Category Archives: Dubai

Dubai’s Frying Pan Adventures

Dubai’s Frying Pan Adventures

Returning to her native Dubai in 2010, after 9 years in the US, Arva Ahmed “felt like a stranger”. The city had “exploded” and her old neighbourhood had been left behind, its stories swept aside in the race for bigger, better, newer.

As a way of re-discovering the places she remembered from her childhood and highlighting the simpler side of the city’s story, Ahmed started a blog. Using food as the connecting thread, she wrote about restaurants “that were hidden away, off the beaten track, serving dishes that didn’t pretend to be anything more than they were”.   

The blog was highly successful.  Still, after a couple of years, it wasn’t enough. Now, Ahmed wanted her readers to experience that food and those places for themselves. She wanted to take them on a first-hand food adventure. Selecting restaurants that could weave into the narrative of old Dubai and choosing dishes for their significance and their stories, as well as their consistency and unique tastes, she launched Frying Pan Adventures.

Recently, with my Dubai family, I joined Frying Pan Adventures Middle Eastern Food Tour.


We meet Arva outside the Metro Station in Deira. This is her patch. On an adjacent corner is the apartment building where she grew up, then settled again when she married. Staying in a Dubai Hotel and Resort understandably gives her the impression that she is now a guest in a place she once considered home.

Armed with tour bags (water, headphones and hairnets) we turn down a side street. Our first stop is on Murraqqabat Street. In the tiny falafel shop we peer into the kitchen and watch the chefs turn out plain falafel (chickpea fritters with coriander and parsley) and falafel mahshi (stuffed with shatta or chilli paste, sumac spice and onions). Then, at street-side table, we stuff pita bread with falafel, foul (slow-cooked fava beans) hummus with tatbeela (green capsicum, garlic and lemon sauce) thoom (garlic aioli) and pickles. This is typical, simple Dubai street food, Arva explains. It’s the kind of food she ate as a child, on Friday family outings, in this type of place, on a street like this. For Palestinian Dubai, it’s a taste of home.  What, Arva asks, is the taste of home for each of us? From Sauerkraut to Lasagne, from Yorkshire Pudding to Pumpkin Pie, from Hagis to Hangi and humble mince on toast, each dish holds a story. There’s food for reflection here but it’s time to pull on hairnets and head into the blaze of light across the pavement.

We find ourselves in a local Palestinian institution famous for its sweets, cakes and desserts, including the iconic Kunafa.  This sweet cheese pie is said to date back to 10th century Palestine, where it was prescribed by doctors to stave off hunger during Ramadan. It is still a Ramadan dish and as we discover, the ultimate hunger-buster. Chef Abu Ramzan welcomes us into the kitchen. He earned his kunafa stripes in Jordan’s premier patisserie-confiserie.  He earned his name, which means father of Ramzan, on the recent birth of his son, Ramzan. Tossing ghee, Nabulsi cheese and kataifi noodles, rosewater and nuts onto a hot plate, Abu Ramzan spins them into an aromatic, sizzling kunafa. The only way to eat it, Arva claims, is hot off the hob. She’s right! It explodes in the mouth – stringy, sticky, crunchy, creamy, sweet and tangy!

We set off again, further along Murraqqabat Street. Every year, since it all began in 1996, visitors stream through here, spending millions at the Dubai Shopping Festival. Even now, on this working week evening, it’s buzzing. Among the crowds and the noise, the Lebanese sweets shop is an oasis of calm. Sitting in a circle we learn the secrets of Gahwa (Arabic coffee with cardamom) Don’t fill the cup to the brim! Shake it for a refill! Had enough? – hand on cup! There’s Ma’amoul madh (spiced date bar) with ‘natef’ (cream made from soapwart roots) and bukaj (knapsack-shaped baklava) to eat, or, for the faint-hearted, to take away.  

Weaving through back streets, past neighbourhood cafes, brightly-lit barbers’ shops and shrouded beauty salons, we arrive at an Egyptian Pizzeria, on Al Riqqa Road, in the shadow of the Riqqa Mosque. We crowd around the counter to eat. This is pizza, but not exactly as I know it. There is a familiar yeasty crust.  But then, there’s feteer with basturma (beef pastrami), aged Egyptian roomi cheese and spicy shatta sauce – the tastes of Egypt.

