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The evolution of Emirati cuisine

The evolution of Emirati cuisine

From balaleet and luqaimat to camel sliders, local food has come a long way. We hear what Emirati foodies have to say about the past, present and future of the UAE's bustling culinary scene


Janice Rodrigues

Published: Fri 11 Oct 2019, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 11 Oct 2019, 2:00 AM

"My parents travelled extensively from a young age - so we always had a mix of cuisines on our kitchen table. But Friday morning - that was for the traditional breakfast. We would enjoy dishes with chickpeas and egg. I still remember balaleet which is on the sweeter side with a salty fried egg. I wish I was having it right now," local foodie Hebah Alblooshi reminisces.
Like many who have grown up in the UAE, Hebah's gastronomic experiences are a mix of international and traditional. Luckily, the 26-year-old, who currently works in hospitality, knows and loves her food - whether it's the traditional Emirati sweet luqaimat ("If you don't like this, I probably won't even understand you!") to British scones with clotted cream. She also believes that the best way to get a taste of the UAE is to visit a local household.
"In the UAE, today, some traditional dishes are hard to come by. You do find local ladies who sell them. Other than that, there are restaurants. They are nice, but not at the same level as what is prepared at home," she says.

Today, anyone living in the country will not contest that they are spoilt for choice in the food department, with every cuisine under the sun available. But how does that compare to the Emirati food scene which, while thriving, comes with certain misconceptions? "When my friends come from abroad, they want to visit a local restaurant, and people will usually point towards a restaurant that is, say, Lebanese," Hebah says. "Of course, there are similarities between Lebanese and Emirati food; UAE is so multicultural that different cuisines have become a part of the local food scene. I may love vada pav but at the end of the day, it's not local!"
Like many others, Hebah seems to have found her own way to work around this. "Whenever people come over, I invite them home. What people really want is to learn more about one's culture and there's no better way to do this than over lunch or dinner. Regardless of language or background, food brings people closer and opens up conversation. And that makes me happier," says Hebah.

Ask around about what defines traditional Emirati food, and most will say it's the spice blend that differs from household to household. Of course, there are some ingredients that remain common - bread, fish, rice, meat and chickpeas are popular. "I'd say the main difference between Emirati food and other Arab dishes is the use of spices and how they are infused," says Emirati chef Musabbeh Al Kaabi of Jumeirah Zabeel Saray. "We roast the ground spices and then blend them for added flavour. All our meat would be from local farms, which is a true depiction of the highest quality of taste," he adds.

Emirati chef Musabbeh Al Kaabi of Jumeirah Zabeel Saray
Having entered the field 18 years ago, Chef Musabbeh is the first Emirati chef. Today, he credits what many considered an unusual profession (back then) simply to his love for food. "Growing up, I loved eating jasheed with white rice and local ghee, kingfish tahtah (or, as we used to say, tahtah kanaad) and aish wa laham (lamb cooked the traditional way)," says the chef who also lists out dishes like lamb harees and chicken machboos as his personal favourites. "I used to spend hours watching my mum cook and that inspired me. I'd invite friends and prepare dishes I learnt from her - that's when I decided this was something I wanted to pursue as a career."
So, how has UAE's culinary scene changed over the last 18 years? According to Chef Musabbeh, the fact that a career in the culinary arts is no longer seen as a novelty but a legitimate option itself is monumental. "Today, there are many culinary academies around the country," says the chef who recommends heading to Dubai's spice souk to get a better idea of Emirati flavours. "I think the next step is to start promoting it. We should be so proud of our Emirati cuisine and its evolution. We should also be confident about our chefs showcasing it to the rest of the world."
A Global Cuisine
In the recent years, the country has continued to see more firsts with a number of high profile names are shaking things up in the F&B industry. Amna Al Hashemi, the proud owner of homegrown café Mitts & Trays, is considered the first female Emirati chef patron in the country

