Traditional Emirati cuisine: from people’s homes to restaurant tables
For a long time, the only way to enjoy authentic Emirati cuisine in the UAE was to be invited to an Emirati home. But cooking secrets were not lost. The privacy of the family unit kept the recipes of the past protected and alive and prevented them from adapting to the modern world.
Over the last decade, Emirati food started seeing the light of day as local entrepreneurs spotted an opportunity and opened up restaurants. The last 12 months, however, have seen the biggest progress with several government-backed initiatives launching to train local and international chefs on Emirati cuisine.
“The food scene in the UAE has caught up to global standards regarding quality, variety, and consistency. More and more local home-grown operators are joining the food scene and challenging international operators. Social media has given everybody a voice and a platform to share and talk about their experiences,” Sebastian Nohse, Senior Director of Culinary at Hilton EMEA told Food Matters Live.
“Exciting times are ahead for the UAE with the Michelin Guide, Gault & Millau and 50 Best all launching in the UAE this year. It gives us an international voice and will help an already competitive market to drive better results,” he said.
One of the most renowned Emirati restaurants in the UAE is Al Fanar. Founded in 2011, the highly acclaimed family business has 9 branches, spanning across Riyadh, London and its home-base of Dubai.
“We were the first Emirati restaurant in the UAE; we started in 2011. 11 years is not a long time to see the changes we see with other cuisines. But a lot of Emirati restaurants are opening, and some have done well. A few hotels are also offering Emirati dishes for breakfast, which is nice to see,” Sohail Al Marzouqi, Al Fanar’s Operations Manager, told Food Matters Live.
Al Fanar’s branches are designed like mini museums, with nostalgic interiors and exteriors that carry the aura of Dubai during the 1960s, when the economy relied upon fishing, pearl diving and trading. The food, too, preserves the recipes of that pre-oil era, with dishes such as chebab (pancakes infused with turmeric, saffron and cardamom), machboos robyan (shrimp over spiced yellow rice), and asidat al tamor (date pudding) on the menu.
Emirati food traditions before fusion
A handful of chefs across the UAE recently started offering their own take on Emirati classics, creating new fusion recipes and expanding local cuisine options. However, Al Marzouqi believes it’s too early to get creative with traditional dishes.
“Emirati cuisine is still new, it’s too soon to start experimenting with fusions. A lot of people are not familiar with our food. People visiting the UAE sometimes think that Lebanese food is Emirati food, or that all [Arabian] Gulf countries eat the same dishes,” he said.
“If you’ve never tried Emirati food and I offer you an Emirati fusion; you don’t have a reference to compare it with. For the locals, if they try an Emirati fusion, they compare it with what they eat at home, so they will always prefer the original recipe.”
When it comes to Lebanese cuisine for example, restaurants have done a remarkable job of introducing it in cities all over the world. “Twenty years ago, not many people knew about Lebanese food, but today you can go to Waitrose in London and buy hummus.”
For Emirati food to be globalised, it may take several generations, according to Al Marzooqi. “It will take a lot of people to work really hard. First, we need to educate people on what Emirati food is, how it differs from other Middle Eastern cuisines, and what makes it unique. Once they understand our food much better, we can then introduce fusions – that’s when Emirati cuisine can evolve to the next stage.”
Hilton’s Nohse agrees, saying that Emirati cuisine needs good marketing and an understandable story as well as evolution, rather than adaptation.
“Food goes through levels of evolution based on global trends in terms of presentation and combination, so with every Emirati chef that works on promoting his heritage cuisine, overlays a filter of what is relevant in regard to global trends, and promotes his interpretation of the dishes, Emirati cuisine will naturally grow in popularity,” he said.
Authentic Emirati cuisine
Arabian Tea House, the oldest Emirati café in Dubai, has played a huge role in reviving Emirati cuisine. Opened in the Al Fahidi historical area in 1997 by Ali Al Rais, the place is designed to resemble an old Emirati house, with turquoise wooden benches and white wicker chairs in an open-air setting.
And with a menu that bridges the gap between local and Middle Eastern cuisine, the café, which has since evolved to a restaurant, has become a top attraction for tourists and expats alike.
