“Eating food with a knife and fork is like making love through an interpreter,” jokes Arva Ahmed with a smile. “And if you eat this falafel with a fork you will literally break my heart.”
There are chuckles all round our table at Qwaider Al Nabulsi, the first stop on my foodie walking tour of Dubai with Frying Pan Adventures, the company Arva runs with her sister Farida.
Laid out in front of us, a dozen or so tourists from around the world, are incredible chickpea falafels stuffed with chilli paste and onions; hummus drizzled with tatbeela sauce of coriander, parsley, capsicum and lemon; and – the plate everyone has their eye on – a Palestinian chicken pie made with onions, sumac and olive oil. Whenever my stomach thinks back to Dubai, it remembers that plate of musakhan.
As the traffic rushes by on Al Muraqqabat Road in Deira, the old quarter of Dubai where the sisters grew up, we’re just a few kilometres but a world away from the anodyne malls and modern skyscrapers of downtown Dubai. In Deira, visitors can still find an authentic taste of Arabia.
Our five-hour ‘Middle Eastern Food Pilgrimage’ took us in and around the backstreets of Deira and began with a playfully stern warning from Arva to pace ourselves.
“About now, your stomach should be 20 percent full,” she warns as we wander down to Al Samadi Sweets. The crisp air-con is a relief from the humid streets, and the counters are piled high with baklava.
Arabic coffee spiced with cardamom and saffron is poured as pistachio cookies made with soapwort cream are passed around. “In the Middle East, nuts are a sign of generosity,” explains Arva, as I pore greedily over the counters of baklava rich with butter and fragrant with rose water and orange essence. A half-kilo box costs me just 50 dirhams (R150).
It’s certainly not hard to find a good meal in Dubai, but without a local to guide you it’s unlikely you’d wander aimlessly through Deira in search of dinner. And what a pity if you’ve never munched greedily through a slice of piping-hot Egyptian feteer.
As we crowd into the small kitchen of Soarikh on Al Rigga Road the dough for this sturdy flatbread is whipped through the air then stretched and slapped onto the marble counter. Vegetables, onion and cheese – topped with a spicy shatta sauce – are spread inside before its folded into a parcel and slid into the hot oven.
In the road, cars pull half onto the pavement and give two hoots; a signal they’re there for take-aways. A kitchen hand dashes to the car, takes the order and bolts back inside. That traffic is backing up behind the hungry driver seems of little consequence.
A taste of Syrian boozah ice cream dulls the chilli from the feteer and although we’ve been snacking and walking for three hours there’s no respite. It’s time to eat like a local.
At Al Tawasol we taste traditional Emirati food, sharing platters of lamb machboos cooked in a blend of spices, and an aromatic lamb curry served with spiced rice. After some tutoring by Arva we tuck in with our right hands, squeezing and shaping rice and lamb into edible balls. Judging by the state of my plate, it’s an acquired skill.
A stop at Sadaf Iranian Sweets and Spices on Al Maktoum Street is next, and it’s like stepping into a Middle Eastern Willy Wonka’s factory. Brass buckets are piled high with dried figs and saffron-scented pistachios, dried blueberries and Arabian nougat. With Persian goodies in my bulging rucksack it’s perhaps fitting that our last stop is for a taste of Iran.
Abshar Restaurant is one of those wonderful discoveries you’d never make without a local guide: inside a non-descript shopping centre the melancholic tones of long-necked lutes and a lone singer echo down at us.
We peer in at the remarkable sangak stone bread baking on the hot gravel of the oven. At the table it’s torn and served with cheese and rayhaan leaves, and a delicious dip of eggplant and preserved whey. The bread is barely gone by the time bowls of lamb in tomato broth appear, followed by a succulent twice-minced lamb kabab and fragrant rice with tart barberries.
It’s gone 11 by the time I roll into a taxi and head back to the bright lights of my hotel in downtown Dubai. Beneath the skyscrapers the tourists and locals are flocking to the Argentine parillas and Subways and faux-Italian trattorias in search of dinner. How I wish I could take them all back across the Creek for a taste of that musakhan pie from Palestine.
Frying Pan Adventures
The Middle Eastern Food Pilgrimage’ costs 415dhs (R1230) per person, including all meals.