Food blogger doodles
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The food pilgrimages that make Dubai my own city.

I’m sorry. I can’t write you a restaurant review today. For the past 10 days, my thoughts have been muddled between Dubai, New York, and Beirut. Too muddled and too sentimental to pen out a staid restaurant review. Instead, here’s my murky stream of consciousness. I warn you, it’s long. And there’s nothing yummy at the end, except a feeling of self-assurance that there is, at some personal level, a way to belong in Dubai.

The cause for my mental muddle is a book I've recently started reading, Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut, a memoir penned by the American-born, Lebanese-blooded Salma Abdelnour whose family fled Beirut during the civil war and settled in Houston. Despite successfully establishing herself as a food and travel writer years later in New York, questions about where she belongs—New York vs. Beirut—linger in her mind. Her voice weaves through questions of global citizenship, personal relationships, the Middle East political crisis, Lebanese society, and my favourite bits that I’ve highlighted for posterity, authentic Lebanese food served within the context of social experiences, sight-seeing trips, emotional recharge sessions. Chapter after chapter, I’m shocked that the inner voice in my head has leaped out and scrawled itself across the pages of the book. But the words are Salma’s. The experiences are hers. And questions that I had discreetly locked up in a corner after I gave up New York for Dubai—the former being a place where I started a high-powered consultant’s life, the latter where I spent my childhood, neither of which I can claim as my ‘ancestral home’—those questions have now come crawling back unanswered, those questions are hers too.

The only difference is, unlike Salma who is Lebanese, I’m not even ‘originally’ from Dubai. I'm one of You, one of those for whom the city is a transit point in life, or a city where some of us have spent our entire childhoods, even born in, but where we will never be citizens, or the city where we could have lived for a few years, or for thirty years, but when I retire, I will go back to my home country. The question of figuring out where I belong, or how to belong in such a transient city, even if it's a not a lifelong choice, but a choice that impacts multiple years and relationships of my life, that question becomes doubly important. And heavens, I don't want to wait till I'm old and crackly before I can return "home" and feel that evasive sense of belonging to a city.

And if I did belong in Dubai, what would I be? A Dubain. or a Dubaiite. or maybe, a Dubaiati. See? This is what I mean. It concerns me that there's no such common word even when you've figured out how to belong.

My internal muddles and taxonomical struggles aside, what struck me most was how Salma wears her way into the fabric of a city.  Walking, and Food. The two elements that made me a summer citizen of Philadelphia back in 2006, that still pinch me with an inexplicable pang of bittersweet longing when I think back to my years in New York, that make me reminisce fondly about San Francisco even though I spent a grand total of 25 hours in the city, that leave me wistful about a trip to Seattle in 2010 to roam the cafes and farmers markets with a childhood friend, that ensured that I never felt at home in Houston—a place with a decent food scene, but non-existent walking culture.  With my feet, I’m already starting to feel like I own the city again, at least in some small way. I’m memorizing it physically, learning the routes. Route/routine….I need routines to feel at home. More and more they’re taking shape, my routines, my routes. (Salma Abdelnour)


Dubai food tour in progress at Meena bazaar, caught through the thought-provoking lens of Sheban Naim Photography

Very few people use walking as a daily mode of transport in Dubai. It’s ironic. We’re a city of sloths, especially during the summer. Slink around in malls. Cling lazily to the escalators. Waddle our way from our airconditioned offices to airconditioned malls. Faced with a short flight of stairs, seek refuge in the elevator to go up one floor in the gym. In my years of living in Dubai, I've only been known to slither across the street for my shawarma fix a handful of times. Why bother, when the shawarma guy can deliver? The only time we transform ourselves from sloths to swift-footed cheetahs is in our cars. Suddenly time becomes of the essence when we can delegate speed to the wheel.

