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A Dubai food tour and taste of old Dubai

Chicken-lamb-kebabs-dubai-food

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. This is just one of Arva’s Dubai food tours. She also runs the  popular walking Middle Eastern Food Tour.

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 .

Abras-Dubai-Creek

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 our Dubai food tours at Deira Fish Market.


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Deira Fish Market

Our Dubai food tour started early and when we arrived at Deira Fish Market 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.

Black-Spotted-rubber-lips-fish

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. Pyramids of dried apricots stand next to piles of almonds and jars of clear, golden honey. Much as we’d like we can’t linger because it’s time to leave for the next part of our Dubai food tour and to do that we need to cross the Creek.

dates-dubai-market

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 criss-crossing 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.

dhows-dubai-creek

Hindi Lane, Dubai

We alight at Bur Dubai by the colourful Textile Souk passing swathes of vibrant fabrics, colourful cushions, carpets and shoes.  After hanging a left we turn up an alleyway and suddenly our Dubai food tour has arrived 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 the making of vibrant saris. We pass a Hindi Temple, turn a corner and suddenly we’re back in Old Dubai heading back to the creek for breakfast.

marigold-garland

Garlands of Marigolds

Creekside Cafe

Under a shady awning with a fabulous view of the creek I tuck into a 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 Dubai food tour.

The Spice Souk

We take an Abra back over the creek and I’m happy to have a second chance to do this. There’s something about chugging gently along 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, both 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.

spice-souk-dubai

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.

checking-saffron

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!

Kabab Lunch

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 shaded from the sun 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, it’s a bit too salty for me. On the other hand, I loved the fresh mint lemonade made with lemons, mint, sugar, water and ice which was 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. The dishes were paired with plates of rice, hummus, warm flat breads and a squeeze of fresh lime. This has got to be one of the city’s best street food stops and it was a wonderful way to end our Dubai food tour.

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 that day. Lost in the souks and 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.

The Best Dubai Food Tours

Arva and her sister Farida run other deliciously curated food tours in Dubai so check out Frying Pan Adventures if you’re heading out to the Emirate for an exceptional tour into Dubai’s food and heritage.

Disclosure: Many thanks to Dubai Tourism and The Ritz-Carlton Dubai who kindly hosted my visit to Dubai. The opinions above and love of good food, are as always, entirely my own.

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Dubai Creek with basket of ish and kebabs

Sally - My Custard Pie

Tuesday 3rd of May 2016

Arva is a friend - and I can attest that she IS indeed the fount of all knowledge. I have lost count of the number of her tours I have been on now. Even for someone living in Dubai, I always discover so much about the food and the place that I've called home for 16 + years. Always good to see your place through another's eyes too - really enjoyed reading.

Suzanne Jones

Wednesday 4th of May 2016

Thanks Sally. Arva is a star and the tour we did was a highlight of our visit to Dubai - in fact of any food tours I've taken around the world...

April on The Travelbunny | The Travelbunny

Thursday 13th of August 2015

[…] continued my Dubai articles with a post about our Frying Pan Adventure, followed by a guide to discovering the city in five different ways; Nature, Gastronomy, Shopping, […]

Five Sides of Dubai | The Travelbunny

Wednesday 12th of August 2015

[…] food stalls in the city – this tour justified a whole post to itself which you can find here.  You’ll amble through alleyways and back-streets and find a piece of India in Hindi Lane. Meet […]

Shikha (whywasteannualleave)

Tuesday 14th of April 2015

WOW - this all sounds SO delicious and so different to the impression I have always had of Dubai (never been there) of all the skyscrapers and malls! They look like the best scrambled eggs in the world and honestly, I could demolish that pile of dates! I knew there was a big population of people from the Indian sub-continent in the UAE so not surprised there is a whole Hindi lane - the bright flower garlands remind me of my wedding day :) Love this post, really given me an insight into the foodie side of Dubai!

Suzanne Jones

Tuesday 14th of April 2015

So glad you enjoyed the post Shikha - it was my first visit to Dubai and the food scene is incredible there. So much choice and so good too :)

Catherine Sweeney

Thursday 9th of April 2015

What a fab look at Old Dubai. I don't see much of this side of the city in posts I read. You captured a lovely diversity of the amazing food available there. At the moment, I'd like to be at Creekside Cafe.

Suzanne Jones

Friday 10th of April 2015

It was wonderful to discover the Old Dubai and Creekside Cafe was the perfect place for breakfast to watch life go by on the Creek.