Slideshow: 16 Top Ethnic Eats of Old Dubai

Lebanese Manousheh
Lebanese Manousheh
The legendary Al Reef Bakery is the grandmother of all Lebanese bakeries in the city that spin out a veritable Lebanese style pizza, or manousheh (plural, manakeesh). But here's a little secret: We often bypass tradition and patronize one of the newer kids on the block: Breakfast To Breakfast.

The BtoB baker deftly dimples the stretched manousheh dough with his fingers, indenting mini craters into the surface that hold pools of various topping combinations: salty akkawi cheese, earthy za’atar herbs and olive oil; creamy sourlebneh and sweet jam; eggs and minced lamb; or our most recent favorite, melted akkawi studded with blood-red sujuk sausage. It is not uncommon for the baker to slit your manousheh down the center and fold it up like a cheese-glued sandwich for ultra portability.

A tip to potential manousheh-munchers: attempt BtoB’s manousheh light. While we’d like to think that we opt for the skinnier crust to maintain our curves, in reality, the sole reason is that the leaner manousheh provides a crisper base for the toppings than the doughier original.

Breakfast to Breakfast, Al Rigga Road, +971 (4) 222-3566 [Multiple branches]
Al Reef Bakery, Zabeel Road, +971 (4) 396-1980 [2nd branch on Al Qussais Damascus Street]

Iranian Sangak and Chelo Kabab
Iranian Sangak and Chelo Kabab
When the ruler of Dubai offered free land and wiped out taxes to lure enterprising Iranian traders in the early 1900s, the strategy had nothing to do with securing a lifelong supply of chelo kabab. Strategized or not, the immigrant Iranian has shipped in valuable kabab cargo that must not be missed.

A quick Iranian lunch at Khoory Special Kabab Restaurant could consist of a piece of the three-foot long, pebble-baked sangak bread, drenched to the chewy core with meaty drippings of a lamb kabab koobideh sprawled atop it. Alternatively, pay your respects to Iran’s national dish, chelo kabab, with Al Sadaf’s versatile platter of lamb skewers, barreh (lamb chops) and joojeh (chicken) kababs, best paired with mounds of rice spiked with sour zereshk berries or fragrant dill. As you wait on the meat, swish your bread around a plate of yogurt-based borani esfenaj, pounding with olive oil, spinach and enough pungent garlic to bomb the hopes of any dinner conversation with the person sitting beside you.

Khoory Special Kabab Restaurant, Hor Al Anz, +971 (4) 266-6322 / (50) 317-9721
Sadaf Restaurant, Al Maktoum Street, +971 (4) 222-1622

South Indian Appams
South Indian Appams
While South Indian food often gets pigeonholed into the dosa-sambar-purely-vegetarian category, there is SO MUCH MORE to it than that.

Take the angelically light appam for instance: fermented rice flour bowls that are crisp along the edges, and then grow sweet and spongy toward the denser coconut milk-heavy centre. Pair that with one of Calicut Paragon’s spicy chicken or fish curries, or with Aapa Kadai’s Chicken in Fried Curry, which has chunks of chicken that are so soft, you can’t but help suspect that someone switched out the chicken’s grain feed for buckets of butter. Other dishes that have caught our fancy in the past have included Calicut’s crunchy Dry Fry Prawns sprawled on a bed of crispy fried coconut bits, or any one of Aapa’s Kingfish Tava Fry, papaya-tenderized nuggets of Chicken 65, or Chicken Kothu Parotta, a mix of chicken, buttery Indian bread (parotta) and omelet all conveniently shredded up and tossed about so that you can get an optimal bite of each element—chicken-bread-egg—in every spoonful.

For those hoping to graduate to the next level of South Indian gastronomic grammar, a stop at Aapa Kadai or at Calicut Paragon is a must for the hungry student.

Aapa Kadai, Karama, +971 (4) 334-8030 [multiple locations]
Calicut Paragon, Karama, +971 (4) 335-8700

Filipino Halo Halo
Filipino Halo Halo
With a smiling Filipino face at every door, counter and aisle of Dubai’s service industry, it is surprising that no one has nicknamed Dubai the Manila of the Middle East. Sadly, insufficient press coverage and ignorant generalizations of the food being too exotic, fried, even smelly, mean that your tourist’s guide to Dubai may not urge you to scour the streets for the tastes of imported Philippines.

...but we absolutely do. Pull up a chair at a home-style Filipino eatery like Delmon or Kabalen, and explore the Pinoy palate with some therapeutic chicken mami soup, coconut-infused beef bicol express with crunchy scallions, fat lumpia parcels with peanut sauce, or green chewy shoots of swamp cabbage (kankong) braised in adobo sauce. For dessert, experiment with colorful spoonfuls of the multi-textured fruit, bean, gulaman and nata de cacao jelly, and crushed ice layers of the halo halo, arguably one of the most refreshing desserts you can resort to in the sweltering peak of Dubai heat.