But in all fairness, the city hasn’t been built for pedestrians, and the sun will toast you to a crisp should you venture out in the summer. Even if the weather was good, walking through the city just doesn’t have the same charm as it does in ancient cities of the world, where every turn and every corner is its own interesting microcosm of life, culture and sights. We don't have food carts selling fruit and sauced-up ethnic eats and puff pastries spilling out onto the street, and we don't have the sort of animated street life that can be your friend as you roam solo through the city. Dear New York, I miss walking down your 1st avenue on Saturday mornings, from my apartment to the Union Square farmer's market, waving at the sweet Nepali ladies painting nails at my neighbourhood manicure parlour, eyeing the coffee cakes at the local deli, having my face pricked with ice-tipped air, watching mommies pushing their prams in the direction of the park, all the while munching a toasty bagel, scooped out and slathered with scallion cream cheese, washed down intermittently with a cup of warm coffee from Ess-A-Bagel. (Me.)

Walking through New York, or a place like Puerto Rico back in 2008, felt as easy and natural as gliding through butter. But walking through Dubai, that can feel as stilted as plunging a spineless plastic spoon into rock-hard ice cream. If you’re into the sort of long-distance, two to three hour walks that Salma winds through in her books, the kinds of long walks that would be a Godsend for the chronic diabetes and obesity problem in this city—for those kinds of walks, you need to plan. And even if you did plan them, they might be fun, yes. But magical? That’s hard. Not impossible, but hard. There are pockets of Old Dubai that still have a charming, even lyrical, quality to them in my mind. Rigga, Muteena, Souk Al Kabeer, Gold Souq, Naif, Meena Bazaar, Hor Al Anz. Those areas are not everyone’s hat of magic, that’s for sure. I once took a friend into Naif, and she commented: this is just like any other crammed part of Dubai. It broke my heart. Not just because she had shattered my one hope of finding a place that felt more authentic than much of glass-sheathed Dubai, but because her words did contain a miniscule element of truth. Few places in Dubai have the same pedestrian appeal that Little Italy or Chinatown or Soho would have in New York. Which brings me to the bigger question, why on EARTH don’t we have a Chinatown in Dubai? No, Dragonmart doesn’t count.

The lively streets of Deira, which dull the longing for New York on many a wistful night. And which amplify the longing on many others.

While plotting my own personal walking routes through the city may be a multi-year conquest, I will give Dubai credit for its incredible, easily accessible range of food options. For an arid stretch in the desert, the city has outdone itself. And for all the negativity around crappy service and lack of originality and exorbitant restaurant prices and hyped brands—negativity that I’ve been known to harbour quite vocally in the past—I will admit that I’ve figured out an edible niche of Dubai that keeps me vested in the city. Writing—and more importantly, exploring and experiencing cultural gems in the city under the pretext of this blog has made me feel grounded in Dubai in a way that no job or outrageous shopping spree has yet made me feel. For every quaint bubble tea house serving up exotic flavoured tapioca-bobbing beverages in New York, I’d reckon there would be a little Indian joint in this city pouring out lassis so creamy that they may as well have been churned all the way to becoming thick butter.

The creamiest, dreamiest lassi in the most unassuming little kabab restaurant in Sharjah, Al Afadil. One more minute of churning, and it would've become butter.

As I’ve crawled deeper and deeper into the hidden foodie jungle of Old Dubai, asking, unearthing, discovering, learning, not just about the food, but about parts of the city that I hadn’t even visited as a child, I’ve gradually started loosening a few of the strings that kept me knitted to New York. I  loved the search, the ramble, the mission fulfilled. (S. Abdelnour) Maybe that’s one of many reasons I have my heart set on making Frying Pan Food Adventures come to life. Even if all the upfront legal paperwork and financial investment is huffing and puffing on my eagerness like a big grumpy dragon, I want to bring to Dubai those edible explorations that have helped me feel integrated into the heart of the city. The thought process in honing down to a specific food, say Qatayef—Arabic pancakes folded over with akkawi cheese and nuts, deep-fried and drizzled with sugary ater—figuring out where in Dubai I can get a tray of these Ramadan desserts, then hunting them out, often getting lost multiple times until I’m hallucinating with hunger, that really makes me feel connected to the city. Food pilgrimages, to me, aren’t only about the food, or the trip. It’s not just that I love to eat and to wander around. Even a relatively short, taxi-assisted trek to Sahyoun, and a winding stroll back, after having found the thing I was looking for—no matter whether I enjoyed the food itself or not—makes me feel recharged. Meandering through the city, taking in the sights and sounds, and reflecting on my day or my life or whatever other subject floats through, clears my head, It’s a mobile meditation, with an edible reward at the end. (S. Abdelnour)

Baby crescents of Qatayef pancakes, stuffed with akkawi cheese and nuts, and served up as a well-loved Arabian dessert during Ramadan.

