Gourmet Traveller

Dubai Restaurant Recreates Fairytale City’s Modest Past With Its Emirati Menu

Posted: March 2, 2014 at 12:33 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

THE YEAR 1966 is a watershed in Dubai‘s short but eventful history. That was when oil was first struck in the desert emirate that at once transformed what was once an overgrown village by the side of a busy port into a wonderland drawing people from all over the world with the promise of the good life.

Dubai’s history goes back to 1799, when the earliest recorded settlement took place on its grey desert. The emirate’s formal birth, though, took place some decades later on June 9, 1833, when Sheikh Maktoum bin Butti Al-Maktoum, a forefather of the present ruler, persuaded around 800 members of his Bani Yas tribe to move from present-day Abu Dhabi to the area around Dubai Creek. For much of its history, Dubai’s society was a patchwork of clans bound together by tribal fealty, surviving first on fishing and pearls, then on the port that got busier with each succeeding decade of the last century, and finally on an abundant supply of oil.

As Dubai gets glitzier, its past, which was very much its present till the 1960s, is barely visible in a skyline dominated by gleaming skyscrapers, corporate towers, hotels and malls. The original Emiratis, who’ve seen their homeland’s dramatic transformation in their lifetime, are in a minority — 17 per cent of a population of 2.1 million. What was a tapestry of clans is today a melting pot of nationalities. I got a sense of it when I learnt at the Emirates Flight Kitchen, the Guinness Record-holder for being the world’s largest airline catering facility, that its 500 chefs are from 37 nations!

As the post-oil boom Emiratis become increasingly visible, and benefit from higher education and international travel, they are increasingly turning back to their roots to find their identity. An expression of this search is the revival of the uncomplicated yet flavourful Emirati cuisine, which harks back to the days when the society was divided into fisherfolk and pearl merchants. It is this culinary tradition that Al-Fanar restaurant upholds, ironically at a tony waterfront development known as the Festival City.

We were driven into the Festival City, which is within five minutes from the international airport, by a man from Kerala named Binoo, who looked amused when a fellow journalist asked why he didn’t want to go back home. Why should he, I wondered, as we passed by a ginormous Ikea store, an InterContinental and a Crowne Plaza that could easily dwarf our tallest hotels, and a massive Marks & Sparks, to arrive at a promenade by the side of a re-invented Venetian canal with imitation gondolas and cookie-cutter reproductions of Rialto Bridge. On one side of this make-believe universe is Jamie’s Italian, one of Jamie Oliver’s not-so-acclaimed restaurants.

In this confluence of civilisations stands the brightly lit Al-Fanar, named after the oil-lit lanterns of traditional Emirati homes. Here, history stands frozen in life-size reproductions of an old fishing boat, a woman wearing a traditional facial mask and selling fish, a cart pulled by a donkey and laden with a barrel of oil from Caltex, and an Arab trader leading his camel into a souk. Outside, people sit on the ground in miniature tents, but in the courtyards of the traditional homes of pearl merchants, which have been recreated inside, you can sit on regular chairs and have your food, starting with boiled chickpeas soaked in olive oil (dango), served on undistinguished wooden tables by Filipino and Indian waiters.

We are fortunate to have Maryam Al-Misrawi, an articulate young Emirati woman, who lapses into nostalgia. “It reminds me of my grandmother’s house,” she says, as she remembers how both her grandfathers died in the sea and how her father had seen Dubai outgrow its slow-paced past, when children drank Namlet, flavoured sodas that come in bottles similar to our bantas, and adults kept having coffee served out of ornamental al dallas into little cups, which weren’t supposed to be filled up, for it was seen as a sign of the host wanting to call it a day. Coffee would continue to be poured till the guests showed with a gentle flick of the cups that they had had enough.

Between Namlet and coffee, you could have Emirati bread, khoboz khameer al-jazeeri, served with sweet egg paste; hobool (deep-fried fish roe), which requires you to be a little adventurous; the more accessible naghar mashwi (grilled squid) and koftat samak (deep-fried crumbed fish); shorbat adaz (lentil soup); and one of the many biryanis, or a makhboos (fish or chicken cooked with rice simmered in stock), or the local favourite, mohammar (rice cooked in date juice) and served with fried fish; and the unputdownable leqaimat (dough ball drizzled with date syrup). At the end of it, as you wash your hands with rose water poured by a Filipina, you may be overcome by a sudden sense of loss. The Dubai of Al-Fanar will remain a distant memory that Maryam’s father shared when he drove her to college every day.