Editor's note: Please welcome Arva Ahmed to the Serious Eats team! We've been fans of her Dubai-based blog I Live in a Frying Pan for a while, watching from across the ocean as she combs through the jam-packed alleyways of Old Dubai in search of the best hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Now she's bringing the flavors of Dubai's ethnic eats, along with her beautiful photos, right to the Serious Eats dinner table.
Sad news update (4/1): Shikidim, our Turkish pick for the slide show, has shut its doors to Iskender lovers all over the city. But Dubai's multi-cultural show must go on—we've given you some Malay/Indonesian fare to feast on instead!
Dad used to joke about how his friends in the U.S. reacted to where he was planning to move in the late '70s: Dubai? ...is that in...Texas?
It took nothing less than a seven-star hotel behemoth, the Burj Al Arab, to plant the desert city on the tourist map in 1999. Over 8,000 miles east of Dallas.
The Burj was Dubai's luxurious magic carpet ride into an era of glamor, international style, and record-breaking feats from the tallest building to the longest driverless metro network. The city has leveled its dunes to make way for shimmering glass-encased buildings that gloat with Paris Hiltonesque bling and imported haute cuisine. But to truly experience multi-cultural Dubai, one has to ditch the restaurant concepts that have been flash-frozen and shipped in from the metropolises of the world, and wander closer to the historic areas flanking the Dubai Creek. It is these parts of town that have buttered Dubai's bread since it rose as a trading hub over a century ago.
The heart—or stomach—of the city is where a Lebanese immigrant has impaled a mountain of lamb strips and fat on a spit, grilled it through the day in its own dripping juices, and then shaved off a few charred meat slivers for smoky shawarma. Or where the wiry Indian has curried freshly-caught pomfret and rolled out hot elastic parathas in a Malabari cafeteria by the road. Or where fresh-baked pandesal and hopia stuffed with the fragrance of Manila call out to the droves of Filipino immigrants who have become the foundation of restaurants, hotels, supermarkets, nail bars, and ice cream parlors all across in town. These unassuming but soul-feeding kitchens is where the taste of Dubai is truly at—a taste that in reality is a kaleidoscope of many immigrant cultures that have dropped anchor at the creek to achieve their dreams in this New York of the Middle East.
Here's a sampler plate of what Dubai has to offer—without the bling, the glam, the extravagance that this desert city has come to symbolize. These are the authentic, incredibly diverse flavors that can converge for someone who's willing to wind their way through the alleys of old Dubai and taste what's off the beaten, crystal-studded path.
Map of Old Dubai Eats
You may notice the lack of complete street addresses in the slides. Dubai is notorious for awkwardly mapped street numbers (44th street can intersect 37D. or 25C. and it may also exist in five other counter-intuitive points of the city.)—people tend to rely on landmarks instead, which isn't great news for the wide-eyed hungry tourist. But fret not; we've drawn up a map as accurately as we could despite the navigational anarchy. The map, along with any phone numbers and landmarks we've provided, and a healthy dose of directions from the nearest helpful soul on the streets should hopefully get you to the right door!
About the author: Arva Ahmed is a Dubai food blogger, freelance writer and food photographer who's obsessed with scouring out ethnic restaurant secrets in Dubai. Her latest foodie project is an attempt to spark an "Old Dubai food revival" by organizing ethnic food tours around older, down-to-earth parts of the city that are far removed from Dubai's new-age glitz and glam. Read more from Arva at her personal blog, I Live in a Frying Pan.