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Living in the UAE

The Top 10 Dishes of the Desert — Food & Drink in the UAE

A mix between Middle Eastern and Asian influences, the Emirati cuisine features many hearty dishes seasoned with a variety of spices. However, in the cosmopolitan cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, you may be hard pressed to find authentic local fare — so make sure to keep an eye out for these 10 dishes!

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Traditionally, the staples of food in the UAE included camel dairy, dates, fish, rice, and meat, with spices playing an important role. The Emirati spice mix named bzar is testament to this, including, among other things, pepper, cardamom, nutmeg, coriander, and ginger, with every family seemingly having their own recipe for the exact mixture.

While these staples have hardly changed, you will nowadays be hard pressed NOT to find other dishes in the UAE and especially in cosmopolitan Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Here, the large selection of international cuisine, from Western style pizza to Japanese sushi, makes it particularly easy to overlook local fare. So make sure to try at least a few of the following delights during your stay in the UAE!

#1: Harees, a Ramadan Favorite

Harees is a traditional dish in the UAE (and most of the Arab world) and particularly popular during Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr, as well as for special occasions such as weddings. The main ingredients for Harees are wheat and a meat of choice, typically lamb or chicken. When preparing the dish, the previously soaked wheat berries are slow-cooked together with butter and the pre-cooked meat, making for a porridge-like dish that is seasoned with cinnamon, pepper, and salt.

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#2: Machboos, with a Little Bit of Loomi

A one-pot dish — as is not unusual for Arabic cuisine — Machboos is made using rice, meat, onions, various spices, and loomi. The latter are dried limes (sometimes also called black limes) and give the dish its distinctive taste. When preparing Machboos, the meat is boiled together with the spices and loomi and taken out of the pot once tender. The rice is then added and once done, the meat is put back into the pot again and the whole thing cooks for a while longer.

#3: Shawarma, the Arabian Döner

Even if you are not (yet) living in the UAE, you have most likely heard of Shawarma. It is very similar to Greek gyros or a Turkish döner kebab, with all three dishes based on meat that is grilled on a (typically vertical) spit. Served either on a plate with vegetables and/or fries as a side dish or in some form of bread together with accompaniments and a dressing, the latter variety of Shawarma is particular popular in the UAE as a quick bite on the road. 

#4: Falafel, a Middle Eastern Treat

Less of a meal on their own, but a very popular side dish, falafels are sometimes regarded as the Middle East’s answer to French fries. While not originally an Emirati dish, these fried patties or balls of herbs and chickpeas (or sometimes fava beans) can be found throughout the Emirates, whether served in a wrap, with dips, or as a side. For a wide range of falafel dishes, head to one of the outlets of the Abu Dhabi-founded Just Falafel Street Food chain.

#5: Thareed, a Soupy Stew

Another popular meal for breaking the fast during Ramadan, seeing as it is hearty but not too heavy, Thareed is basically a stew layered with or served on flat bread. Raqaq or roti bread is recommended here, but other unleavened breads are also an option. When it comes to the ingredients of the stew, there is a range of possibilities, too, from chicken to lamb, or simply just vegetables.

#6: Biryani, a Touch of India

While not an originally Arabic dish, Biryani has become quite the favorite in local households and you can find it on many restaurant menus. Key ingredients of this dish are basmati rice as well as meat or fish, with Chicken Biryani particularly popular. The meat is first marinated with a variety of spices, including the famous Emirate spice mix, bzar, and then fried, while the rice is (not fully!) cooked. A layered combination of rice and meat is then put in one big pot and left to steam for a while longer. Served with a garnish of nuts and fried onions, the mouthwatering aroma alone will have you craving more!

#7: Khuzi, a Bedouin Feast

Special occasions call for a special dish, and Khuzi serves its purpose well here. Oftentimes the centerpiece of a traditional Bedouin feast, this dish is made up out of a whole roasted goat or lamb, served on a bed of nuts and rice, the latter prepared with a generous amount of spices. Many restaurants, not only in Dubai, have Khuzi on their menu, but don’t worry, you won’t have to eat a whole lamb when ordering this dish at a restaurant.

#8: Stuffed Camel, the World’s Largest Dish?

You think a whole lamb is impressive? Try going for a whole camel! Not exactly a dish you’ll find at every street corner, stuffed camel is considered to be the world’s “largest item on any menu” by many, supposedly also the Guinness Book of World Records, while others doubt its very existence. If you do come across a stuffed camel — maybe you’ve been invited to a sheik’s wedding? — you can expect to eat broiled camel, stuffed with a lamb, which in turn is stuffed with one or more chicken, which are stuffed with rice and eggs, or even fish. Sounds interesting, right?

#9: Tabbouleh, the Vegetarian Option

If you feel like you’ve now overindulged in regard to meat after that whole lamb and camel, Tabbouleh is a nice, light, and vegetarian alternative. A salad-like dish based on a lot of fresh parsley, bulgur, and some vegetables — typically tomatoes and (spring) onions — it is seasoned with mint and lemon juice, making it the perfect dish for a hot day in the UAE.

#10: Esh Asarya, the “Bread of the Harem”

No list of culinary delights would be complete without at least one dessert mentioned. Comparable to a cheesecake topped with cream, this originally Qatari sweet bread is based on old white bread and lots of sugar, with the added rosewater, lemon juice, and orange blossom water as well as the cream-topping making it a special treat.

+1: Drinks in the UAE

A good meal is made even better with a suitable drink accompanying it. Popular beverages in the UAE include strong, sometimes spiced black coffee (gahwa), a cold, salted yoghurt drink called ayran or ayranser, Indian-style tea (karak chai), and strawberry-banana-blends to accompany one’s shawarma.

Other, similarly blended and fruit based drinks are jellab (rose water & grape molasses), qamardeen (dried apricots & water), and tamar hindi, a drink based on “Indian dates”, i.e. tamarind. Alcohol, meanwhile, is obviously not found in traditional Emirati restaurants due to religious restrictions.

Updated on: December 06, 2018
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