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Dubai Food: Surprisingly Wonderful

DUBAI_00OK, I didn’t expect a visit to Dubai to turn into an eating experience.

My friends and I tasted just about everything except, of course, pork which in the Muslim religion (as in Judaism) is considered unclean.

Starting with hotel breakfasts. We stayed at the Kempinski, which is part of the Mall of the Emirates compound (the place with the indoor ski hill … real snow!). Our introduction to all of this (after an amazingly good latte) was the buffet breakfast.
We’re talking five different kinds of dates (stuffed with nuts, spices, what-have-you), half a dozen other Arabic sweets, an omelet station, a pizza station, a pastry station and a 30-foot line of meats, fish, cold cuts, cheeses, salads, yogurts.
But perhaps because 90 percent of the people who live in Dubai are not Emirati, the food here is truly cross cultural: sushi, tapas, Italian, Turkish, simple Bedouin or ultra-gourmet. You name it, you can get it … as long as it doesn’t come from a pig.

Coffee, Camel, and Pork
So, let’s start with Arabic coffee. It’s served without sugar, without cream. Maybe with a touch of rose water. The sweetness comes from pairing it with dates. And you’ll encounter this drink everywhere.

Traditional coffee is served everywhere in Dubai.

Traditional coffee is served everywhere in Dubai.

Then move on to camels. Camels, one local friend told us, are more valuable than people in the Middle East. Bringing us to camel goodies … chocolate, ice cream, burgers. There’s even a website, Camelicious (www.camelicious.ae/en.html) that specializes in all things camel. But if you are in Dubai and visit the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, you can buy a bar of camel milk chocolate (kind of like standard milk chocolate, but a bit more grainy and with a hint of … something).

Or better yet, pop into one of the various camel burger shops. The one that seems favored at the moment is “Switch,” in the Dubai Mall. Not only do they have burgers, they offer a juicy bit of camel tenderloin.

On the simpler side, we had what is billed as Bedouin food during our Desert Safari. It really is standard casual Middle Eastern fare. Which isn’t to say it’s mediocre. In fact, we were surprised at how yummy it all was. Starting with skewers of beef and lamb, then moving on to tabouli (bulgur with tomatoes, finely chopped parsley, mint, onion and garlic, seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice and salt), pita bread, delicate balls of falafal (deep fried chickpeas), hummus and baba ghanoush (mashed eggplant with onions and seasonings).

Camel burger anyone?

Camel burger anyone?

All of this eaten while sitting on pillows in a Bedouin tent.

On the other end of the scale was the Turkish dinner at Lalezar, in Jumeirah Zabeel Saray on Palm Island (home of perhaps the world’s most expensive spa experience where for a mere $6,800 you can get a facial that features 24 carat gold) and our evening cruise on the dhow Bateaux Dubai.

At Lalezar we enjoyed a selection of appetizers … fried calamari, the ubiquitous hummus and baba ghanoush, minced lamb in delicate philo pastry, chopped vegetables with lemon and garlic. Then on to the main meal, or should I say meals, for the food came out in two huge woks, one that held bits of fish (salmon, octopus, prawn, sea bass) and another of meats (lamb, beef, chicken). All spiced with garlic, lemon and a variety of Middle Eastern flavors.

We were curious about pork and asked about it at one of the many restaurants we visited. Since not everyone in Dubai is Muslim, there IS a demand for pig. But serving pork in Dubai can get complicated. We were eating at the Kempinski’s Salero tapas restaurant (do NOT miss the signature gazpacho) when the hotel’s head of marketing, Elodie Bodin, explained how it’s done.

No pork products can touch the other food, which results in separate (and distinctly different) dishes, cooking utensils, even separate kitchens. I didn’t ask but the menus may also be separate.

Assorted appetizers at the Turkish restaurant, Lalezar in Jumeirah Zabeel Saray on Palm Island, a deluxe hotel in Dubai, UAE. Appetizers included fried calamari, hummus and baba ghanoush, minced lamb in delicate philo pastry, and chopped vegetables with lemon and garlic.

Assorted appetizers at the Turkish restaurant on Palm Island, included fried calamari, hummus and baba ghanoush, minced lamb in delicate philo pastry, and chopped vegetables with lemon and garlic.

Dhow Dining
One of our last nights, we did a dhow cruise. This is one of those things everyone who visits Dubai eventually does. We were expecting a rustic, wooden boat with a fairly simple and not particularly well done buffet.