Kabalen Restaurant, Karama, +971 (4) 397-8839
Delmon Restaurant, Karama, +971 (4) 336-9561

Yemeni Mandi
Yemeni Mandi
Mandi is Yemen’s answer to chicken and rice. This soulful food is best deconstructed with your bare hands, seated cross-legged in Al Tawasol’s Arabesque-upholstered majlis, with a plastic disposable dining sheet on which to fling your thrice-licked chicken bones with barbaric flourish. Traditionally, the meat is suspended and slow-cooked in a clay tandoor dug into the ground, and then served over a bed of colored rice with a side of salsa-like tomato gravy, yoghurt, raisins and nuts.

Our coy questions to the waiters haven't yet revealed whether Al Tawasol has followed the underground tandoor tradition since their opening in 1999. All we can taste is the result of whatever they do behind the kitchen doors: a crackly skinned chicken, with shockingly supple, ghee-massaged meat that glides off the bone with the smooth skill of a well-practiced figure skater.

Al Tawasol Restaurant, Deira Clocktower, +971 (4) 295-9797

Indonesian / Malaysian Sambal Tempe
Indonesian / Malaysian Sambal Tempe
Singapore Deli is one of Dubai’s few authentic culinary ambassadors from the Malay-Indo-Singaporean belt. The menu has a smattering of dishes familiar to the Southeast Asian palate, including coconut-milk drenched noodles of Mie Laksa, skewers of peanutty Chicken Sate, battered and deep fried chunks of Tahu Isi, beefy Nasi Rendang, Nasi Lemak throbbing with the fragrance of coconut, and tender chewy tofu cubes of Tahu Goreng covered in a thick blanket of peanut gravy. Savor it all, and then digest the gastronomic damage with a piping hot cup of frothy tea tarik.

A word of advice: Whatever you do, don’t leave without scooping your spoon through the little hill of Sambal Tempe—deep fried tempe, nuts, fried potato chips (a Singapore Deli improvisation to replace the traditional anchovies), and chili sauce. If a mad scientist were to fuse together the sticky crunchiness of caramel popcorn with the sweet salty nuttiness of a peanut-loaded fruit and nut bar, and then skinny dip the test tube in a pool of viscous dark soy sambal, this is the monstrously delicious creation that would emerge from his laboratory.

Singapore Deli, Karama, +971 (4) 396-6885

Rajasthani Daal Bati Churma
Rajasthani Daal Bati Churma
Dal bhati churma is a villager’s meal that has travelled from the Indian desert state of Rajasthan to the Arabian sands of Dubai. Manvaar recreates tradition by baking balls of wheat (bati) slathered with ghee in a tandoor, and serving them with a hearty broth comprising five kinds of lentil (panchmel).

If you step in on a tranquil weekday lunch, the servers at Manvaar will throw themselves at your table, begging to teach how to eat through this desert tradition: crumble apart the soft warm bati into the tiniest pieces possible (anger management therapy, anyone?), drench the crumbs with copious amounts of dal, sprinkle some raw onions, squish a lemon, and then drizzle more melted ghee to magnify the earthy essence throbbing throughout this modest village dish.

The resourceful desert dwellers of Rajasthan took the bati a step further and transformed it into a dessert called churma—crushed bati with oodles of jaggery and ghee that can only be worked off if you trek across the desert yourself.

Manvaar Restaurant, Karama, +971 (4) 336-8332

Nepalese Momos
Nepalese Momos
This pillowy dumpling has plodded all the way from Nepal into floor -1 of a building in Bur Dubai’s congested textile and electronics jungle. Kathmandu Highland steams its momos, deep-fries them, or even dunks them in Chinese-style sweet and sour sticky gravy (C-momo) that trickles down the smooth elastic walls of the momos as you try to maneuver them into your mouth.

Our go-to momo is the kothey chicken variant, with a part steamed, part pan-fried skin that fissures open to release a mound of steamy chicken laced with the sweet heady aroma of Nepal's timur pepper. Tear open the dumpling, scoop up some tomato chutney within the momo walls, savor the sweet, spicy, fragrant, chutney-drenched innards...and smile with the realization that indeed, every dumpling is born different.

Kathmandu Highland Palace Restaurant, Meena Bazaar, +971 (4) 353-6398 or +971 (55) 174-2232

Egyptian Koshari and Feteer
Egyptian Koshari and Feteer
The original Al Ammor is a dive located on a gruff, testosterone-dominated street in a lesser known part of town, Hor Al Anz. But their koshari and feteer makes it worth the trek.