Amna Al Hashemi, the proud owner of homegrown café Mitts & Trays
What's ironic is that, growing up, Amna was always a fussy eater. "I was that child that mum would have to run behind saying 'just three more bites'" she laughs. So, it was quite amusing to her family when she entered the food industry herself. It began after the birth of her third child; she had left her job and was 'quite bored'. When her sister-in-law introduced her to baking, Amna found it therapeutic. As her kitchen prowess improved, she started getting orders from family and friends, and then from friends of friends. It wasn't until she was getting orders from other emirates that her husband suggested the idea of starting her own restaurant - and Mitts & Trays was born. While the restaurant's menu is largely international, it was only a matter of time before Amna's passion for traditional food was reignited. "I had joined SCAFA, Dubai's School of Culinary and Finishing Arts, and noticed how there are so many cuisines - Japanese, Peruvian, Indian - considered global as they are found everywhere. I felt a responsibility to shine a light on Emirati cuisine."

Of course, that's a big responsibility for any one person - Amna decided to start with baby steps. "I would experiment with recipes to create food with an Emirati twist that would fit my restaurant which is more casual dining."
For Amna, these 'fusion' dishes, usually released during Ramadan, are a great way to introduce Emirati flavours in a modern setting. And it seems like the restaurant is doing something right; a new branch is being set up in Riyadh in the near future, making this a homegrown success story.
Fusion Concepts
Today, there are a number of restaurants and franchises cropping up, mostly helmed by locals, that serve classic Emirati food with a modern twist. Take Logma, for example, which serves Emirati/ Khaleeji classics like lentil soup and chebab, along with some 'fusion bites' (khemeer sandwiches or khaleeji wings, anyone?). Or CML Camel Station which recently opened in The Dubai Mall that promises to combine Emirati heritage with the 'modern and ever-changing Emirati future'. The result? Camel burgers and salads alongside wood-fire kunafa.
So, what do Emiratis think about this evolution?
Hebah claims she is all for it. "It's great to show people Emirati food and still be able to mix things up," she says. "But, personally, some fusion dishes just don't work for me. I think it's fine to experiment but some dishes need to be left alone."

Food enthusiast, baker, blogger and recipe developer Arwa A Lootah voices a similar opinion. "Emirati cuisine has been evolving, even more so in the past 10 years. As long as the flavours of the original dish are there, I'll support it. I'm very particular and picky about my Emirati food and will judge it on the basis of flavours; even when I modernise an Emirati recipe, I make sure the flavours and base is genuine - my mother and other family members are the judges of that!"

Arwa A Lootah, Food enthusiast, baker, blogger and recipe developer
Arwa, who grew up eating Emirati food, along with dishes from around the world, credits the country's central location as the reason it has embraced various other cuisines. However, that also lends itself to being misrepresented from time to time. "A tourist wouldn't be able to savour authentic Emirati recipes in restaurants as they would in Emirati homes. There are some restaurants and traditional kitchens which serve them and are doing quite well, but my concern is that dishes that are actually Arab or Asian are often labelled as Emirati."
"In the future, I hope to see more Emirati home cooks or chefs representing our culture through their food - be it in a traditional or modern form," she says.

Abdulla Al Mazrouei, founder of Emirati spice brand Danat food industries
The solution may just be to educate people - both living within and outside the UAE - about what constitutes Emirati flavours. That is a project Abdulla Al Mazrouei is busy working on. The founder of Emirati spice brand Danat food industries set up his factory in 2007, but not before he had visited locals in the west of Abu Dhabi and got their advice when coming up with authentic Emirati flavours. Fiercely proud of his heritage and his country's food, Abdulla's ultimate dream is to create a brand that can be distributed globally 'to show the world how Emirati food can taste good and be healthy at the same time."
That future may not be too far away - Danat already exports its spices to countries like Italy, Singapore and Seychelles and according to him, the feedback is good. "People are very curious about the taste of Emirati cuisine," he says.

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