A secret taste of Arabia

JAMES LANE
Last updated 05:00 27/11/2013
falafel

ARABIAN CULINARY PILGRIMAGE: I'm told the colour of the falafel comes from the paste made with parsley, coriander and chilli and being freshly cooked means its crispness is a world away from pre-prepared deli versions.

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It's Saturday afternoon and I'm enjoying a soothing massage before heading off on an Arabian food tour around old Dubai.

As I lie face down on a table in The Oberoi hotel's spa facility, I confess it's been 10 years since my last massage so there'll be a minefield of knots to work on.

I ask the masseur if he can concentrate around my right shoulder and neck which are particularly stiff. For the next hour my body oscillates between mild agony and spasms of ecstasy as the effects of years of computer overuse ebb away with each long, vigorous stroke.

I'm told my massage is an Ayurvedic treatment which uses continuous strokes to release muscular knots and improve circulation. I can feel my shoulder is reaping the benefits to the point where it feels like it's being kneaded like a lump of plasticine. Ahhhhh!

The hour is up and I feel supple, invigorated and ready to dine, but before I go I'm invited to enjoy a cleansing herbal tea. It's a therapeutic finish to a satisfying session.

I'm feeling languid as the evening descends on Dubai Creek's neighbourhood of Deira but two things jolt me out of my torpor: the smell of food and our sharp-witted guide Arva Ahmed.

As founder and "chief executive muncher" of Frying Pan Adventures, Arva conducts walking tours through Deira searching out authentic Arabian street eats.

It's a part of Dubai she knows intimately as she has lived in this bustling area since 1989 after several years spent in New York.

Over the next four hours, Arva guides our group on an Arabian culinary "pilgrimage" with stops in Iran, Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon and Turkey.

It's quite a ride and to begin she softens us up with something familiar: falafels.

The first thing I notice is the filling is green and not yellow like the ones I see at home. I'm told the colour comes from the paste made with parsley, coriander and chilli and being freshly cooked means its crispness is a world away from pre-prepared deli versions.

The food keeps coming on Deira's Muraqqabat Street. I'm intrigued by Lamb Mansaf - lamb in a sauce made from fermented yogurt (Jameed). It's a knockout. The lamb is wonderfully tender and it combines superbly with the buttery rice, sauce and a garnish of almonds and pine nuts.

Small wonder this dish is regarded as Jordan's pride and joy. A sweet follow-up is Kanafeh Na'ama, a Syrian/Palestinian pie featuring a syrupy orange crust made from ground up semolina atop a bed of fresh cheese.

To pace ourselves Arva indicates with her fingers what "percentages" our stomachs should be reaching after each stop. It's no use, we protest, as the food is so appetising.

She laughs and leads us further down the street to a personal favourite, Samadi Sweets. Here we try a Halawet el Jibn - a sweet cheese roll filled with cream; a delicious baklava called a Bukaj which is filled with pistachios nestled in a basket-shaped pastry and a Karabij, a Lebanese pistachio biscuit topped with a white cream called Natef.

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This type of meringue looks like shaving cream, which is no accident as it's made from soapwort root, which is used in the production of soap. Natef's aftertaste is slightly sudsy but candied.

Arva keeps things sweet as we try Syrian pistachio ice cream which is chewy, almost elastic but completely addictive. We then amble along to an Iraqi restaurant on Rigga Road where we view the national dish of Masgouf, seasoned carp, being roasted over an oven or circular "fire altar" which resembles a small bonfire.

Cooking Masgouf takes anywhere up to three hours until the fish's fat is burnt away, so we move on to our next stop and sample a feteer, a layered Egyptian pastry filled with Za'atar, a Middle Eastern mix of herbs. It's so savoury and more-ish I go back for another one.

By now my "percentages" are heading off the scale but the final two stops are highlights.

We enter a Yemeni restaurant, Al Tawasol, where we learn to eat Bedouin style inside a small tent with a plastic sheet for the "tablecloth". We sit on the floor, shoes off, as two types of spiced chicken - Mandi (roasted) and Madhbi (grilled over stones) - are served with rice, spicy tomato sauce, salad and nuts.

Arva teaches us the Arabic method of eating rice with three fingers on our right hand to shape the rice into a small ball which takes me one or two attempts to master. As we eat in this traditional Bedouin manner, it strikes me as a highly authentic way to enjoy a Saturday night meal in Dubai.

Chatting to Arva afterwards she tells me a venue like Al Tawasol is what she likes to unearth as a way of giving people a true taste of Middle Eastern eating.

"These places deserve to be recognised and explored. They are what makes Deira such an interesting part of Dubai," she reasons.

Finishing the tour is an Iranian eatery on Maktoum Street where we become mesmerised as a chef loads long, thin strips of dough to bake on a bed of hot stones in a brick oven.

The dimpled bread, known as Sangak, is removed with stones picked off it by another person before it's hung against a wall to cool off on what looks like a coat rack. We eat it with cheese and aromatic rayhaan leaves, which is delicious.

We also enjoy Ghormeh Sabzi, a stew of lamb and mixed greens seasoned with fenugreek, and a superb Persian cold dessert called Faloodeh, with saffron and pistachio ice-cream, which nicely closes our enchanting gastronomic marathon.

By the end we are sated yet elated to have stayed the distance. Arva's knowledge and enthusiasm has been infectious, and while my stomach is bulging I feel I've gained (apart from kilos) a terrific taste of Arabia while uncovering a "secret" Dubai gem amid the malls and skyscrapers.

It's been an experience to dine out on.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Emirates operates flights to Dubai. See: emirates.com,

STAYING THERE: The five-star Oberoi Dubai is located in Business Bay with views to the world's tallest building - the Burj Khalifa. During November the rate for a deluxe room starts from 1300 dirhams ($430). Details: oberoihotels.com.

PLAYING THERE: The Oberoi Spa offers a selection of massages such as Thai and Balinese, foot rejuvenation and a head and neck massage. Massages run from 30 to 90 minutes and can be booked within the hotel. Details: oberoihotels.com.

Frying Pan Adventures' four-hour walking tours cost about 350 dirhams ($115.8) which includes food, selected beverages and a guide. For further details: fryingpanadventures.com. Arva's food and culture blog is iliveinafryingpan.com

The writer travelled as a guest of Emirates and Dubai Department of Tourism & Commerce Marketing.

- AAP

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