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
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
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
It is fascinating to watch the cooks salt the giant open fish, spear it, and then erect it around a pit of flaming wood and charcoals as though Dubai has suddenly been zapped to the stranded shores of Treasure Island. The result is a fish with the crackly golden brown skin of a broiled chicken on its top belly, and with the black bitter crisp of charcoal-induced, direct scorching heat on the underside. The white flaky innards beg for you to lather them with salt, vinegar, or lemon, or splotch them with an exceedingly sour Amba, or mango chutney. But the best way to dress the maskouf is with copious spoonfuls of the restaurant’s special "fish stuffing"—tomatoes, onions and spices simmered down to a piquant tangy salsa that is exactly the sort of magnanimous flavor that fits this fishy giant like a glove.
Al Bayt Al Baghdadi, Al Muteena Street, near Sheraton Deira (map); +971 (4) 273-7044
Filipino Halo Halo
...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
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
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
Claiming that Automatic Cafeteria, one of the city’s long-standing Lebanese stalwarts, wraps up the best shawarma may put the life of the lady who authored this article in serious peril. But, she can safely say that Automatic is the only place she has returned to for her shawarma fix and hummus dip, time and again, for nearly three decades. Juicy shreds of chicken or lamb are sawed off of the rotating spit, laid out on a khubz (pita) with a bed of leaves, sour pickles, tahina, garlic butter, and fries, and then toasted down with a sandwich press. The toasty shawarma is then rolled together tightly like a toffee in baking paper, only to be brutally ripped away seconds later so you can take that first, charred, pickled, garlic-pungent, creamy, meaty bite of a perfectly assembled Lebanese shawarma.
Automatic Cafeteria, Deira, +971 (4) 222-4478 [Don't confuse this with the co-owned Automatic Restaurant next door!]
Rajasthani Daal Bati Churma
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
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
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]
Chinese Hot Pot
The interiors are far from fancy, and your nose may want to dive into a potpourri pit after the initial onslaught of fishy meaty smells as you enter. But once you're at the table—with a scallion pancake dabbed with leek chutney and a yin-yang pot of boiling broth—you become part of the authentic smell that defines Xiao Wei Yang. The menu leads you through an Amazon of ingredients that could be cooked in the simmering broth, including silky marbled beef strips, fish balls, fish heads, Chinese cabbage, lettuce, mushrooms, tofu, julienned seaweed, shrimp, blue crabs, and deadly addictive hand-pulled noodles that become hoses of broth-busting flavor when you slide them into the pot. Paired with chutneys and dips from the restaurants self-serve table, this DIY meal is one that makes for a fun large group dinner, while also providing a free lesson in slippery broth-splashed chopstick management.
Xiao Wei Yang International Restaurant, Baniyas Road, +971 (4) 221-5111
Indo-Pak Bihari Kababs, Naihari, and Sheermal
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
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
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]
Emirati Balaleet, Lqeimat, and Chebab
Luckily, the Sheikh Mohammad Centre of Cultural Understanding (SMCCU) strives to create awareness about both the local customs as well as the traditional cuisine—all within a dirt cheap price of 70 AED (about US $20)! Their Emirati breakfast is one where you can stretch your feet out in a majlis style feast, and discover why the fragrant gahwa coffee served right at your cushiony seat is a shining symbol of Emirati hospitality. Stack your plate up with pillowy chebab pancakes drenched in fresh cream and date syrup, and appreciate the art of buying quality saffron as you twirl up sweet vermicelli strands of balaleet. Between mouthfuls of munchkin-style lqiemat soaked in sticky date syrup, listen to the host bust popular myths and answer cheeky questions about the local culture with an ease and eloquence that will leave you not just enlightened, but entertained.
The SMCCU also hosts lunches and other cultural activities. The meals are only offered on certain days, and are so popular that you will usually find them sold out if don’t make a booking at least a week in advance.
Sheikh Mohammad Centre of Cultural Understanding, online reservations at cultures.ae. Phone: + 971 (4) 353-6666