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The long read: How the palate’s palette changed

In the UAE, Covid’s virality has cooked up vital life lessons around (what most consider is) the greatest joy in the universe: Food


Sushmita Bose

Published: Fri 26 Mar 2021, 10:27 PM

In pre-pandemic times, when I lived in Dubai, and (after that) whenever I visited Dubai (often enough), I’d be dining out every other evening; a few meet-ups were pre-planned, but most were impromptu. This week, when I met a friend for dinner, it was only my fifth culinary outing, even though I’ve been in the city for more than two months now (the other four had been hurried meals, don’t really qualify as “dining out”, which has a leisurely ring to it). It had been planned for two weeks earlier, but then I came in touch with someone in my “outer circle” who had exchanged fist bumps with a friend who tested Covid-positive soon after — so I played it safe, cancelled the earlier “date”, and re-scheduled for a fortnight down the line.

My friend and I met at a restaurant where we were the only diners. Masks came off gingerly and sanitiser bottles pulled out of handbags on reflex (“Don’t use the restaurant sanitiser — God knows who all have used it”) as we “caught up” and complained how strange our lives had become. The menu, always the star attraction in earlier times, was relegated to an also-ran.

It was only after I returned home, washed my hands with an ‘extra hygienic’ potion and changed my clothes that I breathed easy, and allowed myself the luxury of letting my mind stray to what we actually ate. It was a good meal, but then, no surprises there — Dubai has one of the finest dining outlays in the world, propped up by conspicuous consumption: it’s a market where residents, and tourists, are gregariously experimental and “out of the box” when it comes to food parameters.

The lockdown changed that. For some time, shutters came down on eating out. When they lifted tentatively, there was attendant paranoia and protocols which altered the foodscape. But how exactly? And how has this shift changed consumer psyche unalterably?

Why we should look at food differently

“I’m a pharmacist — but instead of formulas I develop new recipes now,” says Dubai-based Dalia El Emary, an Egyptian food blogger (dalias_kitchen is her Facebook and Instagram handle). Alongside, Dalia used the extra time the pandemic accorded her to upskill: she learnt new techniques like food styling and photography to complement her passion.

“Many got creative at home — for example, all my friends who didn’t have kitchen gadgets bought new ones and started experimenting with recipes and following food bloggers.” She laughingly notes she knows stores that ran out of kitchen aids and baking tools at a certain point.

She realises people have gotten more used to ordering in rather than eating out simply by “observing the number of delivery bikes on streets”. And because some restaurants had to permanently shut shop — “especially smaller or new ones while a lot of the bigger chains had to close a branch or two to sustain” — the sector had to quickly look for alternatives like providing delivery or “offering meal kits to make your own pizza or cupcakes with instructions at home”.

Food outlets, Dalia suggests, need to increase digital offerings by providing easy online ordering and loyalty programmes. In the foreseeable future, everyone’s top concern will be health and safety, so restaurants need to increase their efforts in cleanliness and providing new/different safety measures for customers to visibly notice: single-use menus or QR code menus, signs on tables that they have been sanitised, hand sanitisers on tables and so on.

Dalia’s favourite takeaway from this ‘new normal’ is how “before the pandemic it was difficult for the whole family to sit down all together for a meal and enjoy it — but now we enjoy all meals together and connect more.”

The most vital life lesson the pandemic taught us?

While considering the shape shift of eating habits, let us also realise how “it increased the already-existing global food crisis... so we should all look at food differently now, consume smaller portions — and only what we need — and try to help the less fortunate”.

New ways to break bread together

Kari Heron started and operated chefandsteward.com when she was based in the UAE — which was till a few years ago, before she moved back to the Caribbean. She developed practical, fun and tasty recipes, food products and taught cooking on this interactive site. She was also a certified coach and NLP practitioner in Dubai — which equipped her to use food as a tool to help people build strong relationships and good communication skills in business, in family settings and among friends.

As she continues to build on her base, Kari has devised new ways to enable people connect over food during the pandemic. For instance, she’s offering “online” family reunion ‘Caribbean Culinary’ experiences; there is a corporate team-building version as well. In her words, “I am taking the fun and frolic of the Caribbean to you for up to 99 people in a group at a fraction of the cost of airline tickets to paradise.” What’s on the table? “Both of these experiences allow your family or business associates from different locations all over the world to gather together and bond over one shared meal online with lots of jokes, and merriment while cooking.”

One thing that has not changed is the need to break bread together. This acquires greater significance with people socially distancing and remote working/schooling for so long. “Food brings people together and shared meals are essential for our joy to be complete. We must embrace new ways to gather together responsibly.”

The pandemic has highlighted how cooking can be a critical skill, Kari adds. “When you are stuck at home with nowhere to go, you find that hunger increases out of boredom. Now there is suddenly more time to explore the wonders of the kitchen.” Many have ignited flames of passion for cooking for the first time, as the kitchen has reclaimed its place as the centre of homes and new remote offices.

Making of a baker and barista — at home

Gautam Sishta used to be a pilot, but even while he was flying high, he enjoyed bouts of baking. Sourdough bread was his speciality — so much so that he would be regularly spreading crumbs of joy among friends and family.

