Since the 1970s, people from over 200 nationalities have flocked to the United Arab Emirates for work, making the country their home. There is a wide variety of cuisine on offer in the UAE today, but traditional Emirati fare has lasted the test of time, surviving the country’s rapid modernisation and gaining an almost mythical status in the minds of the tight-knit Emirati community in Dubai.
Local chefs who specialise in their national cuisine, with the help of government initiatives to preserve this symbol of the Emirates, have quickly become celebrities. They’ve established chains of restaurants and recreated their own versions of Emirati favourites, including mixed rice kabsa, sweet luqaimat (dumplings) and harees (boiled wheat porridge).
Emirati cuisine uses ingredients that have been produced locally for longer than the country has existed, with spices traded in historic souks, dates grown in Al Ain since the third millennium BC, and kingfish and grouper caught by local fishermen all featuring heavily.
It takes its inspiration from the food of the many tribes who have called the area home over the centuries. Traditionally, the cuisine was determined by the seasons, with the cooler winter months bringing an abundance of rice varieties, vegetables and wheat, and the hotter summer months shifting focus to camel, goat and lamb meat, dates and fresh fish from the waters of the Gulf.
The UAE has been the meeting point of traders (including those from India, Persia, Zanzibar and Mesopotamia) for centuries, so Emirati food has also been heavily influenced by the ingredients (especially spices and rice) visitors have brought with them to the Arabian Peninsula. Regional dishes are heavy on luxury spices – think saffron, cumin, cardamom and nutmeg – which have been imported through the port city of Dubai and sold in its bustling spice souks since the 1700s.
As the population of the UAE has rapidly internationalised since the 1970s, with millions of workers from the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia and Europe moving to work in the country, Emirati food has developed to suit this new customer base too.
Dishes that were heavy on spices, such as kabsa – rice, meat and vegetables – have become less spicy. Lamb fat in recipes like harees has been replaced by butter to appeal to more diners, and a fried doughnut-type dessert called luqaimat has become sweeter as more achingly sweet date molasses has been added.
In today’s ultra-modern and fast-paced Emirates, many residents long for a taste of the more traditional past – this is where Emirati cuisine shines through. Local chefs are considered the custodians of these national dishes, and although the governments of the Emirates support the preservation of age-old recipes, it is Emiratis themselves who are working to give their cuisine greater recognition.
Emirati cuisine features prominently at the annual Dubai Food Festival – a citywide showcase of the very best food and chefs in the Emirates, where restaurateurs compete to win awards and attract diners to sample their food. With local celebrity chefs offering live cooking demonstrations, tasting menus and competitions to draw new customers, one of the key aims is to increase awareness of a national cuisine that is considered at risk.
Local chefs are notoriously media-shy, reluctant to give away their secrets to rivals, but chef Ali Ebdowa, or chef Ali as he is commonly known, is undoubtedly a legend on the Emirati food scene. He is the self-confessed “first professional Emirati chef in the UAE” and the Best Arabic Chef, according to the Emirates International Salon Culinaire.
Chef Ali proudly claims that “When I cook, I’m happy. So, what do I do? I cook and cook and cook.”
Ebdowa is not alone in his push to keep the cuisine alive. The Al Fanar restaurant chain – with locations in Festival City Mall and Al Seef in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah, Riyadh and London – is working to spread the word about Emirati food. Each restaurant is decorated in 1960s Dubai style, with bukhoor (traditional Middle Eastern fragrances) burning in the background, high-vaulted wooden doors, coral-stone walls and wooden balconies designed to resemble the wind towers of old Dubai.
The executive chef at one of the Al Fanar restaurants tells Culture Trip: “I cook what I was taught to cook by my mother, who was taught to cook by her mother, and so on… Emirati food is a work of art, something that only local chefs can recreate as we have been raised eating it in our homes for generations.”
As the focal point of Emirati culture and the main destination where visitors are first exposed to the national food of the UAE, Dubai has local chefs who are leading the way in re-establishing the status of Emirati cuisine as an everyday staple across the country.
Considered the national dish of the Emirates, kabsa, a fragrant mixture of basmati rice, lamb or chicken, mixed vegetables, cardamom, cinnamon, saffron, nutmeg and bay leaves cooked in one pot and often served in a huge mound at the centre of the table. Al Fanar Restaurant & Cafe serves up the city’s most delicious kabsa. Its venue in Festival City Mall is perhaps the chain’s most impressive, with a rustic interior adorned with coral walls, an old blue Land Rover, heavy wooden tables placed around a date palm tree, and balconies complete with Arabic-carved gates overlooking the dining area.
Popular across the Middle East, but considered by Emirati chefs as a local dish, shuwaa is a meal of slow-roasted lamb with nuts and raisins wrapped in date leaves, cooked in a submerged oven and served on rice. It is often served alongside a filling dish of harees, a bowl of steaming cracked wheat and shredded meat that has been boiled and left to simmer. Al Makan in Souk Madinat offers this dish in large quantities. The views overlooking the souk amphitheatre make this restaurant a special place to sample local food while watching the changing colours cast on the towering Burj Al Arab.
A favourite Emirati sweet dish is luqaimat, deep-fried dough balls that are crunchy on the outside and fluffy inside, coated in super-sweet date syrup and served with sweet dipping sauces and a cup of karak chai (masala black tea). The best place to try this dish is at the Dubai Heritage and Diving Centre, where Emirati women make luqaimat by the boxful and serve it with a date paste.