I’ve never visited Beirut. But Salma’s writing has had me craving manoushe and labneh and eggplant fattet in a way that has drastically increased my spend with my neighbourhood Lebanese eateries on Al Rigga. I’ll make it to Lebanon someday, retracing some of Salma’s trails through the city, but till then, Dubai does a decent job of giving a cursory Lebanese culinary education to the uninitiated. Most of the dishes mentioned in the book were ones that I’d tried, or at least heard of before. And that’s a huge credit to the variety of food—Lebanese, and abraloads of other cultures—available here. I’ve had arepas, banh mi, catfish tacos, burrata, paella, dosas, fesenjan, iskender kabab, and a feast of other dishes without stepping foot outside New York. Dubai has the potential to do that for me too. I worked my way through crisp layers of Saudi mutabak yesterday, wishing that the chef had not scrimped on the halloumi stuffing and that, might he have considered pouring some melted butter over the dry phyllo-like batter? Tomorrow morning, I’ll be experimenting with Yemeni Egg Malawach, a wrap plied with eggs, zaatar and a spicy tomato sauce that I hope will taste as promising as it sounds. In the evening, I’ll be sitting around with family at a classic neighbourhood restaurant, pulling apart chunks of Iranian kabab koobideh and sipping on mint tea through sugar cubes balanced on my tongue. And in another two days, I’ll be forking up some interesting breakfast dishes that hail from Turkey. And somewhere in the empty eating spaces in between, I’ll find ways to sneak in hummus or daal or shakshouka, or maybe all of the above. That knowledge, which repeats itself in different flavours practically every week of my life now in Dubai, has reconciled me with the city in a way that I’d never have thought possible in the pit of my ‘why the crap did I leave NYC’ longing. The food explorations leave me exhilarated to continue hunting, discovering, and making parts of this city mine in a way that Salma made Beirut hers.

Crackly crepe-like Mutabak at the Saudi-origined Masoub and Mutabak in Jumeirah. The insides were smeared with a thin (sadly, almost non-existent in this case) layer of halloumi cheese. I'll opt for a different filling the next time around.

 

Al Afadil Restaurant (lassi)
In the lane behind Kitcherama (near Al Khan Roundabout), off of Al Wahda Street, Sharjah

Qwaider Al Nablusi (qatayef, only served in Ramadan)
Muraggabat Street, Deira, Dubai
Phone: +971 (4) 227-7760

Mutabak O Masoub (mutabak)
Under the Tehran Restaurant, Um Suqueim 2, Dubai
Phone: +971 (4) 328-2444





19 Comments

  1. Neelu

    So beautifully written Arva..

    When we are on vacation we love walking around .. You get to see and learn a lot about a city/town/village by walking.. But then the weather does play a huge part. One of the main reasons my husband chooses only European countries for vacation is because it’s hard to walk throughout the day in summer heat. That said, during winters, we walk from Riqqa to Nasr Square all the way and back.. Nothing beats walking!

    • inafryingpan

      @13241eff07d52a6fac372019030b434d:disqus – thanks for the comment. I’m completely with you, it’s not just hard, but medically dangerous to walk around during the day, during Dubai summers. But I must try the walk from Rigga to Nasr Square soon – so many good eats along that path!