In New Delhi, where he lived earlier, he had started Nonsense Bakery from home on a whim, but its notional caprice, it did remarkably well just via word of mouth. After moving to Dubai, his passion for baking was put on the backburner as he jet-setted… Till the lockdown happened, his company started downsizing and he was let go. Suddenly, he found himself grounded, in more ways than one. “I had all this free time and literally nothing to do, so I resumed baking.” He enjoyed it so much that he decided to conduct online demos — free of cost — for friends and family to watch and learn. The sourdough was back in the equation, and the project “exploded” with him acquiring a veritable fan following.

Alongside, he experimented with slow cooking, sous vide desserts, and teaching himself how to make the perfect biryani. “I think I finally got the hang of how to get the biryani rice right — it used to be the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle, but now I’ve cracked it!” The pandemic, Gautam says, “forced all of us to start looking at cooking — there was no choice, so I thought I may as well get creative about it.” And as he evolved into a ‘home chef’, his life “got a much-needed structure”.

He maintains the pleasure of eating out will always be something to savour, but “even if the current climate recedes, I will definitely be having more meals at home”.

Today, making coffee at home has taken on a life of its own. He roasts his own beans, has a grinding machine and an espresso set up, and is conscious about stuff like where the beans are coming from, their origin, their history, their supply chain, the works.

Gautam will probably not go back to a ‘coffee shop’ around the corner in a hurry. “I’m the barista at home.”

Talking business: The market feedback

Vikas Attri and Enrico Clementi decided to launch Pedalo Gelato, a made-in-UAE Italian gelato brand, recently. The trigger? A recent study that indicated gelato consumption went up in Italy soon after the lockdown. “Doesn’t surprise me,” points out Enrico. “Gelato makes people feel better about themselves and the world around them.”

While they have opted for a delivery mode for the time being, Enrico admits there has been a gradual return to dining out — particularly in the mid to upscale segment — since the lockdown got over. “The fast-casual and casual segments, however, have taken longer to recover.” Vikas agrees: “While people are still treading very carefully while eating out — more so in the mid end of the restaurant space — high-end restaurants experienced a faster return to some normalcy… But, we are still far from pre-Covid levels, where even getting a table for dinner was tough.”

The duo further concur that people have been spending more time in the kitchen cooking which is a great way to reconnect with food and renew interest in the art of its preparation. A new category of ‘home chefs’ have mushroomed over lockdown. And the popularity of “using catering services for small gatherings has also increased — particularly that of having a chef coming over to cook a 3-4 course meal from scratch”.

Dine in may have suffered but home deliveries witnessed a substantial jump — there was stiff competition within the market to capitalise and try and get maximum share of that pie, avers

Chef Gaurav Singh, head of operations, Foodmark, a division of the Landmark Group that operates restaurant brands across the GCC, including Carluccio’s, Zafran etc. “What was also noticeable was the home cooking alternative.” While he doesn’t have any data to substantiate this, social media platforms were inundated with budding culinary enthusiasts during this period. DIY (within the home delivery segment) was an emerging trend as well — kits that allowed you to replicate a restaurant meal or culinary experience at home.

Diners chose brands they could believe in, not just because of history, but because they trusted them to maintain health and safety standards. “Value-driven concepts continue to be popular and whilst group sizes shrunk due to regulations, I do believe this was also because people are more financially conscious,” feels Gaurav.

“Dubai’s undeniable diversity includes its food selections, and residents have a plethora of options,” says Layan Ezzo. However, with the pandemic takeover, people are going through a nesting phase, so Layan, senior marketing manager, home furnishings/wellness division of Alshaya, is excited about the launch of the group’s first UAE store of Williams Sonoma — a brand globally recognised for its state-of-the-art culinary essentials, among other offerings. It’s an “opportunity” they plan to tap into since customers are now recreating dining practices at home while keeping an eye out for aesthetics and convenience.

How customer is king — more than ever

Sreetama Mishra, vice president, sales, Dubai and Mumbai, of restaurant reservations app/website EazyDiner (Dubai members can avail discounts and packages without having to pay a subscription fee), points out what is fuelling experiential dining these days is that it’s now perhaps the easiest form of outdoor entertainment. “We were actually quite apprehensive about what would be awaiting us in the post-lockdown phase”, but, fortunately, their worst fears didn’t come true. But, yes, customers have rolled back somewhat when it comes to spending. “So instead of a five-star, they may opt for a slightly more cost-effective standalone restaurant.”

Given that hygiene is top of the mind, the best way they can service the customer is by validating the compliance of a restaurant’s health safeguards, which, in Sreetama’s company’s case, is done by system called EazySafe. For instance, it’s possible for one to get a live feed of a restaurant’s kitchen area. Other features include contactless dining and arranging time slots in a manner that ensures minimal traction with other guests.

There’s been an amped up customer-staff engagement, adds Pedalo Gelato’s Enrico. “I believe the ones who’ve used this time wisely, improving their internal processes, will come out as winners.”

I had a wow moment after my dinner outing, when I popped by to another nearby restaurant that has an adjunct confectionary section and ordered a half-a-dozen of my favourite sweet treats for takeaway.

When I picked up the carefully-packed bag, I noticed a ‘Thank You’ emblazoned on it. In large font size and bold lettering — so the ‘gratitude’ is not lost.

I immediately promised myself I’ll be back soon. This time to dine in.


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