Arva Ahmed is passionate about Old Dubai, its people, their stories, traditions and food. We went with her on an authentic Dubai food tour of discovery to the heart of Old Dubai on a Frying Pan Adventure – A Food Lover’s Early Morning March.
We visited markets and souks, we crossed the creek and ambled through alleyways and back-streets on this food lover’s tour. We met traders, store-keepers and local people who shared with us their stories, their passions and spoke to us the ‘language of food‘. We felt the heartbeat of the city and discovered its true spirit in the corners and crevices of Old Dubai .
Many people believe that Dubai is a new city, less than fifty years old, and I can see why with its gleaming sky-scrapers, smart shopping malls and design hotels. But Dubai began life as a trading port and at its heart beats a pulse that is almost 200 years old. At that time many different cultures used the port and the area developed into a centre for trade, pearls, shipping and fishing. The port and fishing trade was the beginning of Dubai so it was apt that we started the tour at Deira Fish Market.
Deira Fish Market
When we arrived the place was busy with men preparing the fish, chatting, bartering and selling. Stall-holders called out to us holding up prize specimens, laughing and joking. The people there were friendly, smiling and keen to pose for photographs.
Further into the market stall-holders were auctioning and negotiating with customers and outside smaller auctions took place selling catches from individual fishermen. Arva explained that in the UAE the fish population has declined by 80% in the last 30 years, especially the Grouper, so the buying of sustainable species such as Pink Ear Emporer and 2-Bar Seabream is encouraged.
We move from the lively fish market, through to the fresh meat section where huge carcasses hang from large hooks and uniform rows of animal feet line the counters. This area is not for the squeamish and more than once I catch the gaze of glassy-eyed camel’s head or the fixed grin of a departed sheep. Camel meat is a national speciality which I sampled at The Beach Canteen in the form of a camel burger – very tender and tasty.
Our next stop is the fruit and vegetable market where the stalls are piled high with colourful produce. We stop at a coconut stall. The coconuts are deftly topped by a machete wielding stall-holder and passed around – the coconut water is cool and refreshing.
We are plied with dates at the next stall and they’re moist, dark and sweet. There are pyramids of dried apricots, almonds and jars of clear, golden honey but we can’t linger as it’s time to leave for the next part of our journey and to do that we need to cross the Creek.
Crossing Dubai Creek
The best way to cross Dubai Creek is by a simple Abra ride which costs just 1 Dirham (around 18p) from Bur Dubai on the left bank to Deira on the right or back again. The Creek is lined with traditional Arabian and East African dhows with forget-me-not blue paint-work reflecting the colour of the Emirati sky; I could almost feel the centuries of trading tradition as we chugged along, watching the seagulls swoop and Abras crisscrossing the creek. Things haven’t changed much over the years on this stretch of Dubai water but things will soon be different when the dhows move to a new wharf further up the Creek.
We alight at Bur Dubai by the colourful Textile Souk passing swathes of vibrant fabrics, colourful cushions, carpets and shoes. We hang a left and turn up an alleyway and suddenly we’re in India – Hindi Lane. The smell of Jasmine and calls of Namaste hang in the air; vivid marigold garlands and sunshine flowers hang from kiosks and shops shine with magenta and gold cloth ready for sari-making. We pass a Hindi Temple turn a corner and suddenly we’re back in Old Dubai heading back to the creek for breakfast.
Under a shady awning with a fabulous view of the creek I tucked into my breakfast of Regag Emirati Scramble at Creekside Cafe. Buttery scrambled egg wrapped in a thin roll of pancake and garnished with tarragon butter and slices of black truffle is topped off with a paper-thin shard of Regag bread. This isn’t any ordinary creek side café and the fabulous Emirati fusion food is testament to that. Before we leave chef has a surprise for us and a plate of seductive red velvet leqaimats appear. Little cushions of red velvety dumpling deliciousness drizzled with a sticky syrup are just what’s needed to sustain us on the next leg of our journey.
The Spice Souk
We take an Abra back over the creek and I’m pleased to have a second chance to do this – there’s something about chugging along on one of the water taxis that instils a sense of time and place in Old Dubai. We alight on the Deira side of the creek and cross the road to the spice souk. The sun is burning high in the sky now and wooden slats filter the heat and create mysterious shadows across the alleyways. The unmistakable smell of Frankincense hangs in the air and we pass a myriad of stalls displaying capacious tubs of tiny dried rosebuds, teas, balls of blue indigo, twisted yellow roots of turmeric and all manner of herbs and spices. We learn from Arva, who seems to be the fount of all knowledge – culinary and medicinal. Rosemary for dizziness, olive leaves – good for the heart and Harmal (wild pergamom), when burned, it is supposed to help troubled lovers sleep. The spice souk is fragrant, colourful and fascinating.
I buy some Saffron and learn about the different grades – darkest is the best quality. Don’t be fooled by fake saffron. The real thing should have a splayed end and stay dark when dropped in water – dyed cotton is sometimes passed off as saffron which will lose all colour when dunked.
The History of Coffee
Dubai’s Coffee Museum is in Hal Fahidi one of the city’s heritage hubs in Bur Dubai and a quick drive takes us to this cosy museum where I learn more about coffee and its history than ever before. It’s the hottest time of day by now so it’s good to be in the cool and as I enter a waft of fresh coffee greets me.
We explore the coffee ephemera before tasting a small cup of the smoothest, mellowest, Tukish coffee brewed by Abdul Hamid an Egyptian barista. The coffee is brewed on a contraption taken from a 300 year old design. I don’t know if I’d want one of these in my kitchen but wow did the coffee taste good!
Our final stop of the day is for lunch at one of Arva’s favourite eateries. This Iranian kabab house opened in 1987 in a middle-class neighbourhood about a 25 minute drive from the Creek. We sit outside under an awning and are first served Doogh which is cow’s milk with mint and salt – it cuts through my thirst but I don’t think I’d drink it again – a bit too salty for me. On the other hand I loved the fresh mint lemonade made with lemons, mint, sugar, water and ice – thirst-quenchingly delicious. Kababs – are served fresh from the grill; lamb Koobidah which means twice-minced were delicious and tender, the tikka (small bites) were succulent too but my favourite was the lemon-infused lamb kabab. This was all paired with plates of rice, hummus, warm flat bread and a squeeze of fresh lime. This has got to be one of Dubai’s best street food stops.
At the end of the meal we are served a taste of fresh Omani halwa from the shop next door. It’s a gloopy dessert made from caremalised sugar, clarified butter, saffron, rosewater, cardamon and nuts – not a dish for the calorie conscious. Sadly, I can’t tell you where to find this kabab house, I’ve been sworn to secrecy, but if you book A Frying Pan Adventure you’ll get to find out for yourself…
The souks and areas around Dubai Creek are a warren of alleyways and passages and it can be easy to lose your way but, as Arva says, ‘when you get lost it’s the best thing you can do in life because when you get lost you discover’. I got lost in the souks, lost in Arva’s wonderful anecdotes and explanations. I got lost in the aromas, the flavours and the culture and I discovered the wonderful heritage of Old Dubai, its people, its traditions and its food.
Arva and her sister Farida run other deliciously curated tours so check out Frying Pan Adventures if you’re heading out to Dubai for an exceptional tour into Dubai’s food and heritage.
The photograph of me enjoying coconut water was taken by Kathryn Burrington of Travel with Kat.