For the love of food Hear it from foodie bloggers
Five Dubai bloggers chart out a gourmet trail for discerning eaters
The popular notion is that love makes the world go round. We beg to differ — surely, food makes the world go round! In the UAE, with its smorgasbord of nationalities and cultures, it’s also the one thing that unites us in a big way: the people’s love for food.
Dubai, along with its other towering achievements that has made it one of the shining gems on the global map, is achieving the fast-growing distinction of being a culinary hotspot, on par with cities like London, New York or Paris. What’s evident even to the layperson are a few simple and very noticeable facts that put it on top of the food menu. A sampling of these: there are well over 5,553 restaurants in this city alone, right now, according to TripAdvisor.com; any imaginable cuisine is available here; and the excellence of both food and service is on par with the best in the world. These ingredients have served to give Dubai a gastronomic boom in recent years.
Charting this journey are a bunch of passionate foodie bloggers, both local and expats. They give us an insight into Dubai’s culinary journey, and its recipes for success.
The bloggers themselves are as eclectic as the cuisines and restaurants they write about. Samantha Wood, resident in Dubai for 14 years, is of Greek-Cypriot-British origin; she is a freelance writer and communications professional and owner of the very popular, award-winning blog ‘FoodDiva’. Her blog focuses on restaurant reviews. She has also featured on CNN Go’s Dubai travel episode.
Australian Sarah Walton, in the city for six years, has managed restaurants in the past, and her blog ‘The Hedonista’ focuses in part on regional food and beverages available here.
Karen McLean, also Australian, is a chef and photographer, and her quirky blog ‘Secret Squirrel Food’ is a collection of her own recipes, with an emphasis on healthy eating.
Shaikha Al Ali, the Emirati in the mix, runs an experimental food blog ‘When Shaikha Cooks’, with a focus on recipes, foodie destinations in Dubai and films about cooking.
Pakistani-born, US-raised Saba Wahid now lives in Dubai and her ability to adapt anywhere is reflected in her blog ‘Culinary Delights by Saba Wahid’: it offers a mishmash of recipes, local restaurant reviews and street eats.
The city’s gastronomic growth is a direct result of its real estate and economic boom, suggests Samantha. “New hotel and real estate developments are on the rise again in Dubai, fuelled by the Expo 2020 win, including a constant flurry of new restaurant openings,” she says. “With a primarily expat population, a local community hungry for imported brands and increasing inbound business and leisure travel, Dubai’s restaurant scene has in the past veered towards celebrity chef concepts and international restaurant chains, but the last couple of years has seen the market mature with more homegrown concepts taking shape.”
Dubai has such a mixed population that us allows developer’s freedom in many categories — particularly hospitality — thinks Sarah. “While Dubai is still creating its own unique culture, there are some key segments that are truly shining. High-end lounges and supper clubs are amongst the world’s best, as are subcontinental cheap-eats,” she says.
“I’m in love with Dubai’s foodie scene! What I love most about Dubai is that it offers a variety of cuisines, which have come from all around the world,” says Karen. “The variety of food creates an interesting contrast, from exceptional world-class restaurants that are simply out of this world to unlocking culinary treasures in the older parts of Dubai. Food brings people together, and I also love the social aspect of dining in Dubai.”
According to Shaikha, “When renovations around town began and new places began to open their doors, new restaurants and culinary experiences opened up as well. Due to the high diversity of population in Dubai, catering to the needs of every nationality has resulted in a huge expansion of restaurants. It is now so easy to find almost any cuisine you want here.”
And Saba thinks Dubai is one of the world’s gastronomic capitals because it captures the best of the East and West. “It is not only a crossroads of culture and business, but also food. This fantastic city has taken culinary talent from all over the world as well as locally, and created a unique subculture that is now recognised throughout the world,” Saba says. “Dubai started evolving into a leading culinary destination at some point during the last five years, with the launch of Zuma followed by Le Petite Maison, before a series of other recognised as well as original brands.”
FAVOURITE CUISINES & A LATIN FLAVOUR
Locally speaking, Emirati cuisine, which has been mostly home-based and restricted to a handful of restaurants, is often neglected in favour of the more popular and much-marketed Levantine cooking, opines Samantha. “It is starting to change for the better, but we still have a long way to go before a holidaymaker or business traveller seeks out local dishes before any other cuisine here.” When in Naples, one eats pizza, so when in Dubai why not slow-roasted lamb ouzi or fragrant chicken muchboos?
Arabic fare is also progressing into the fine-cum-fun dining arena with novel twists thanks to the likes of new opening Q’bara and soon-to-open restaurants by chefs like Greg Malouf, she feels. “So with that in mind by 2020, if not earlier, let’s hope Dubai can also welcome Michelin!” Samantha, also feels cuisines like Indian and Italian are always safe bets here, because their menus cater to all kinds of food preferences and diets. And lately, “It’s not just Latino food (churrascarias included) and steakhouses, but there’s an influx of Spanish, Italian and French restaurants too.”
