With over 200 nationalities living in Dubai and millions of people visiting every year, it should come as no surprise that the city-state is a blend of different cultures. Just like the cosmopolitan nature of the city itself, the food scene in Dubai is sophisticated and innovative and incorporates the multi-ethnic culture of Dubai.
In addition to offering a plethora of cuisines, many of the best restaurants in Dubai also serve up traditional recipes from the region.
Here are 10 fun facts about Dubai’s colorful food culture.
Dating back thousands of years, the traditional food of Dubai and the United Arab Emirates is known as Emirati cuisine and is a blend of various Middle Eastern and Asian cuisines. The Emirati family style of eating is with your hands, with many plates, all at the same time.
Foreign influences massively shaped the formation of Emirati cuisine, as the dhows (ships) that traded pearls with India would arrive back with an assortment of spices and rice. Today, the best restaurants in Dubai continue this gastronomic history with spicy dishes.
As the region is situated in an arid environment, the development and scope of Emirati cuisine was limited. In the coastal regions, fish was plentiful and the excess produce was salted and dried and sent to the inner territories. In the desert, sheep and goats were raised and dates, fruits, vegetables, and cereal were grown.
Shawarma is the most common street food in Dubai, which is made up of grilled shreds of chicken or lamb. Easy to eat on-the-go, shawarma can be thought of as the Arabic version of fast food. Different restaurants serve this dish in varying manners, although a common variation is to mix garlic sauce, pickles, fries and tomatoes and then to wrap it all up in an Arabic Roti. You will probably also receive a special fruit shake to go along with your shawarma order!
If you are an adventurous eater, camel is a common and very popular dish. As there are so many camels in the area, these dishes tend to be on the cheaper end of meal choices. Some restaurants have put a contemporary twist on the classic dish and now offer camel burgers — billed as a healthy alternative to beef and highly nutritious. In addition, camel’s milk, which is low-fat and highly nutritious, is used to make cheese, ice-cream and even chocolate!
The Guinness Book of World Records has featured Stuffed Camel as the world’s largest dish. Occasionally served at elite Arab weddings, the whole camel is stuffed with lamb, chickens, boiled egg, fish, and rice. The boiled eggs go into the fish, the fish into the roasted chickens, the chickens into the lamb, and then the lamb into the camel. Once all these ingredients have been stuffed inside the camel, the dish is cooked for 24 hours, until the meat of the camel turns crispy brown. Delicious!
If it is pork that you are craving, you are out of luck. Dubai is a Muslim region and so you will not find any pork dishes on the menus. Instead, you can choose from lamb, beef, chicken and, of course, camel. Similarly, for religious reasons, alcohol is generally only served in hotel restaurants and bars.
Gahwa is the name for Arabic coffee and represents 60-70% of the world’s coffee industry. Known for its phenomenal taste and exceptional quality, and as a symbol of generosity, Arabic coffee has been designated an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Arab States by UNESCO.
Today, local favorites include machboos (a casserole of lamb or chicken with rice), diyai mashwi (grilled marinated chicken), hareis (slow-cooked wheat and lamb) and baryani (meat or fish cooked with Indian-style spiced rice).
Since 2014, the city-state has held the Dubai Food Festival to celebrate and promote Dubai’s gastronomy. The festival brings together some of the region’s favorite restaurants and chefs, so residents and tourists alike can have a tasty sample of what is on offer. In 2016, the creators of the event added “Dubai Restaurant Week” to the line-up, as well as “Dubai Hidden Gems” to celebrate the hidden foodie spots found on the side-streets.
One of the best parts about traveling the world is trying new cuisines and learning the history and politics that surrounded the development of said cuisines. Next time you find yourself in the region, make sure to check out some of the best casual restaurants in Dubai, as well as some of the more traditional ones (you have to at least try camel once!).
Kunal is a passionate leader, boasting a long track record of successful management across a variety of business industries in the UAE. He founded Bazxar in the DIFC, the most exciting bar in the city that looks, feels and tastes like nowhere else in Dubai. He is also notably the founder of the award-winning El Sur, a contemporary Spanish restaurant located in the Westin Dubai. In addition, he is the founder & CEO of Pret To Go, a brand of organic and healthy cafes located across the UAE in 8 business clusters in Dubai and Abu Dhabi Airport.