A veggie eats her way through Dubai
What does the kebab and kibbeh-loving Emirate have to offer to a non-meat eater? Lots, with a dash of its multiculturalism
Travelling is another name for adventure. And for a vegetarian, that tryst with the unknown begins soon after stepping out of the comfort of home. From being served underwhelming rajma in a Punjabi fine dine in Mumbai to finding a pure veg restaurant dishing out delightful local fare in a Polish town—it's a bouquet of surprises, really. So, when the opportunity to attend the 2019 edition of the Dubai Food Festival (DFF) came along, the initial reservation about what a vegetarian would do in a meat lover's paradise quickly gave way to the curiosity to find out just that.
An annual, fortnight-long event held in February-March, it is a part of the serious bid to give tourists one more reason to visit the Emirate known for its skyscrapers, malls and desert safaris. This glass-and-steel character of Dubai, however, is unlike anything that the place was, until as recently as the late 1960s—a fishing village where pearl diving and sea-trading were some of the other key occupations. Then, they struck (liquid) gold, and never looked back.
Chef Ali's Teta's Salad at Al Nafoorah. Pic /Snigdha Hasan
This thought to celebrate the present reflects in the design of the DFF, meant to enhance Dubai's position as the gastronomic capital of region. The calendar includes gourmet experiences and a showcase of Dubai's culinary diversity, thanks to people of over 200 nationalities residing in the city. The local fare on offer at the festival largely includes Levantine dishes, but if traditional Emirati food is what you are looking for, you might have to hunt for restaurants offering that on your own.
Our DFF experience kicks off with a visit to the spice souk or market in Deira. Located next to the iconic gold souk with storefronts displaying jewellery in sizes you cannot possibly imagine, the spice souk is a feast for the senses. From sumac, za`atar, saffron, vanilla pods, dried fruits and flowers, to oils extracted from turmeric, cumin and avocado, this is the place to buy every exotic spice there is. Time seems to have had little to do with this part of Dubai, where you will still find a local in a dishdasha trundling a pushcart as a Porsche vrooms past in the distance.
We get a taste of some of the spices from the souk at our dinner at Al Nafoorah, an award-winning Lebanese restaurant. The cold mezzeh begins with a serving of tabouleh and hummous, while the Arabian love affair with the eggplant begins to reveal itself with smoky moutabel (grilled eggplant, tahini and pomegranate) and baba ghanouj (grilled eggplant, onion, tomato, parsley and mint). But what takes the cake is the Lebanese version of mashed potatoes. Shaped like muthias, these mildly spiced spuds are the perfect carriers for crushed rose petals and other condiments. We are so full by now that we request the chef to trim down the spread for the hot mezzeh and settle for veggies in tomato gravy, and call it a day with cube-sized, a tad-too-sweet Arabian desserts.
Coffee from Boston Lane Pic /Snigdha Hasan
Day two begins with a visit to the Dubai Frame, one of the latest additions to the manmade attractions of the Emirate. But unlike the hedonistic malls, this hard-to-miss edifice is worthy of a visit. The 150-metre high structure literally frames the story of Dubai, with one view from the top offering a panoramic glimpse of old Dubai, while the other view opening out to the bustling metropolis with Burj Khalifa prominently standing out. An exhibition charting the city's transformation in the past five decades is a valuable addition.
The next stop is the Beach Canteen by the Jumeirah Beach, a pop-up venue featuring food trucks and stalls from restaurants across the UAE. From here on, our DFF experience centres around the celebration of the diverse culinary traditions of the expats who call Dubai home. And so, our table is lined with veg laksa, chip-crusted sushi with cheese, dim sums with an unmistakeable palm oil glaze, quinoa burger and churros. The concept seems to be a hit, even if the prices are on the higher side.
Stuffed, there's just enough room for some coffee, and for that, we move to Al Qouz, the hub for Dubai's underground art, fashion and music scene. For the festival, Boston Lane, an artisanal café by Australian expats, has a special edition of doughnut-inspired hot coffees. We choose the jam-filled chocolate glaze one and watch the barista solemnise the happy marriage of jam and coffee.
Known for its experiences created out of thin air, our last dinner in Dubai weaves in one as we make our way to the Pai Thai restaurant, in Jumeirah Al Qasr, in a boat. The small vessel navigates waterways inside the luxury resort, reminding visitors of Venice. We get off at the restaurant, where a set menu of Thai staples awaits us. So, there are no new finds here as we dig our forks into the som tam je salad and Thai green curry. But the discovery really is about how simple ingredients, when treated well, can take food to another level. We end the meal with the sticky rice with ripe mango dessert that leaves us wanting more.
It's time to return home but not without a little something for the meat lover back home. It's a rainy morning and a quick call is made to Karachi Darbar, a popular chain serving Pakistani delicacies, to keep haleem and nalli nihari ready. With the Wing Commader Abhinandan episode still fresh in memory, the Indo-Pak relations are at their worst in recent times. But as the car stops, a server comes out with containers of the piping hot dishes all the way to the parking, ensuring we don't get soaked. It's all in a day's work in Dubai, a melting pot that brings together South Asians in a harmonious, almost utopian, way. And perhaps with a little promise of what the future could hold for the region.
By Flight: Air India, IndiGo, SpiceJet and Emirates operate daily flights from Mumbai to Dubai. Book your flight in advance for the Dubai Food Festival 2020 to avoid peak season pricing.
Stay at: Dubai has a range of options to choose from. Rove City Centre in Deira, located close to the airport, is a convenient option with modern amenities. If you have no budget constraints, there is no dearth of luxury hotels in the city.
What to do: The Dubai Museum inside an 18th-century fort at Al Fahidi Street offers a good overview of the Emirate's history. Book yourself a cultural meal at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding that promotes the Emirati culture, customs and traditions among foreign visitors.
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