For Sarah, it’s “Japanese at the fine-dining level — it’s the kind of food that even great cooks struggle to make at home, and combined with the stunning architecture of the restaurants (e.g. Zuma, Toko, Nobu, Okku), it always makes for an opulent night out. Supper clubs are also on the rise, as is Indian, Pakistani and Levant cuisine — purely because of demographic demand. Oh, and steakhouses — because business lunches and dinners are nearly always done over a big slab of meat.”
Karen’s take is that Japanese cuisine continues to top the list, with restaurants such as Zuma, Okku, and Nobu still being the top places in Dubai to dine. “In recent years, Japanese restaurants have been opening up all over the city, from casual sushi train restaurants to more refined gastronomical Japanese food, such as Toko Dubai.” Latin American cuisine is also the latest food frenzy in Dubai, she adds. Amid the growing trend in Latin American food, it is arguably Peruvian which is in focus.
Shaikha says the Latin American trend can be put down to “Chefs like René Redzepi, Alex Atala, and Anthony Bourdain who have predicted that the next food revolution is going to come from Latin America.”
As for Saba, she thinks it’s “a toss-up between Italian, Indian and Arabic cuisine. These three types of cuisines are in more demand when compared to others for different reasons. “Italian is always a safe ‘go to’ option because it’s universally pleasing — pizza and pasta can appeal to any demographic from anywhere in the world, young or old. Indian is appealing because of the sheer volume of residents originating from the subcontinent, as well as the UK. Arabic cuisine is popular because of the presence of a large variety of Middle Eastern residents in the city.”
As for the spurt in Latin American cuisine-based eateries, Saba says, “It is a niche market that has been tapped into, which very quickly became a trending culinary topic in the region. Latin-American cuisine is heavily focused on steaks and grills, and Dubai residents are notorious for their carnivorous flair.”
TASTES OF DUBAI
The superb authenticity of the Asian and MENA food available in Dubai is a reflection of a young city, according to Sarah. “Cuisines have not been tampered with to the extent you may find in many other modern cities (e.g. Indian cuisine in London, Chinese food in Sydney). I’m sure Dubai can keep this true multi-national flavour as it grows and changes with time,” she says.
According to Karen, Dubai’s food scene has evolved tremendously and is becoming more competitive in terms of innovation and creativity. “Due to the vast array of food options available, UAE residents are now also more open to trying new things and are becoming trendsetters who are creative and experimental with food.”
Sara feels there has been a shift in the market. Whereas before, UAE residents would stick to the tried and tested favourites or brands they were familiar with, the introduction of new original concepts plus initiatives that help recognise culinary talent in the region has meant they are much more experimental. “It’s much easier to research and assess the outcome of going out and experimenting,” she points out.
It varies according to the demographic, says Samantha but, in principle, “Dubai residents are becoming more sophisticated in their tastes and developing their palate.”
Sarah believes it’s a yes and no when it comes to budding local tastes. “I believe UAE residents are always willing to try something new, but they need some clout behind the concept to drive them. This means a chef or brand they are familiar with, a cuisine or restaurant that has been recommended by a friend or a trusted form of media.”
Even the older Emiratis have begun to experiment with food — trying out foods that never existed in their traditional cuisines, according to Shaikha. “The younger generation is very aware of food now and take cooking very seriously, even considering it as a future career.”
DUBAI — A CULINARY CAPITAL
The local food bloggers have created an official Gourmet Trail for the Dubai Food Festival, an initiative showcasing Dubai’s gourmet gems, that was held in March.
Here are the ladies’ short appetisers on why we’re lucky to live and eat in the emirate.
Samantha Wood — FooDiva
Dubai now has over 5,500 restaurants; a staggering amount for a population of just over two million. The market has recently matured with the appearance of homegrown eateries and the likes of Souk Al Bahar encouraging more restaurateurs to open shop — with a shift away from hoteliers bringing in recognised chains.
Sarah Walton — The Hedonista
The highlight of Dubai’s food scene is the sum of its parts. In other international cities you may find such an intercontinental range, but the authenticity and depth here is unparalleled. It’s possible to come across an authentic shawarma sandwich, spicy
Karen McLean — Secret Squirrel Food
Dubai’s foodie scene is diverse, fabulous and charming. Offering a variety of sensational cuisines from across the world, residents and visitors alike will find just about everything that could possibly take their fancy, as everyone wants a taste of home on their doorstep. With an increased trend in using locally sourced ingredients and fresh organic produce, a number of amazing cafes and restaurants are now serving nutritious and wholesome food.
Shaikha Al Ali — When Shaikha Cooks
Each nationality in Dubai has introduced its traditional comfort and fine dining dishes, and this has expanded the city’s culinary scene beautifully. Sampling paella and sushi in Dubai introduces us to authentic Spanish and Japanese dishes as well as the culture of these countries. We should feel very lucky to live in a city like this.
Saba Wahid — Culinary Delights
Not only has the bar risen for cuisine here, so has the level of service and management style. With a more informed consumer combined with the power of social media, both residents and visitors to our city have an outlet to express their opinions, which positively challenges the industry to ensure it delivers on all fronts. The market still has plenty of potential to grow.