Koshari is Egypt’s version of "everything but the kitchen sink": rice, macaroni, lentils, chickpeas, spaghetti, and crunchy onions, all jumbled up in a mess that’s a joy to wipe clean when splashed with some tangy tomato gravy. If you step closer to the open baking counters, you may see the bakers slather Kraft cream cheese all over a sheer stretch of dough, closing it up into what will become the warm puffy, cream-cheese slathered folds of crispy feteer pastry.

Luckily, this Egyptian gem has now opened a spacious second location in a more familiar and family friendly part of town, Bur Dubai, where it can continue to dish out authentic Egyptian eats to the carb-craving soul.

Al Ammor Restaurant, Bur Dubai, +971 (4) 370-7060 [Original location in Hor Al Anz. Not to be confused with sister restaurants: Al Ammor Kabab and Al Ammor Falafel]

Indo-Pak Bihari Kababs, Naihari, and Sheermal
Indo-Pak Bihari Kababs, Naihari, and Sheermal
Dubai has no dearth of restaurants serving North Indian and Pakistani cuisine, including the famous Ravi graced by Anthony Bourdain himself during his tour of the city. While there are few foodies who will leave this city without a taste of Ravi’s, let us tell you of a place that most tourists don’t already know. This is the place where you can truly experience North Indian Kabab epiphany: the mundanely named Daily Restaurant.

The kabab of choice is Daily’s bihari kabab—a yogurt marinated kabab that has defied all pre-conceived kabab logic by melting into a tartare-like magic substance on the grills. This beefy buttery paste that claims to be a kabab can be drizzled with a cooling coriander raita. But we prefer to not mess with the sacred and succumb to the meat on its own, in all its beefy primal glory. If you want to further catapult yourself into a state of giddy meat delirium, order the string-tied gola kababs or some naihari with plump chunks of baby soft mutton bobbing about in the gravy. With a meal that’s already challenged your perceptions of how soft meat can really be, surprise yourself further by skipping the usual naan for sweet cardamom-tinged sheermal. This milk-based leavened bread is perfect on its own, drenched in the naihari, or paired with chai that you will have no choice but to order at the end if you hope to shake off the meaty stupor and head to the door.

Daily Restaurant, Bur Dubai, +971 (4) 337-3123

Japanese Tsukune
Japanese Tsukune
Dubai has many a Japanese table with its fair share of gourmet sushi rolls and imported miso cod recipes. But if you’re looking to wield your chopsticks around authentic Japanese fare that feeds your soul without spearing your wallet, head straight to the well-serviced tables at fifteen-year old Bento-Ya.

The menu winds through all the usual suspects, including tempura, ramen, sushi, sashimi, maki, grilled and raw meats, donburi, and bento boxes. Save yourself the menu indecision and beeline it to the top picks recommended by local food bloggers: crunchy swollen ebi (shrimp) tempura, golden-brown kaki (oysters) tempura, grilled karubi (beef) with succulent slivers of fat right around the bone and last but not least, the mindblowing tsukune. These glistening globes of minced chicken are coated in a magical teriyaki sauce that, after the globes have orbited to your stomach, will force you to hand in your chopsticks and head straight home for a deep comfort-induced sleep.

Bento-Ya, Sheikh Zayed Road, +971 (4) 343-0222 [2nd branch in Ghusais]

Syrian, Palestinian, and Lebanese Kunafa
Syrian, Palestinian, and Lebanese Kunafa
Baklava may be the Madonna of Arabic desserts, but the sweet rockstar that has yet to garner the same level of international fame is kunafa. Kunafa is essentially a cheese pie, soaked with enough melted ghee and sugar to make a McDonald’s cheeseburger seem like wheat grass in comparison.

We're not quite sure whether kunafa originally hails from Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, or whichever other country steps forth to take credit. So to avoid any cultural offense, we recommend that visitors descend on Muraqqabat street and pay their respects to at least three powerful kunafa clans—the Syrians (Firas), Palestinians (Qwaider Al Nabulsi) and Lebanese (Al Samadi)—each carving out thick blankets of kunafa topped with your choice of crunchy brown semolina crumbs or orange angel hair pastry (kataifi), fried in ghee to a crackly crisp.

There are three basic things you need to ensure when you eat kunafah: 1) your slice is piping hot and the gooey belly traditionally made of thick white Nabulsi cheese is bubbling out onto the plate; 2) you vigorously nod a "yes" when the server asks you if you’d like your slice doused in sugar syrup and chopped pistachios (when in sugar hell, there's no looking back); 3) you close your eyes, crunch into the pastry, catch the elastic cheese squishing out on your tongue...and feign temporary amnesia if fellow diners urge you to count calories.

Qwaider Al Nabulsi, Al Muraqqabat Street, +971 (4) 227-7760 Al Samadi, Al Muraqqabat Street, +971 (4) 269-7717 [Multiple branches]
Firas Sweets, Al Muraqqabat Street, +971 (4) 222-2489 [Multiple branches]