Boy, were we in for a surprise. Yes, many dhow dinner cruises are like what we expected. But not Bateaux Dubai. We were, shall I say, somewhat underdressed in the kind of clothing you wear to a desert safari. Oops.

The boat is flat bottomed and glass walled. The tables are set with white linen. It’s where you go for an anniversary or a birthday or just to have a special night. For three hours, the boat cruises down, then back up, much of the 8.5 miles of Dubai Creek, passing hotels outlined with colored lights and other boats lit up like Christmas trees.

Dinner aboard a deluxe dhow, the glass walled Bateaux Dubai, was sumptuous.

Dinner aboard a deluxe dhow, the glass walled Bateaux Dubai, was sumptuous.

Dubai Creek is the commercial heart of Dubai. Originally shallow, it’s been dredged so large cargo ships can enter, and today some 1,800 boats come in monthly, loaded with goods. It also divides the old souks (markets) from the more modern side of the city and crossing it on a simpler version of a dhow to reach the stalls of spices, trinkets and gold is another one of those must-do things in the city.

As for our dinner, we shoved off from the dock to appetizers — salmon smoked with seaweed, prawns with habanero mayo, duck liver with cranberry jelly, carrot hummus (you could, indeed, taste the carrot) in a tomato cone.

For the main dish, I went with lamb … herb crusted with baked potato on an onion marmalade and a mille-feuille (layered puff pastry) made not with sweet cream and sugar but, rather, goat cheese.

My friend ordered the red snapper marinated in Moroccan spices and a rose (yes roses seem to pop up everywhere) molasses sauce with spaghetti squash. I expected something sticky sweet but, instead, it had just a hint of sweet along with an exotic set of flavors that somewhat tickled the tongue.

This was one of the many appetizers served during dinner aboard a deluxe dhow.

This was one of the many appetizers served during dinner aboard a deluxe dhow.

By the time we hit dessert, we were near-to-bursting. But how can you turn down something called Creek Traffic, which turned out to be caramelized walnut and cherry filled crepes with ice cream, fruit skewers and bitter chocolate syrup.

The weird thing about all this slurping and chewing and, yes, swallowing, is that I didn’t gain a pound. How seriously wonderful. – Story and photos by Yvette Cardozo

If You Go
As expected, the most comfortable time to visit Dubai is winter, specifically November through March. Nights then can be cool, dropping into the 50s.

This is NOT a walkable city. Sign up for tours.

Tourism now accounts for 20 percent of Dubai’s income, which is saying a lot in a Middle Eastern country rich from oil. Visitors went from 3.6 million in 2001 to more than 10 million in 2012. There are 82,000 hotel rooms, some 20,000 more than just three years ago.

Visiting American woman tries on abaya (Muslim robe) at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in Dubai, UAE.

Visiting American woman tries on abaya (Muslim robe) at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in Dubai, UAE.

A word on dress … Visiting women do NOT have to wear a veil, but they should dress with sense. There are plenty of women on the streets in jeans and sleeveless blouses, but halter tops with bare stomachs are not a good idea.

On money … U.S. dollars are acceptable as are U.S. credit cards. But you need local money, the Dirham, in the souks (old markets). Current exchange rate is about 3.6 AED to $1.

What you should not miss:
*The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding
* A desert safari
* The traditional souks (markets) in Old Dubai
* The Dubai Museum with life-size dioramas of the pre-oil era.
* A trip to the top of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa
* At least half a day in the Dubai Mall. At the mall, do NOT miss the dinosaur skeleton, the three story waterfall or, especially, the aquarium.
* Ski Dubai in the Mall of the Emirates, even if it’s just to take a peek.

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Yvette Cardozo, RFT Ski & Dive Editor

Yvette Cardozo from the Seattle, Washington area, likes to visit interesting places and learn about interesting cultures and, if a tasty local dish is involved, so much the better. She’s eaten everything from gourmet food at the world’s finest restaurants to native food in Asia, the arctic, and all kinds of places in between.Yvette recalls being in Antarctica and going out on the land with Inuit elders in arctic Canada , then bagging a caribou. They dragged it back to camp and ate it on the spot raw. She quips, “Hey, if you like steak tartare….”Yvette, who is a veteran skier and diver, is RFT’s Ski & Dive Editor.