We take a closer look at what it's like to be Emirati with a traditional breakfast with an Emirati woman and a historic area of Deira on a delicious food tour.
"Once you tasted these falafels it’s difficult to enjoy others," says Nahla, our guide from Frying Pan Adventures. We are on a middle eastern pilgrimage and sampling what this fascinating neighbourhood has to offer.
The falafel store we are standing in front of is located in Deira one of three oldest neighbourhoods in Dubai. It’s an area with plenty of nostalgia with cheap, cheerful and delicious eateries served with a close sense of community. Here you can find Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian, Lebanese, Palestinian, Filipino and Emirati food.
Nahla's next question is about the felafel itself. Who invented it is a politically charged question as many countries stake claim to the falafel. The best thing to do is answer whoever is asking.
We watch as they shape stuffed falafel. The coriander and parsley rich chickpea mix fills a mold above half way. The centre is spread with an onion, chilli and sumac mix and then more chickpea mix is dabbed on top and then the mold is dipped in sesame seeds.
We then take a seat outside while they cook this and make our own falafel sandwich, wedging it with pickled turnips and carrots naturally coloured with beetroot juice. We add "Shatta" or red chilli paste, tahini as well as "Tatbella" a green sauce made with green pepper chillies, lemon and garlic.
Our second stop is a few doors away and it's for Knafeh. There are a few different styles of knafeh eg Egyptian style and Naameh meaning smooth crust or a crumbled crust. There is also a brightly coloured orange topped one called Khishne. Nahla explains that people have an emotional connection with knafeh as it often appears at celebrations and after Ramadan, stores can make hundreds of knafeh.
We watch them as they mix ghee and sugar syrup and then top it with kataifi. After that they scatter crumbled cheese and it cooks over a coiled element with small open flames. They cut us off a piece and it's a wonderful combination of stretchy mozzarella type cheese and sweet syrup and crunchy pastry. Freshly cooked is also the absolute best way to eat knafeh.
Our third stop is at a Lebanese sweets store for a second dessert stop. Nahla pours some Gahwa coffee which is served with mamoul cookies that are a middle eastern version of a shortbread or butter cookie filled with walnut pistachio and dates.
These are typically served after Ramadan during Eid and Easter. We take a cup with our right hand and sip the lightly roasted Ethiopian Gahwa coffee and follow it with a bite of mahmoul medh and cashew bokha baklava which is a Lebanese style baklava that is less syrupy.
Accepting coffee with right hand
She also gives us a taste of a whipped meringue type cream which is made with sugar syrup and a secret ingredient - edible soap from a sweet root. And although we are full, we can't resist all the food offered. "You can not negotiate with someone from the Middle East. You’re just going to have to accept it, " laughs Nahla.
Our fourth stop is at a place nearby for Egyptian pizza. We watch them demonstrate the art of Feeter making. They take a ball of dough and stretch and flip it much like making a roti. It is stretched thin and the edges trimmed away.
They then fill it with mozzarella and an Egyptian cheese called rumi or roomy and slices of basturma or dried beef. It's absolutely delicious, like a cousin of a gozleme and pizza with a crispy thin layer filled with gooey cheese and basturma.
The fifth stop of the day is for a sit down lunch at an Emirati restaurant. It is a cuisine that arose because of a need to be resourceful and the produce available. When meat is eaten they use the whole animal and in tribes they serve up testicles and eyeballs. Vegetables are preserved and pickled. The trade route opened it up to more products like basmati rice - in Arabic the word for rice also means life. In Emirati cuisine they use a spice mix called "bzar" that is similar to garam masala.
We wash our hands and take a seat on the floor. Today we are eating with our hands. They bring out raw vegetables that are used as a garnish. Bowls of Shorbat adas are passed around - this lentil soup is said to be the prophet Muhammed's favourite. It's a tasty bowl of comfort food that comes to life with a generous squeeze of lemon. We dip the cucumber baton in the chilli sauce, the cucumber designed to counter the heat of the Daquos tomato salsa.
The main arrives and it is "madfoun" aka pressure cooked goat on top of three types of rice. The 3 types of rice are a pressure cooked rice, Cabsa or turmeric rice and bukhari or tomato rice. And although it is called mutton, they actually mean goat, rather than a sheep. The meat is divinely soft and moreish.
To eat with your hands use the tips of your fingers to combine the yogurt to make it sticky and use your thumb to push the food into your mouth.
Our last stop (we're having a slightly condensed version of the tour due to time constraints) is a sweets shop with a swoon worthy display of dried fruit and nuts including enormous golden raisins. There is also a saffron vault which gives us a clue as to what we are eating.
We are tasting one of the world's oldest desserts: falooda topped with saffron ice cream. we are offered lemon juice, rose water and rose syrup to add on top of our ice cream. Nahla then bids us goodbye after giving us a certificate and a little bag with a camel milk chocolate, and a rose petal covered square of Turkish delight.