Our next experience takes us to Iraq, and the restaurant, with Deira Clocktower at its shoulder, seems another country, in another age. Wall-hangings and screens show scenes of ancient Iraq. We sit on high-backed, carved chairs while waiters in formal dress serve tanoor bread, amba (mango pickle) tomatoes, onions with sumac (sour berry spice) and dolma (stuffed grape leaves) The centrepiece is Iraqi Masgouf, the traditional dish of slow-smoked carp-like fish, glazed with pomegranate molasses. Described as the ‘taste of freedom’, Masgouf recalls a vanished time in old Baghdad. Then, restaurants, just like this one, lined the banks of the Tigris. Fish were pulled from the river and cooked fresh. Waiting for meals, just like ours, diners sipped Araq and watched the boats glide by, while in the twilight, young girls and boys stole secret glances. It was a time of peace.  

Our last stop is at an Iranian sweets shop in Riqqa Al Buteen Plaza in Maktoum Street. Among the bins of fragrant spices, nuts and dried fruits, we taste our final dish –  Faloodeh (icy sweetened noodles with rosewater and lemon juice) and saffron ice cream. Arva hands out awards (eating one’s way across five countries is after all, no mean feat) with a last question for each of us. What was our favourite dish? For me, it was Masgouf, not just for the taste but for its story and for the nostalgic ambience of the restaurant.   

When she started Frying Pan Adventures, Arva Ahmed “wanted to show that while you could sip the most expensive cocktail on earth, in a glitzy bar, in the world’s tallest tower at one end of Dubai, you could also enjoy a simple, but exotic meal in a modest street-side café at the other”. She does more than this, though. She takes you into her Dubai and brings its streets, its cultures, its people and its stories to life.

Arabian Nights

It’s late afternoon. The sun slants across the dunes, throwing long shadows behind the sparse desert grasses. Everywhere there is sand, vast rolling hills of it, ridged and scored as if by the sweep of an invisible tide.

The endless dunes

We’re in a caravan of white Toyota land-cruisers. I’m wedged into the centre of the back seat, thrust backwards as the vehicle strains towards the top of a ridge, then hurled forward as it tilts over the crest, rolls sideways and plunges down. There are screams and expletives from my travelling companions. I’m mute with terror.

In the driver’s seat, Ramzan is po-faced and silent behind his sunglasses. With one hand on the wheel, he steers us up and down the dunes. Ed Sheerin’s In Love With The Shape Of You blasts from a speaker behind me.

I’m light years from my comfort zone, heading into the Arabian night, location – desert wilderness, destination – a camp somewhere out there in the dunes, distance – unknown. I’m alone with my language, cut off from my culture, far from anything familiar. My only means of communication is an eye roll, a scream, a gasp. This is travel adventure, I think

Just an hour ago, Ramzan picked us up from our hotel. We sped down the freeway, through the sprawling outer fringes of Dubal, past scattered enclaves and occasional lone houses. We pulled in at a busy general store, the last outpost before the desert. My fellow passengers robed up – black abayas for the ladies, white robes for the men, checked headscarves for both. Later, standing on a dune, with my shoes full of sand, the sun burning through my city active-wear and my hair whipped into stringy threads by the scorching desert wind, I wish I had too.

We pass camel farms, flimsy fences in the middle of nowhere and flat-roofed huts, but apart from us, there’s not another human in sight.

The desert camp

With a sense of regret and relief we roll into camp. There’s a faded, sand-blasted look to it, but within its walls there’s shelter from the wind, shady corners and cool shadowy rooms. There’s a stand with cold drinks and tea. I make a beeline for it. Nearby a white-robed man is preparing shisha. I try that too. Next, I line up to hold a hooded falcon. Its wrinkled feet curl around my arm.

Outside the walls there are more adventures; quad-biking, camel rides and sand surfing. I watch two bikers disappear in shower of spraying sand.  I opt for a camel ride. It groans when it feels my 56 kilos on its back, staggers protesting to its feet and moans loudly as it takes a short circle around the carpark. I swear it gives an extra forward lurch as I dismount. I head over the dunes to check out the sand surfing.

A sand-surfie conquers the dune

The sun is setting now and an orange glow filters up from the horizon. Back inside, I sink onto the cushions at my stage-side table. On the left a couple of white-robed men giggle like schoolboys at the halfway point of a wine-bottle while their black-robed wives twitch and fidget over cans of red-bull. On the right a gang of lads in checked headscarves drag with concentration on sheesha and survey the scene through cool, narrowed eyes.

We cue up for dinner – ladies on one side, gentlemen on the other. After the parched, monochrome desert landscape, the brightly-coloured dishes on the buffet (tabouleh, cucumber with yoghurt couscous, chicpea and rice, curries and kebabs, chicken, fish and lamb) are a welcome sight.

