The making of a dining destination
BY JOJO DASS
From Malayali to Moroccan, Belgian to Brazilian, Malaysian to Mediterranean, Mexican, Latin American, Greek, Japanese, Filipino and Russian, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), most notably Dubai and Abu Dhabi, being a melting pot of over 200 nationalities, is also a global casserole, if you will, of hundreds of cuisines the menu and recipes of which can run miles and miles no end.
The UAE, which straddles east and west on the crossroads of civilizations, is where camel burgers meet Double Quarterpounder with Cheese; where sashimi and hammour fillets mingle on the rotating bar; where falafels say “hi” to tacos; and where pad Thai and pasta, tapas and dim sum, antipasti and hors d'oeuvres share buffet tables on a Friday brunch.
Indeed, as UAE has it all from award-winning gourmet temples by Michelin-starred celebrity chefs to street-corner shawarma and spit-roasted chicken stands, it’s easily not an exaggeration to say there is no shortage of food options and dining venues for each day of the year.
But how did this came about? Certainly not overnight.
In the beginning, there were the Bedouins, their harsh life brought about by an inhospitable desert and thus a diet of what was readily available – dates, camel milk, fowl like Houbara bustards; goat meat, vegetables and grain; camels were, and till today are, reserved for special occasions like Eid celebrations.
Spices came via dhows returning from pearl trips to India, bringing these exotic flavours – cinnamon, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, black peppercorns, curries and chilies, among others – along with rice.
This explains why traditional Emirati food like Al Machboos, prepared with rice, onions and meat, and seasoned with spices, salt and dried lemon; Al Harees, described as a “very ancient dish” prepared with small cuts of meat, wheat, and water; Al Balaleet, pasta from eggs, onions, cinnamon, sugar and oil; and Al Mahshi, stuffed roasted lamb usually prepared for feasts and weddings, have similarities with Indian cuisine.
The gastronomic evolution begins.
Over the years, as trading increased, people from across the seas started to settle inland, bringing with them homegrown recipes and favourites that, in time, fused with local delicacies adding on to the hummus, tabbouleh, and falafel.
By the mid-1990s, when many foreign companies moved to Dubai, the city was already fast becoming a gourmet destination with restaurants mushrooming everywhere. Hotels like Hyatt Regency Dubai, which opened on May 5, 1980, and other global brand properties like Sheraton were already on full throttle, opening dining venues on both sides of the Creek – Deira and Bur Dubai – that catered to international tourists and the rapidly growing expatriate community.
It did not take long before a sophisticated and innovative food culture took form with international culinary stars likes Nobu Matsuhisa, Pierre Gagnaire, Marco Pierre White, Gary Rhodes, Vineet Bhatia, and Yannick Alleno staking claims.
At the casual dining sector, major international brands – McDonald’s, IHOP, Starbucks, Burger Fuel, Fat Burger, Elevation Burger, TGI Friday, Pizza Hut, Tim Hortons and Freshii, among others – have also started staking claims all over Dubai and Abu Dhabi, more particularly along the 1.7 kilometre The Walk at Jumeirah Beach Residence and at the cities’ major hang-outs like Dubai Mall, Mall of the Emirates, Deira City Centre, Abu Dhabi Mall, Marina Mall and Mushrif Mall.
The UAE’s casual dining sector is big business, expected to be a US$8.7 billion industry this year, according to research think tank, Euromonitor.
And then there were the annual food fests among them, the popular Taste of Dubai, patterned after similar activities in other major cities. The event is held on a March weekend, visited by thousands of food lovers as it features an ever-growing number of participating restaurants now counting in the hundreds, and this year was on its eighth edition.
Another is the Dubai Food Festival held in February and whose second edition this year presented everything from street foods to dining concepts and multicultural cuisines.
Perhaps an exponent of the growth of UAE’s food and beverage industry is the annual Gulfood, a trade exhibition that started some 20 years ago, and brings together key industry players, including heads of state.
Gourmet Abu Dhabi, for its part, is also held in February and this year was on its seventh edition. The festival, which showcases the capital city’s fine dining venues, has sprang forth an umbrella event called Abu Dhabi Food Festival which, for its part, also runs two happenings – Emirati Kitchen, which celebrates local authentic food; and Street Feast, held on three successive weekends and features a caravan of food trucks offering street food from all over the world.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi have transformed into cosmopolitan enclaves whose well-travelled population, not to mention the millions of tourists arriving in the cities, make for a huge market that raises the bar on the competition and compels restaurant owners to consistently be up on their toes, offering the best for discerning customers who know a little something more about what the menu says.
This makes these cities, and the neighbouring emirates that have been benefiting from the expanding market, all together a dining destination – an epicurean paradise this side of the world where all tiers are covered: from the expensive, high-end hotel outlets to fastfood chains and those in between, which is to say, the restaurants serving authentic cuisines from every corner of the world, local cafes and eateries where fresh seafood are available.
New research by Euromonitor, shows there are currently 6,021 F&B outlets in the UAE, the bulk of them restaurants in Dubai. Another staggering 19,000 expected to open by 2019.
So yes, one might say the UAE has come a long way; full circle, even, because everything is here – from fish and chips to a seven-course degustation journey at a glitzy French restaurant.