“Emirati cuisine is becoming more accessible as people become more interested in trying local food and understanding the region’s culture and traditions,” said Kiran Kumar, Business Development Manager at FSL Hospitality, a supplier of food and beverage ingredients in the Middle East and Africa.
“The origins of Emirati cuisine come from the Bedouins who roamed the country. Many dishes also draw on the region’s long-trading associations with India, Iran, and surrounding countries. With a focus on meat from goat and lamb, as well as fish caught from the Arabian Gulf – notably kingfish and grouper – the food staples are based on what was available at the time. Even chicken is a relatively new addition, becoming more available after the oil boom of the 1950s, with indigenous birds such as the Houbara bustard more common prior to that.”
Some of the most popular Emirati dishes are balaleet, (vermicelli sweetened with sugar, cardamom, rose water and saffron, served with an omelette) harees (boiled, cracked, or coarsely-ground wheat, mixed with meat and seasonings), samak mashwi, (grilled, spiced fish), thereed (lamb and vegetable stew with a bread base) and machboos (spiced rice topped with meat, especially chicken), according to Kumar.
“Chefs are increasingly promoting these traditional dishes and a lot of Emiratis are also showing more interest in becoming chefs,” he said.
Inspiring a new generation of chefs
Hotels, too, are joining this rapidly evolving scene. As many as 46 hotels across Abu Dhabi now have Emirati dishes on their restaurant menus, serving everything from spiced Gulf shrimp, to fluffy chebabs, according to the Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT) Abu Dhabi.
These developments are a result of the Emirati Cuisine Programme launched in 2020 by DCT Abu Dhabi as part of a governmental strategy to elevate local cuisine to new heights. The second phase of the culinary training programme, which ran from September 2021 to January 2022, saw the participation of 23 hotels, adding to the 23 hotels already enrolled.
Young Emirati chefs in the UAE also benefitted from YouthX, a platform launched by Gulfood exhibition early 2022 to provide mentorships, scholarships, and hands-on learning in live kitchen environments.
“I am a big fan of Emirati cuisine; however, it took me a long time to build a network so I can experience authentic Emirati dishes as I did not find them easily available. This year, we partnered with Gulfood and Dubai College of Tourism to launch the YouthX program with a focus on finding Emirati culinary talents,” said Hilton’s Nohse.
“This was an amazing experience where we selected the top four Emirati culinarians from 99 applications. The top four competed for an internship in one of the Hilton Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe and a young Emirati lady Meera Alnaqbi won. She presented incredible Emirati dishes and through the mentorship of Kasdi Dahari, executive chef at Hilton Dubai Palm managed to give the dishes a spin without losing the authenticity of the flavours,” said Nohse.
Emirati dishes are easy to create, and ingredients are easy to source in most parts of the world, according to Al Marzouqi. “We use the same spices as in Indian food but in different ways; our food is not spicy and has less oil. You can find all the ingredients in the UAE and in international cities like London and Paris, where you can find spices such as turmeric, cardamom and cloves.”
Emirati cuisine goes international
While Al Fanar has carved a name for itself in the UAE, Al Marzqouqi has not rested on his success at home and is committed to raising awareness of Emirati cuisine globally, as seen from the opening of the first branch outside the Middle East in Kensington, London, in 2019.
Similarly, Al Rais has invested in taking the UAE’s flavours abroad, having opened Arabian Tea House’s first branch outside the region, in Montenegro, in 2020.
“It’s quite challenging to entice customers [in London] to come in and try our food but once they do, they come back, which is a good sign. We see them returning within the same week and they’re excited to try different dishes,” said Marzouqi.
“I believe it will take time for people to get acquainted with Emirati food – they need to take the first step to enter the restaurant, because right next to us there’s an Italian restaurant, a pizzeria, and a burger joint, so it’s tough to attract diners but we’re getting there. Often, guests are interested to see the décor. Dubai is popular in London and people are curious to see what’s inside. So, they come to try one or two dishes and they’re surprised to find it familiar because they’ve tried Indian food.”