Finding the homely tastes and aromas of food away from home in UAE
Food leaves a lasting memory for all, well for most people, and the very first food memories in UAE are worth recollecting. Here are a few of those memories.
Karishma H. Nandkeolyar, Parenting Editor
My reticence to try the shawarma came from experience. I had been subjected to one with a cumin marinade back in India and was in no hurry to repeat the experience. But around me, anxious faces bit into their rolls and looked at me out of the corner of their eyes.
To see a place, to know a place, one must eat its food – how else can you decide compatibility? I believed it then, at the age of 18, and more than a decade later, I know it now. Which is why I was doubly distressed. The place, UAE, was new to me. But my home – my mum, with whom I’d lived my whole life, without whom I was lost – had moved here. Expressing distaste for the lovingly chosen traditional dish would be taken as a personal rejection, of the move, of her life choices – I knew it. So I got ready to lie. (I’m neither proud nor ashamed of this – and I do not think badly of white lies.)
I tore into the khaboos (Arabic bread) and got a chunk full of chicken laced with garlic paste in my mouth. It was a zap of flavour. The zingyness of garlic, the crispiness of chicken skin and melted fat all came together in a rush. I waited for the cumin to make an entrance – it did not! (or at least wasn’t so present that I noticed it.) And with each bite came a new, delicious addition – there was the potato that fluffed up one bite and the tartness of a pickle in another. Soon I had forgotten there were people around me and was down to my last nibble.
My expression must have been one of joy for the faces around me showed grins of relief.
Years on, I’ve gone shawarma hunting in various parts of the UAE, but the one my taste buds always drag me back to, the one that reminds me of a homecoming remains Automatic.
Huda Tabrez, Living in UAE Editor
Chicken puff and mango Areej: a combination that transports me back to the school canteen. Pinafores and pigtails, black buckle shoes and pulled up knee-length socks, and 20 minutes of bliss. Complete freedom to chat with friends, have a short round of basketball, or just walk around the corridor aimlessly. All those memories come rushing every time I see a box of Areej juice or a chicken puff. It was my go-to lunch for years on end, and to this day I realised how my aversion to experimenting with food started in school. I still go for the same flavour of ice cream, the same chicken pasta with rose sauce and the soft drink, whether I am at a restaurant or supermarket. Back then, it was the chicken stuffing hidden inside flaky layers and that square juice box, which gave a boost to your blood sugar.
I posted this picture in a school friends’ Whatsapp group. The responses came flooding in.
“I would always get the vegetarian puff and Areej.”
“I would get samosa and Aladdin chips *starry eyed emoji*.”
“My mum used to give me Dh2 for lunch!”
“I had Areej recently, it still tastes the same.”
One former classmate diligently listed a price list from memory …
“Areej – 50 fils
Samosa – 50 fils
Chicken puff – Dh1.5 0
Vegetarian puff – Dh1
Corn rings chips – 50 fils”
So, yes, as a school kid in the 1990s, I was well-equipped with just two coins clinking in my hand – Dh2 for my chicken puff and juice combo.
Even today, the cost hasn’t changed too much – you can get a chicken puff for Dh2.50 in the bakery section at a hypermarket and Areej costs Dh1 now. So, a total of Dh3.50. Not a bad deal for a time machine.
Manoj Nair, Business Editor
If there was some way to correct the past, I would name some exotic dish and turn rapturous about the memories it brings about my first few days in Dubai. But fancy restaurants and being adventurous on orders was never a priority those days, nor would my take-home salary support it. Instead, wholesome food was what I craved for and that’s where the memories come flooding back.
It was the first time that I bit into a burger at Jabal Al Noor, on an early January morning in ’96. It was my first encounter. I was instantly hooked, drawn to the succulence and the seemingly unique flavours the counter was able to put together on those two curved slices of bread. It’s a taste that keeps echoing in the mind, even these 20 years and more since the first bite. And standing right next to me was a chap who had driven down in the latest Ferrari model, had the music on full blast. To me, who had just landed from a small town, it was an instant insight into what Dubai was all about – shared tastes, give or take a Ferrari.
Over the intervening years, I have gobbled down my share of burgers, even the fancy ones. But I admit being guilty of harbouring a preference for the Jabal Al Noor version slathered with mayo and with a generous helping of olives. And all of those transactions being conducted in my native lingo. Amidst all those servings, I stopped adding up the calories. No one said biting into a burger doesn’t come with sacrifices.
Ajay Abraham de Melo, Night Editor
Ros omelette and mirchi bhajji with Goan pao. Served piping hot. It’s been 15 years in Dubai, but Goa’s much-loved street food still ranks first in my list of things to do every time I visit home. So imagine my delight when after several years here, I chanced upon a Goan restaurant called Omidivan in Karama’s Wasl Hub that served my favourite snack.
For the uninitiated, ros means gravy in Konkani, pao is bread (the Portuguese rolls in Spinneys come closest to the real thing), while mirchi bhajji is green chilli fritters (not to be confused with mirchi pakoda). So we’re talking about an omelette covered with chicken/mutton xacuti, a gravy dish unique to Goa. Sprinkle on some chopped onion, green chillies and coriander leaves with a dash of lemon and you have bliss on a plate! You eat it with fresh pao. I like mine with a plate of the spicy mirchis.
Another thing Omidivan served was the patal batata bhaji, a gravy-based dish made of white peas and potato, mildly spiced. Eaten with pao or puri, it’s a breakfast favourite.
Sadly, Omidivan is no longer around. The ros omelette they served was good and the servings generous; they even used Portuguese rolls, but I always felt something was missing. Perhaps the ambience was too upmarket. You see, the dish is best eaten at a roadside food stall, with the omelette hot off the pan. Also, I think it should be eaten between 5 pm and midnight — that’s when the food stalls operate.