  2. Holly Warah

    Thanks for telling us about Jasmine & Fire. I enjoyed this post, Arva, getting to know you, your experiences & identity issues. Fab cartoon BTW. :-)

    • inafryingpan

      @google-55e11dd3911b100c4276886a0023288d:disqus – glad you enjoyed the post and doodle, thank you! :)

  3. Jasmine and Fire on my reading list. Another book you may be interested in would be “Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love and War” by Anna Ciezaldo. I also am reading “The Woman Who Fell From the Sky” a book about Yemen. Highlighting useful tidbits of food trivia for yah :)

    • inafryingpan

      @didipaterno:disqus – yes, I must get my hands on both books, great recommendations. Though for now, I think I might switch things up with something lighter…like this book I’m reading on street food… ;)

  4. Sally Prosser

    I will join you on that foodie walking tour of Beirut. You raise many topics in a very considered, intelligent and entertaining way here. On the ’where do I belong?’ question – one that has an impact on many expats – I am navigating my daughter’s realisation that she doesn’t feel she belongs anywhere. She was born in Jeddah (a Jeddarian as my elder daughter says) which she can’t even remember, is opposed to ideologically (public beheadings Mum – surely that was only in Medieval times?) and couldn’t be resident even if she desired it. Britain? She’s never lived there. Dubai – her home, but like you, not her home.
    Your writing just gets better and better.

    • inafryingpan

      @google-e765094276c1ae4f8a701898fc8a87f4:disqus – wow, I’m glad you could connect to the post on such a personal level. You must ask your daughter to read the book – though it may create more mental confusion than clarity at points. The moral of the story for me – which I don’t believe is the one the author necessarily intended at all, and in fact may be the complete opposite of what she did intend – is that in a world where many of us are ’residents of everywhere, countrymen of nowhere,’ you need to figure out how to reconcile yourself with the place you’re in, here and now. Not just reconciling, but in Salma’s words, ’owning’ the city. And I feel like there are ways to figure out how to own a city to some extent, as long as it has the basic traits you seek out in a place you’re going to make your home (not defined by geographical boundaries, but
      for instance in my case, by factors like climate, walking, food, street-life, fast-paced city-life, etc.). If it doesn’t even those basic factors that are important to your lifestyle, then ’belonging’ and ’home’ become evasive concepts.

      What I also think is important to figure out, and what the author realizes towards the end is that you can ’belong’ to multiple places – and that’s okay. In fact, I would say that it’s almost necessary to be comfortable with that notion, because our lives and workplaces are far too fluid – transient – to root our sense of belonging to only one place in the world.

    • Sally Prosser

      Perhaps it’s something all expats should read.

  5. IshitaUnblogged

    I am re-reading your post… the last time I couldn’t leave any comment. What a brilliant journey through a A
    Dubain or a Dubaiite a Dubaiati’s life. The turmoil is exactly what I
    feel inside and it is the same confusion that is there in Big Z’s mind -
    most of her relatives are Indians, her first cousins are Americans (my
    Sis-in-law now is an American citizen) but what is she? An Indian
    Dubain/Dubaiite? It is so true that Dubai is considered a transient
    port. It is like a train station where everyone is waiting to catch
    their next train – no thoughts of trashing the biscuit packets and
    cleaning up the platform while waiting for the train. After all Dubai is
    not the destination, but a place from where we can hop onto our
    destination.

    One year, two years… a decade has passed. I consider Dubai pretty much
    my home, I don’t know whether the reverse is true – that is whether
    Dubai too consider me as it’s loyal and humble resident!

    And yes, walking does make you feel that you know the city. Everywhere
    else it is true. I feel the same with Meenabazar – coz I have really
    walked through each alley and lane there – sometimes accompanying my
    guests to the jewellery stores or to go to the creek side to feed the
    sea gulls and the fish or around the Bastakiya and the museum.

    Sizzler, you are such an awesome writer. And you sometimes write what I feel but can never pen down!

    Sharing:)

    • inafryingpan

      @ishitaunblogged:disqus – Love the train analogy, really do. But I do like to think that Dubai IS destination for me now – life is too short, and sometimes, we end up spending our entire lives planning a journey to another destination, and not living at the ’transit point’ in the present.