"We have a saying in Dubai, an open door is an open mind." The woman speaking to us is Fateya, a 25 year old applied biotechnology graduate. She’s one of the women who hosts cultural breakfasts at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, a non profit organisation that was founded in 1998 to promote understanding of Emirati culture.
Guests can sit down and break bread and indulge in a delightful and delicious breakfast or lunch and asks any questions they want. Fateya is eager to dispel any myths that have been put out in the media.
But first coffee. We are given small coffee cups and the coffee is scented with cardamom. The tiny coffee cups are never filled to the top with a good host. Doing so means that the host is lazy and doesn't want the guest to stay. Alongside the scented, unsweetened coffee they serve syrupy Halas Arabic dates. To ask for more coffee you simply hold it out with your right hand. If you've had enough you shake the cup.
Fateya answers questions like where to buy dates from - you're best to head to a Dubai souk for find good dates. Dates differ in size, seed shape and percentage of sugar. She advises tp always buy dates with seeds as they last longer. She tells us that according to the prophet Muhammed you should eat dates as an odd number for energy and carbohydrates but if you eat them in even number you get pure sugar. "I've studied it, it's true," she says nodding.
They start to uncover the food that sits in the middle of the room. We are surrounding the food sitting on cushions. There's sweet vermicelli balaleet, chickpea stew, a wonderful shakshuka, khameer bread, halved chebab yellow saffron pancakes as well as pots of cream cheese (with the texture of sour cream) and date syrup made from compressed dates. And lastly at the end are Luqaimat or saffron donuts that take four hours to prepare. Fateya tells us that even if we can't eat it all, we can take it away using a “Camel bag” aka their version of a doggie bag.
She tells us that breakfasts like these aren’t common during the weekday. For most people that work, breakfast consists of sandwich or cereal. A typical work day goes from around 8am-7pm and Fridays are like Sundays in western society, a time for rest.
Emirati families are large. Fateya’s direct family numbers up to 68. Then the first question comes about the traditional dress and why women wear black abayas which absorbs the heat while men wear white thawbs. For Fateya she doesn't feel that wearing an abaya is hotter than wearing a bikini. The beach also has a ladies day Monday and Wednesday where no men are allowed.
Traditional dress before the abaya
She also tells us that there is nothing in the Quran that says to wear black but back then black was cheapest fabric. The economy suffered a collapse when cultured pearls came onto the market and the black abaya was used to economise as it was a cheaper material that they could drape over the colourful, traditional dress to protect it.
From left to right: spicy chickpea stew, Balaleet and Shakshuka
And what do women wear underneath their abaya? "Sometimes I wear my pyjamas underneath and no one can tell. I do this many times by the way," she adds. "We love wearing this because it shows our culture. We are a minority at 10%. Our culture would be fading away," explains Fateya. But when she is overseas, she blends in by wearing modest Western style clothing.
For men the colour of their attire is usually white but they sometimes dye them with coffee tree cardamom to dye it a sand colour. Men must be covered from above the navel til past the knees for men. Underneath they are wearing a sarong or pants and a t-shirt or vest to absorb any sweat.
The sarong underneath the thawb that men wear
On their heads they wear Bedouin head gear secured by an Agal which is a cord that was also used to secure your camel's legs in the desert. For Fateya she prefers wearing black as the material can be more sheer while the white material needs to be thicker.
And what do they think of Western culture? Fateya says, "We learn from other that’s why god created us. we want to learn" and she encourages anyone visiting during Ramadan during Iftar (when they break the fast every day at sunset) to knock on the door of an Emirati family. “We would love it” she says as they are eager to correct any misunderstandings put out by the media.
The subject turns to dating and how flirting works. Fateya explains that if she sees Arab men she doesn’t smile but she will for western men and at the older generation. But generally when walking down a street she will ignore everyone and wear a serious expression. She has found that men that are encouraged by a smile, "They just want to play around and waste my time. If a guy is serious about a girl he should go through the door and not the window." This means that he needs to go though her parents although they cannot be forced to marry anyone.
In fact there are two different types of engagements. You can be engaged while you are getting to know someone and you have to be engaged to date someone. But the second type of engagement involves rings and intended marriage once you have gotten to know them. Divorce is also possible but women have to legally wait 3 months or 3 menstrual cycles to ensure that they are not pregnant from the man they are divorcing.
And then the subject of multiple wives comes up. "Any Muslim man can up to four wives. But he will end up in a mental hospital. It’s not as easy as it seems," says Fateya. All wives must be treated equal and fair. In some circumstances, men marry the wives of brothers that have passed away. Some wives aren’t able to have children so he takes on another wife who can. Some women don't want to have to deal with a husband every day of the week and they prefer having some time to themselves. The wives and families do not live in the same house and he makes visits to each household staying a maximum of four nights.
So tell me Dear Reader, have you tried any of the food in this post and if so, what is your favourite? Would you enjoy the idea of the breakfast with an Emirati? What questions would you ask?
NQN travelled as a guest of Dubai Tourism but all opinions remain her own.
Frying Pan Adventures
67 22b St - Dubai - United Arab Emirates
Phone: +971 56 471 8244
SMCCU Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding