Lunch for Dh1: How UAE school canteens catered to students’ hunger pangs in the 1990s

Items such as Punjabi samosas, cheese pizzas, Areej juice evoke strong nostalgia among those who studied in the country



by

Nasreen Abdulla

Published: Wed 14 Sep 2022, 1:42 PM

Last updated: Thu 15 Sep 2022, 12:24 AM

[Editor's Note: This is the fourth instalment in a seven-part series. You can read the first three instalments here, here and here]

A journey through the food history of the UAE can never be complete without a look at the food that the many students in the country grew up with. This week, KT explores the different kinds of items that children in the UAE enjoyed at their school canteens.

From crispy Punjabi samosas to the delicious cold Raspberry Areej, from tasty cheese pizzas to plain chicken sandwiches, there are many snacks that evoke strong nostalgia among those who studied in the country.

“In those days, school was in the afternoon for boys,” remembers Kiran Bhatia who attended the Indian High School from 1980 onwards. “So, bus came around 12.30pm. If my father came home early for lunch, he would take a dirham out of his pocket and give it to me. I would suddenly feel like the king of the world.”

According to Bhatia, the Dh1 would buy a Punjabi samosa and an Areej juice, each of which costed 50 fils. “The Punjabi samosa would be given in a butter paper and a bowl of chutney would be kept at the counter,” he said. “We had to pour the chutney in such a way that it wouldn’t touch the butter paper. It required a special skill set.”

Another person who remembers the same snack is former student and current CEO of Indian High School group Punit MK Vasu. “High demand for samosas meant that our school limited us to a maximum of 2 pieces per student,” he said. “The school recess for the boys would take place between 3.30 and 4 pm. The searing heat during this break time meant that a samosa combined with a chilled laban or a sugary orange Areej made the ideal snack. Growing up in a middle-class family, my mother would sometimes reward my solid academic performance with a bonus of an additional 50 fils to spend which meant I could afford the luxury of buying a veggie puff along with my usual drink, all fitting within the grand budget of Dh1.50”

In addition to the samosas, another popular canteen dish was the cheese pizza. “I used to love the cheese pizza at the canteen,” said Farah Sarfaraz, who attended the Our Own English High School Dubai (OOEHS Dubai) starting in the 1990s. “However, we couldn’t always pick canteen items based on our liking alone. We had to think about sharing with our friends too. There was a calculation of return on investment. Like one Punjabi samosa was larger for Dh1 and hence more shareable in a group as opposed to pizza. Also, when we bought the Areej for 25 fils, at least 3-4 friends would take a sip. It was great value for money.”

Sarfaraz also recalls how she and her friends would work to utilize their break time. “We only had 20- 30 minutes. We had to stand in queue, buy the food and eat all within that slot. So, friends would club orders for efficiency. If you had a note instead of coins, you were considered very rich for the day.”

Dubai resident Ann George, who also studied at OOEHS Dubai in the early 2000s, remembers the mad dash to the canteen. “As soon as the bell rang, some of the students would dash out so they could get to the canteen before the others,” she said. “And the more efficient ones would take orders from friends, in return for a snack.”

Another person who fondly recalls the cheese pizza is Karel Josh De Vera. The Filipino expat attended St. Mary’s School in the 1990s. “I would always be looking forward to the cheese pizzas, the sausage roll, the chicken puff and the vegetable samosa,” he said. “They only cost about a dirham, and they really made our day. If you had Dh10, it would sort you out for a week or even two for that matter.”

De Vera was also a big fan of Areej juice. “It used to come in these juice cartons,” he recalls. “There was a certain way of opening it. If you fail to open it from the one side, then the only option you have is to open it completely. Then you had to drink it carefully so as not to spill it on your clothes.”

“Our cheese pizzas evoke a special kind of memory and still remains one of our most popular items,” said Ralph D’Souza, general manager at Caesar’s, one of the caterers that used to provide food to canteens in UAE schools. “The pizzas used to cost Dh1 at the time. Even now, it costs only Dh1.50, making it a very economical snack. Our cheese buns were also extremely popular. Last week I met someone who told me that as a child, he used to go to the St. Mary’s church every week because he could eat the pizzas and cheese buns.”

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