Visitors to the Middle East often wander through spice markets with curious noses and dawdle their way through meals wondering, “What is that flavour?” Food in Dubai is reminiscent of the flavours and aromas of the spice market.
When searching out a good restaurant to sample some of the dishes and flavours mentioned here, find Dubai hotels or restaurants that are well reviewed and ask for the waiters’ recommendations. Read on for a description of some of the spices commonly used in Emirati cuisine and some of the favourite dishes of Dubai cooks.
This pungent spice grows natively from the Mediterranean to India and is of special importance to many curries and other dishes in the Middle East, Central Asia and other cultures. Cumin is in the same family as caraway and tastes slightly similar. In cooking, it is used as a whole seed or ground into a yellowish-brown powder.
Although sometimes used even with sweets, cumin is a natural pair with many meat dishes favoured in the UAE, including lamb.
In cultures with a European background, the smell of nutmeg may conjure the Christmas holiday season. We often use it baked into traditional sweets at the end of the year. But in Emirati cuisine, a touch of nutmeg is used year-round and often used for savouries, not sweets.
This spice, the seed of an evergreen tree, is indigenous to Indonesia. Scholars believe it found its way to Dubai through ancient trade routes.
Turmeric comes from Southeast Asia and is related to ginger. It’s easy to recognize by its sharp scent and rich yellow colour. The ground rhizome is another staple of many curries in the Middle East, India and Asia. It is also used in natural dyes.
Al machboos is a rice dish based on chicken or lamb, or fish or shrimp. To prepare it, a cook makes a spicy stew of the chosen meat, spices, tomato and onion. Then, he boils it with rice to prepare a fragrant, risotto-like meal.
Another example of a dish that may contain turmeric is margooga. Margooga starts, like al machboos, with a stew based on a meat. Then, robust vegetables, like carrots or eggplant, are added. Before the stew reduces completely, it’s served with a chunk of unleavened bread, which soaks up the flavours.
Native to the Indian subcontinent, the spice cardamom is an expensive seed pod of the ginger family. In India, it’s one of the main flavouring ingredients for sweet masala chai. In Dubai, it’s used with sweet dishes and rarely with savoury ones.
One of the most loved dishes in Dubai that features cardamom is al balaleet, a kind of omelette with a vermicelli base. To prepare al balaleet, cooks combine sugar and spices, including saffron and cardamom, into a syrup with ghee. They then pour the resulting sweet sauce over prepared, fried vermicelli. Then, a savoury egg omelette is placed on top. This sweet-and-salty dish is eaten on holidays and for breakfast.
Yet another interesting ingredient in Emirati cuisine is sumac. This is a plant naturally occurring in Africa and North America. It produces reddish-coloured fruit that, when it is dried and ground up, carries a tart flavour. It can also be used as a natural dye.
Sumac is especially useful for creating nuance in the flavours of meat dishes. Just as we might use lemon or lime to highlight certain meats, sumac is used to create an interesting palette of flavours in the dish.
Barbecued meats, such as lamb and chicken, often benefit from a dusting of sumac. It also goes well with seafood and is a key ingredient in hummus. It should be noted that, although hummus is widely served in Dubai, it is not a native Emirati food.
About the Author: Dayna Peet is a former restaurateur who lived in the UAE as a child. Now, she spends her days in Wellington, where she cooks for herself and manages her husband’s small business. When she and her husband travel for business, she finds Expedia hotels often represent the best value and convenience.