Believe me, I’ve tried to make it at home. It does not work.
Yousra Zaki, Assistant Editor Features
There were so many things I grew up eating in the 90s when I lived in Abu Dhabi, but two or three things remain in my memory to this day.
Back then, helicopter parenting wasn’t a thing, so we were often left to run off and explore with our friends, while their parents and our parents sat and had ‘grown up’ time. We’d excitedly take the Dh5 they handed each of us and ran to our local baqala to buy some treats. My plastic bag would typically feature some Choki Choki Chocolate Paste and those incredibly addicting mini orange, yellow and green fruit Jelly Pops. Once you had one, you couldn’t stop.
There was a whole vibe to the snack culture of the 90s in the UAE. The Ali Baba Chips, the can of Shani, the Emirates Pofaki chips and so much more. They were always in brightly coloured packaging and full of artificial colours and flavours that just made them so dang delicious. These days, I find myself nostalgically walking into those old school groceries, which by the way, all smell the same way they did back in the 90s. And they house these treasures that deserve to still be eaten today.
Very unique pop up just… well… popped up in Al Serkal Avenue called “Not So Guilty” grocery and it is designed to look like a grocery in the 90s and it even sells all of the old school snacks that we grew up eating 25 years ago. What can I say? Old is gold.
Sonal Tiwari, Assistant Features Editor
It was not a very long time ago – in February 2021, when the sun wasn’t harsh and the evening breeze still chilly I landed in Dubai. I had with me, homemade savoury snack – mathri and pickles. Something most Indian expats would relate to.
Then came the most important question and suggestions from friends and family…How will you manage food? What will you eat? Will you get vegetarian food? Little did my family know, my vegetarian by choice rule would be broken by juicy meaty shawarma, loaded with pickles and French fries?
My friends back home texted me now and then asking about the food that I was eating “oh try the raan”, “how does hummus taste like there” and “did you try the shawarma yet”. This meat-filled snack is quite popular even in New Delhi, where I come from. Typical shawarma there is wrapped in an all-purpose flour bread with fillings of charred juicy meat, drizzled with garlic sauce, and usually served with a side – French fries. I could choose vegetarian shawarma back in Delhi, but that wasn’t a thing in Dubai. Just like there is no vegetarian biryani…
On a quest to eat authentic Middle Eastern food, the first food dish I ordered from my hotel was shawarma. And along with it, a bowl of hummus…because, why not? The shawarma and hummus were delivered on time, for my lunch. I opened the bowl of hummus, where I noticed a drizzle of Sumac (a tangy spiced powder made of red wild berries) unlike the regular olive oil drizzled Hummus I was used to eating. And then I turned around to unwrapping my Shawarma…First bite…was oozy and juicy, with a burst of flavours. And to my surprise, it was filled with French fries…The side I love the most. My go-to or pick-me-up snack was filled inside this delicious shawarma. And as I write this, I cannot help but wait to order in my shawarma, filled with fried and maybe with a side of fries too.
Sharon Benjamin, Features Writer
Nestled between a cluster of computer hardware stores lies Thalassery restaurant in Bur Dubai and a little child’s memory of one of the best pathiri (rice pancakes) and beef curry.
It’s not the thinly made pathiri that you’d usually find in a restaurant, which follows the Kerala cuisine. It’s quite thick and most of the time one would do just fine.
I used to visit the restaurant with my father, especially during the weekends, before we moved to Sharjah. The place was always packed with people at all times of the day – bachelors, other dads and their children, those trying to grab a bite before they close shop for the day, children trying to sneak in a bite of shawarma after tuitions… the crowd never seemed to go away.
Once we got what we wanted, we’d rush home to eat it and before we knew it, it would be over. And after another hard week at school, I’d be back again in front of the restaurant with my father. We’d go to the cassette shop that day for the weekend movie, and then go to the medical shop in case we ran out of medicines and also the grocery store in case I wanted to buy candy, chips or any unhealthy snack I could think of at the time.
It wasn’t just about the food, you see. It was the only time I could spend time with my father – annoying him with a thousand questions before I was in the company of boring science questions and annoying math problems – and way before adulthood came calling.
A lot has changed since then, but I’d still take that walk with my father to the restaurant.
A.K.S. Satish, Assistant Editor
My love for the falafel sandwich started on November 12, 2000, the day I landed at Gulf News. It continues even today. I stayed at a Bur Dubai hotel and after surfing through the various channels on the cathode ray TV, I dozed off due to the journey that began early in the morning. I was woken up by the room phone, where my buddies from Chennai had come to visit me. After chatting for some time, we decided to roam around Meena Bazar and have our dinner. As we were walking, the weather being a bit chilly for me as I come from a very tropical climate, my friend stopped in front of a small shop and ordered something to eat. When I checked with him if this is going to be the dinner, knowing my voracious appetite, he told me that it’s just a snack before we go for our dinner.
I was given a roll and when I took my first bite, I loved it. When I asked them what is the name of the dish I am eating? They told me that it’s called falafel sandwich. It was my first brush with Arabic food and I have to make an honest admission that it was love at first bite.
Subsequently, when my wife joined me, we went to the same shop, the Farisian cafeteria, where the same elderly person was churning out sandwiches at mechanical precision as every sandwich tastes the same. Needless to say, she too enjoyed it. Then when my kids grew up we gave them a taste of the sandwich and they also fell in love. Nowadays, with my appetite coming down, each member of my family would grab a couple of sandwiches each for the dinner these days.
After 21 years, the shop remains the same, the taste remains the same, the only addition is a couple of more staff are seen while the cost is Dh3 per sandwich, from Dh1 or Dh1.50 when I first tasted then. It’s still a cheap and cheerful option.
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