The United Arab Emirates is unlike almost any other place on Earth, and Dubai is its crown jewel. For thousands of years, Dubai was the land of pearls, and divers would risk death by diving as deep as 40 metres in search of the tiny, lucrative orbs. Eventually, the magic and danger of pearling gave way to oil and industry. These days, Dubai is a hot bed of tourism, business and energy, but its rich and eccentric heritage still shines through. Dubai’s cuisine still feels, looks, smells and tastes like the exotic place that it was in days of old.
Whether you travel to Dubai for business or pleasure, you’ll need to recharge with some food. A city of diverse flavours, ingredients and spices, eating in Dubai is its own reason to visit. Here is a look at seven dishes that you absolutely have to experience the next time you touch down in the heart of the UAE.
Besides being named by the Guinness World Book of Records as one of the largest foods you can eat in the entire world, stuffed camel is considered one of the most luxurious and celebratory foods. Cooked on a spit over open flame, stuffed camel can be filled with chicken, eggs, fish, sheep and spices. Because it is so over-the-top, stuffed camel is served only when there is a special occasion, festival, Bedouin ceremony or other important cultural or family event, so if you can’t miss this dish, plan your trip accordingly.
This popular dish has travelled far beyond the UAE. Made from slow-roasted and spiced meat — usually chicken or lamb — a shawarma is a kind of Middle Eastern sandwich. Served in an Arabic roti, it can be served with vegetables, fries, tomatoes, pickles, garlic sauce — the sides seem almost endless. It can be found in New York City, Delhi, Moscow, Tokyo — pretty much everywhere — but eating shawarma in Dubai is an experience that should not be missed.
This dish is a labour of love that literally takes hours to make, but its ingredients are remarkably simple. A pinch of salt is added to a pot of wheat and meat, and these are cooked until the texture is smooth and uniform — so much so that you can barely tell the meat from the grain. Then, the whole mixture is baked slowly for several more hours. In the land of decadent spices, al harees is a simple dish that brings a surprising and welcome change for your palette.
A refreshing pudding, mehalabiya’s most standout flavours come from rosewater and pistachios. It tastes like an oasis in a desert — healthy, life-giving and peaceful. Perfect for the diner who wants a refreshing after-dinner treat that isn’t too sweet; mehalabiya is especially popular with children.
Also called khuzi, this dish is made from whole-roasted lamb or mutton and is often served on kebab skewers with vegetables and hazelnuts over rice. It is easily one of the most popular dishes in Dubai, because it is considered a whole meal in itself. It’s also the national dish of the United Arab Emirates, which means any trip to the area without ghuzi is an incomplete one.
Yet another lamb recipe, matchbous is made from a lamb spiced with what is known as loomi. Loomi is made from dried, ripe limes and salt water. The lamb is then cooked into a stew with tomatoes and rice. A traditional dish of Dubai, matchbous has a flavour that is unique, sharp, spicy and rich. Cloves, cardamom, cassia bark, turmeric and baharat are also used to flavour this dish, which gives it an impressive and satisfying depth of flavours.
A dessert in a class by itself, esh hasarya is called “the bread of the harem”. Its texture resembles cheesecake, and it has a cream frosting. Rich and sweet, this cake almost melts in your mouth. It’s no wonder it’s one of the most popular desserts in all of Dubai.
Any trip to Dubai promises to be a memorable one. After all, a mighty city of glass, concrete and metal that rises up like a myth out of kilometres of sand and crystal gulf waters will likely be impossible to forget. The next time you travel to Dubai, take in its flavours along with its sights and business opportunities. From camel to rosewater, few worlds taste as unique as Dubai’s.