      After reading your post about things to do in Dubai, you are truly a ’loyal and humble’ Dubai resident – more so than many of us. Wishing that I would venture out to do even 20% of all the things you do with your guests!! :)

  6. StuffYourFace.net

    wow! uv pretty much captured and articulated (beautifully) what every expat has thought about at some point or another. and usually we pass it off, citing cliches…. “Home is where the Heart is!” Im sure we’ve all heard that one before.

    But what sort of home is it where you have 30 days to pack your bags and leave, if you find yourself out of a job? Someone i know – her husband passed away with sudden heart failure. she barely had any time to grieve as she had to figure out a way to move her (and her daughter’s) life of 15 years in dubai, back to some place in india which she could barely recognize or call home.

    I guess when the going is good, none of this matters, but when you are down on your luck, and when you really need a sense of belonging, thats exactly when our beloved city betrays. Perhaps its better to know at the back of your mind, that Dubai is not home, you might be born here, have spent most of your life here, but it will never be home. But perhaps….. this might be easier said than done!

    • inafryingpan

      @e179160cd861176321da16c21f45cfe1:disqus –
      I’m so sorry to hear about your acquaintance, that does seem like the rotten end of what can happen after you’ve spent years making Dubai your home. You make very valid points, and I do think that a tempered view of Dubai as home is more realistic. You’ve always got to be ready for change, and especially nasty change – regardless of which city of the world you’re in. Even our beloved cities back in our ’real homes’ have betrayed many a people, pulling their land or making it impossible to do business or pulling their rights right out from under their feet – which can feel like a tighter slap in your face because they tout the slogan of democracy. You’re right, it is disheartening to think of the bad times and even more so to make a city you’re living in ’not your home.’

      But I think even more important than the concept of home in a world where we’re constantly shifting, is the notion of how do I make parts of a city ’my own,’ so I can fully live it in the present. What parts of city can help you feel some sort of connection, even if you have to give up that connection and leave for some place, and form a connection all over again. Sad, but face-slappingly realistic.

  7. Dad

    Well written. You’ve described the feeling of being lost and not knowing where you belong well. I know and feel that I belong to Hyderabad and some day I will go back – but Dubai has given me a lot and while I am here, I will enjoy it. I need to explore the real Dubai through your writings or exploring places with you.

    • inafryingpan

      @9a1d510f1be63443c618f7d241d72ab2:disqus – Yep, I think you’re fortunate in that you’ve grown up in your ’homecity’ and have a clear sense of your roots, and how to appreciate Dubai as a temporary stopping point in life. Many of us are 2nd or 3rd generation residents in the city, and don’t have that home to even go back to – I have always experienced ’home in India’ more vicariously than physically, through you and mom.

      On a happier note, just say the word dad, and I will take you out exploring!! :)

  8. I left a long, carefully crafted and detailed comment and it disappeared into cyberspace. Ba humbug!

    Can’t do it twice but safe to say that this essay was well-written and since Dubai is a young city, there is a lot more room to grow. Restraints like weather and licensing are huge factors affecting how commerce is done and that includes places for eating and the way we go about finding/visiting them. There is a place for upscale restaurants (that provide work to thousands of us in the hospitality industry) as well as those quaint joints that are full of character and ethnic street eats.

    Unfortunately, many people never venture into the unknown and would rather scout long and hard for a Burger King or Starbucks than grace their mouths with local fare. Hopefully this will change over time and the multi-cultural nature of the city will be celebrated with gusto.

    • inafryingpan

      @ChefandSteward:disqus – ack annoying, sorry about the gobbled-up comment!

      Thanks for the thoughts. I do agree that people need to drop those elements that feel familiar and reminiscent of things they can eat back home, and make those choices that are uniquely Dubai.

  9. Sarah

    Reallyyyyy fantastic post Arva! You should write a book like Salma’s about Dubai. Also, I think your food tours will do wonders for Dubai’s walking culture, or at least for the perception of it :)

    • inafryingpan

      @4fe1015a720c7dcc7f05b9615cac454a:disqus – Thank you Sarah! Very far away from the stage where I can lay out my jumbled thoughts in a book, but I’m flattered to the point of being giddy! I hope your words about the food tours bear a ton of truth, that’s what I’m banking on too.

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