembled them in a bright, McDonald’s-like space, you’d have a good approximation of Bikanervala, part of a chain of vegetarian restaurants based in New Delhi. After you place your order at a central cash register, you are given tickets to take to various stations to collect your meal. At one, a happy man fills bite-size pani puri (water breads) with spiced liquid, sprouted vegetables and flavorful crunchy bits for you to pop in your mouth whole; they come eight to an order, and he assembles each as you are ready for the next so they don’t lose their crunch. Across the dining room, another man pours fermented lentil batter onto a hot griddle in two-foot circles to make crisp paper dosa that he then fills with any of several curries, including potato or paneer (homemade cheese). Disposable terra-cotta dishes hold tangy yogurt drinks and rich custards. At the sweets counter, sand-textured laddu (nut balls) and silver-topped pastries are a good antidote to all the spicy food. Details Karama, near the BurJuman Centre; 011-971-4-396-8813.
A little lighter and a little spicier than the northern Indian or Moghul cooking that most Americans know as Indian food, the Keralan curries and other dishes served at Simran’s Aappa Kadai are nevertheless familiar-tasting and extremely satisfying. The stars of this restaurant are the aappams—bowl-shaped fermented rice and black gram-flour pancakes that are made in the dining room and used to scoop up various curries. Pomfrets, small white fish from the Indian Ocean, are prepared in many ways; they are wonderful simply fried with chiles and onions. The deep, complex flavors of mango fish curry and the black-pepper bite of chicken Chettinad call for a soothing yogurt lassi, available here in sweet and salty variations. For something fun and different, try one of the "banana leaf meals," which come with an assortment of curries, meats, fish, rice, bread and condiments, all served on a section of banana leaf. The chatty waitstaff are likely to inquire about how you found the place and what you think of the food. Details Karama, opposite the LuLu Centre, facing the park and parking lot; 011-971-4-352-7574.
This pleasant Palestinian restaurant is in the emirate of Sharjah, about a 15-minute drive from Dubai’s business district and home to many people who work in the city. The reason to make the reverse commute is the falafel—the best I’ve ever tasted, in fact. Fried to order, the oversize chickpea croquettes are fragrant and delicate. And the chicken mussekhan—wood oven-roasted meat smothered in fried onions and sumac, then sandwiched between two pitas and baked again so the bread absorbs the chicken fat—is addictive. Details Al Buhaira, Jamal Abdul Nasir St., off the exit roundabout just past the Sharjah City Centre shopping mall on Dubai/Sharjah Rd. between King Faisal Rd. and Corniche Rd.; 011-971-6-553-7735.
Mitchell Davis is a vice president at the James Beard Foundation. His most recent cookbook is Kitchen Sense.