The sun setting over the smoggy, dusty Dubai skyline, tired Pakistani workers in their grimy “pajamas” wiping their foreheads in relief while sipping their evening cup of tea, the fragrance of spices dancing over hot oil wafting from the apartment buildings was a definitive scene for our last days in the desert. Our time in Dubai was about to end. Everything was in slow motion, though time was moving fast. I stepped out of the tour van feeling extra sentimental as this was the last time I was to roam the streets of Old Dubai in search of some authentic, extraordinarily delicious and yet affordable eats with this special lady…
In this trip, I joined Arva, friend, blogger & writer extraordinaire and chief muncher founder of Dubai’s Frying Pan Adventures, along with several unfamiliar faces. Some were tourists stopping over Dubai, while some, like me, were expats living and working in the desert. They were westerners from down under and the USA, while I was the only Asian from, well, Asia. Despite our differences, we were all there for one purpose: the pursuit of quintessential North African eats in Old Dubai.
This wasn’t my first time in Old Dubai as I used to be one of Arva’s tour guinea pigs (and when I mean pig, I do mean pig). In the past, we dodged between dark alleys of Meena Bazaar, Bur Dubai for a taste of Indian cuisine (the one beyond chicken tikka masala) and scoured the streets of Deira to partake an Arabian feast (where I was introduced to Iraqi Masgoufand Al Tawasol Mandi), hopping from one restaurant to another. Plus I have had my fair share of North African cuisine as part of my regular eat-out repertoire. But despite my being a Dubai food tour veteran and North African food chum, I was a virgin to this part of old town and its food haunts: Hor Al Anz. And so, I left my fate in the hands of our fearless tour leader, who gave so much time, effort and love in assuring that each place deserved a sizzling Frying Pan seal of deliciousness.
Instead of breaking the ice, Arva broke the strain in the already humid desert evening air with warm Iranian sangak bread. This Persian flat bread, which is baked over a pebbled oven, snap crackled and popped as Arva handed each of us a piece from the almost 3-foot long bread, sparking food history and culture banter.
We then proceeded to breaking some more bread, as this region does love their bread. Technically not bread, the Tunisian brik is a crispy, hot deep fried pastry pocket filled with tuna, potatoes, herbs and a golden burst of sunshine, a whole and, most importantly, runny egg. Oh what a sight it was to see the liquid gold ooze from the broken shards of thin phyllo-like dough…except that that Tunisian brik wasn’t mine. I guess such is the expat life; you don’t always get the coveted runny egg.
Then Arva pastured us, like The Good Food Sheperd to her flock of lost, persnickety and very hungry sheep, onto the next restaurant. Cramped as it was, seating only allowed 12 grown adults at most, Tajeen Al Fasi Moroccan restaurant was big on warmth and flavor. We were even allowed to sneak a peek into their equally teeny kitchen where our tagine kofta was bubbling over their hardworking stove.
After a slice or two of Chicken bastilla (Sorry I lost track) and the tagine kofta soaked crusty bread, I savored every sip from my Moroccan glass: the sharp inhale of fresh mint, the sweeping action of gunpowder green tea on my tongue and the jolt of sugar rush at the end. “How full are you guys? How many percent? You should be only 25% full by now.” Arva asked. My tummy smiled guiltily. And sent signals to my brain and thought that’s why had my cup of tea!
Arva showed us around the neighborhood, post struggling to get up from our seats with tummies, to help get those digestive juices going, creating more tummy space for other North African treats. Strolling around in the dim, ominous alleyways passing by car repair and detailing shops with the shopkeepers’ necks stretched out and come hither, dagger sharp looks were daunting, but tete-a-tete between me and Arva on how the tour has evolved into what it is now kept me at ease. Once upon a time, aside from being a tour guinea pig, I helped out Arva on the tour’s market research bit. I almost teared up hearing Arva’s updates like a parent seeing her child all grown up, stepping off the graduation podium, ready for the big bad world out there.
Brushing off my invisible tears of pseudo-parental pride, we stepped, or rather bumped into an Omani halwa sweet shop. It was closed. Arva quickly dialed the number of the shopkeeper, who apparently was in the middle of his evening prayers. Inside my head, I chuckled. These are the little things that have grown into my daily routine that I will miss in a bizarre way: the prayer breaks, the bellows of the mosque, the supercars’ tires screeching in the wee hours and the garbled Arabic squabbles from the falafel shop across our apartment building.
Speaking of falafels, Arva also introduced us to a new kind of falafel: the one made with fava beans. I’m no bean expert, so I couldn’t say the exact differences from your run-of-the-mill chickpea sort. But all I can say that those were damn good falafels from Al Amoor: addictive, crispy yet airy inside, garlicky fava bean patties.
Another stroll in the neighborhood to burn off those Egyptian carbs (we also had koshari together with those falafels), moving towards my personal highlight of the evening: Ethiopian food. Aside from catching Arva, I did have the intense need to partake of this exotic cuisine before I left the country. The doro watt stew was laid down in the middle of our food tour huddle, atop the spongy flat injera bread on a woven basket cum table. A pinch of bread, my hand dove, swooped into the hellish mixture and popped it inside my mouth. Omnomnom! Spicy, hot and tangy. Mission accomplished! Big check on my Dubai bucket list! Though I did have this one nagging regret: I did not grab the chance to taste Ethiopian coffee even if Arva wagged that traditional coffee pot in front of us repeatedly a like doggie treat.
A bagful of Moroccan tagines & decorative bowls, a tall glass of freshly pressed sugar cane juice, a bite of a gazelle’s foot (Not the animal, silly, but the Moroccan sweet!) and a slice of Kraft cheese filled, sugar dusted and honey drizzled Egyptian feteer later, we found ourselves at the end of the tour. I was about to part with a place that I barely knew, yet somehow it shared some of its secrets with me. My tummy and Dubai soul were full, yet aching with separation anxiety from good food, good friends and the good old times.
Thank you Old Dubai. It was wonderful.
Frying Pan Adventures
Book your Dubai food tour at http://www.fryingpanadventures.com/
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Delirious about delicious,