Old Dubai's Foodie escapades!

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Old Dubais Foodie escapades!

Sangeeta Swaroop visits a few of the many hole-in-the-wall ethnic eats of Old Dubai and rediscovers the city’s hidden gems

By Sangeeta Swaroop

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Published: Sat 13 Sep 2014, 2:15 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 10:19 PM

It is not very often that you meander through streets and lanes you have grown accustomed to for decades, gloating in the overconfidence that there is nothing here that warrants a second glance only to have a 30-something young woman point out that the neighbourhood you so easily dismissed as quaint and boring is indeed a gourmet heaven, guaranteed to get your gastronomic juices overflowing.

I look in disbelief at the assorted little cafes, tacky shops and cheap hotels that line up most of Al Rigga and close by Muraqqabat and wonder what delectable delights this neon-lit-place could possibly harbor.

All niggling doubts are quashed the moment Arva Ahmed gushes forth in a torrent of unbridled passion capturing the gustatory delights of this old town in a way that only a connoisseur of food can.

I realise then this is not a mere gentle nudge urging me to look at the all-too-familiar surroundings in a new light. It is a full-blown kick in the rear and rightly deserved too for when Dubai expanded beyond the shores of Deira and the gently bobbing waters of the Creek, the herd mentality took over, deceiving me into believing that the rise of a glitzy chapter called New Dubai is where the promise of exotic culinary adventures lay.

A resident of Deira since 1989, Arva’s foodie escapades in the grubby by lanes around her home have unearthed some hidden gems which she now shares through her hugely popular food tours in the city. Much of her passion for food, she says, stems from her mother’s cooking and the stories of food that her parents shared as they dined at the family table.

During her student years in the US, her appreciation of good food further heightened as her craving for “mom’s food and the soft, creamy hummus” led her on a search for soul-nourishing food deep into the bustling thoroughfare of the cities she lived in.

Back on the home turf in 2010, she continued to romp the streets as she always did — “it helps you stay grounded” — exploring the diverse cuisines and imbibing the energetic vibes of the often unpretentious neighbourhoods and quirky hangouts that she ventured into.

“Food is the best way to connect with the city, especially street food,” believes Arva. “When you dine at a five-star restaurant or a franchise outlet, you could just as well be anywhere in New York or London or Paris. But when you trail through the lanes of Muraqqabat or Abu Hail, the culinary and cultural osmosis that define the essence of Dubai shines through; it is an experience you cannot replicate anywhere else.”

Arva’s new discoveries and old-favourite haunts soon found an appearance on her blog, I Live in a Frying Pan. Her quest for exploring the “hole-in-the-wall ethnic eats of Old Dubai” gradually metamorphosed in January 2013 into Frying Pan Adventures, the UAE’s first food-based tour with her sister, Farida, serving as General Manager and host of the ‘Little India on a Plate’ tour.

Also on the team as “unpaid advisors”, she adds, is her dad who she relies on for his business instincts and sound financial advice; and her mom, a nutritionist, whose advice on pairing foods has given the finishing touches to all the food trails at Frying Pan Adventures.

Calling herself the Chief Executive Muncher, Arva has honed in on the finest Middle Eastern food joints in old Dubai for the ‘Arabian Summer Saga’ food trail, cherry-picking through complex and fairly lengthy menus to zero in on the best dishes for her clients.

As we set off in a comfy van, our group of 10 listens spellbound as she perks up our interest with fascinating tidbits of both UAE and Middle Eastern history. And so it is I discover that the name Deira — an area I’ve lived in for the past 15 years — is derived from the Arabic word estedara, meaning ‘rounded’ alluding to the way the creek shapes the land.

Some of the countries whose cuisines we would sample that evening are mired in years of conflict and war; but as Arva says, “Politics never tells you the whole story.” She urges us instead to “look at the region through the lens of its flavours” and we are more than happy to let our stomachs be our guide.

Our first pit stop is at Qwaider Al Nabulsi for the humble falafel whose origins, she warns, have sparked fierce debates since centuries. The cheerful little Palestinian restaurant with brightly lit signboards at Muraqqabat is where we sink our teeth into stuffed falafel or falafel mahshi — crunchy on the outside and topped with sesame seeds, its soft green innards laced with chilli paste, sumac and onions are exquisitely moist and oh so velvety! We follow Arva’s recommendation and slap it flat into the fold of a khubz, slathering generously with tahini and a special hummus with tatbeela — a green chillies/capsicum/garlic/lemon sauce, before popping it in.

Next we are ushered into the kitchens to watch the Levantine delicacy, Kunafa, being prepared. Its oodles of soft, crumbly Nabulsi cheese layered between crispy thin pastry dough turn out to be the ultimate in sinful indulgence!

Back in the van, our host reveals that prior to 1400 C.E.; it was the Middle East that churned out the maximum number of cookbooks. She narrates how the cooking techniques used in ancient Mesopotamia to bake bread are still in use today citing references to tinuru that lives on as the Arabic tanour, the Iranian tanura and the popular Indian tandoor.

“Every dish tells a story and food without stories is not food at all,” says Arva as she regales us with the charming tale of Abu Nuwas, a classical 8th century poet, in whose memory is named the boulevard alongside the Tigris that sells the nation’s popular fish dish, Masquof.

As we enter the modest environs of Bait Al Baghdadi in Al Muteena to sample this “soul of Baghdad,” we find that our giant butterflied carp smeared with salt and lime, rests with its gut wide open on a wooden stake alongside an open fire, roasting in its own fatty juices. It is thrown on the glowing embers before being served at the table.

45 minutes of open grilling and yet the carp is deliciously moist and incredibly tender and is best enjoyed with amba (mango pickle), rayhaan (a type of basil), hashwat as-samak (tomato-onion-peppers fish stuffing), that are loaded into the crackling hot bread some of our adventurous team members have just flipped in the tanour.

How can you be in the UAE and not taste Emirati cuisine, asks Arva, as she steers us to Al Tawasol, a blink-and-you-miss restaurant near Clock Tower where we sit cross-legged on the floor awaiting the arrival of a huge steel platter bearing succulent Emirati Chicken Machboos and Laham Salona, a lamb curry, both cooked in a blend of roasted spices and served over two kinds of extremely flavourful rice. This is an experience best savoured by hand and we do so with utmost relish!

Just when you think you can’t eat no more, we are transported literally to candy land — Sadaf Sweets — an Iranian sweet shop on Maktoum Street where we are given a crash course in buying saffron and then treated to a light, airy and refreshing Persian Faloodeh, a saffron and pistachio ice-cream served on a bed of vermicelli noodles made delicious with a hint of rosewater and lemon juice.

Our ‘Arabian Summer Saga’ food marathon clocked a time of 3:51:16 from start to finish but in many ways, the end of this journey is just the beginning of another. With her food tour, Arva Ahmed has not only opened up our palates to a wider choice of Middle Eastern cuisine but has also expanded our world by allowing us, in a very tangible way, to engage with the fabulous cultural fabric of the countries of this region. For those of us who tend to avoid the touristy stuff, a Frying Pan Adventure is a great way to rediscover the city we live in.

Other food trails by Frying Pan Adventures include, amongst others, the newly launched ‘Food Lover’s Morning March’ that explores the historic Creekside, ‘Little India on a Plate’ that takes you to the bustling Meena Bazar area and a five-hour ‘Middle Eastern Food Pilgrimage’ where you can taste the wonderful flavours of Arva’s favourite Jordanian, Palestinian, Emirati, Syrian, Iranian and Egyptian kitchens.


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