Night falls. There’s a bright orange moon overhead and a scattering of stars in the dark sky. It’s showtime. To the beat of urgent drums and the clash of cymbals, a young man in heavy embroidered skirts whirls onto the stage. His skirts separate into layers. They light up. He peels them off layer by layer, revealing more and more with brighter and brighter lights, all the time spinning faster and faster on the spot, a master of control and balance. Later, he invites a trio of ladies to give the skirts a whirl. Their clumsy attempts highlight his mastery of the art. The music changes.  A belly-dancer takes the stage. We all love a belly-dancer. There’s something surprising and delightful about her exposed flesh and sinuous movements in this modest culture. She shows her skill but doesn’t seek to flaunt it against the audience’s efforts. Thank goodness!

The evening is over. The moon throws silver light across the car-park. Ramzan is waiting, a dark silhouette against his white Toyota. ‘Are we going on the dunes again?” ventures a timid voice. “Show us your night-driving skills” says a bolder one. But Ramzan is giving nothing away as he rolls out of camp. I must confess to a tinge disappointment when we turn onto a straight, sealed highway and speed towards Dubai’s distant glow.

The desert safari is a quintessential Dubai experience. Do it with Arabian Nights.


Burj Khalifa; At The Top Sky

This post is dedicated to Gerard Moore Junior (taku tama arohaina) whose generosity took me to the top.

From a distance, Burj Khalifa is alarmingly fragile. Up close it’s terrifyingly tall. At night, it’s a slender silhouette of gold light against the ink-black sky. In the daytime, it cuts like a giant blade of steel and glass into the blue.


For a while, I admired this stellar centrepiece of downtown Dubai from below. But, as mountains are to adventurers, so are towers to travellers. They compel us to climb them. From the Eureka to the Eiffel, I’ve conquered a few. In the end, I had to do the Burj Khalifa too.

Yet, I was nervous, as I waited with my fellow travellers for the At The Top Sky tour to the Burj Khalifa’s 148th floor. The couches, cushions, potted palms, Arabian coffee and platters of dates in the SKY Lounge did nothing to dispel the disturbing pictures haunting my thoughts. In one I was stranded in a lifeless elevator, deep in the burj’s concrete core. In another I clung to a flimsy ledge that tilted slowly into space. Was Burj Khalifa, a tower too many, too high?

Still, when the time came, I put my fears aside and followed our guide, Ahmed, into one of the burj’s 57 elevators.

As we soared skywards at an ear-popping 65 kilometers per hour, with the urgent drums of the Burj Khalifa’s dedicated elevator music beating ever faster, images of tall city landmarks streamed past.

Somewhere, up beyond the very tallest of them, we stopped for the Burj Khalifa’s story. It’s a bold tale and Ahmed told it with righteous pride. It began with a big dream – of a mighty burj, or tower, that would stand as an emblem of Dubai and as an iconic landmark to the world.

12,000 people, of 196 nationalities, from 149 countries, came together to build the dream. Chicago architect Adrian Smith designed it, taking inspiration from the ancient towers of Islam and the desert flower, hymenocallis, or spider lily. In 2004, construction began. 6 years, 22 million man-hours and 1.5 billion dollars later, it was completed. At 828 metres, the Burj Dubai was the world’s tallest building. On January 4, 2010, it opened, re-named as the Burj Khalifa, in honour of Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE. That same year, it won the World Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat’s Global Icon Award. The dream had come true.

Now, here I was at the heart of that global icon, surrounded by world wonders. I was at the centre of the largest vertical city on earth, home to the world’s highest nightclub, library and mosque. I was heading for the highest outdoor viewing platform on the planet, 555 metres from the ground.      

With the music winding to a crescendo and with outlandish feats of celebrity daring playing out on the elevator walls, we soared up again. I stared, mesmerised and horrified, as a grinning Tom Cruise flapped around the burj’s spire while Spiderman inched up its sheer glass walls.     

…there were flowers

The lift delivered us to an oasis of quiet, calm, and stillness. There was soothing orchestral music. There were flowers. There were waiters with trays of drinks and petit fours. There were smiling hostesses to guide us around. There was soft carpet patterned with rippling sand. There were armchairs beside tall windows which curved out into the sky.

I sat and looked down. Below, Dubai fell into patterns. Buildings shaped into cylinders. City blocks formed squares, rectangles and triangles. Roads curved and cut between them, curled into petals and pointed in parallel rows towards the horizon. Parks and gardens became bands and circles of green.  Ponds, pools and streams turned into oblongs, ovals and wriggling snakes of blue. Then, defying the order of the built city, there were patches of parched dirt – some etched with the beginnings of future construction, others just fragments of desert.   

… the patterns of Dubai…

On the world’s highest viewing platform, safe behind a solid glass wall, I stood in the sky. I felt rushes of fear and exhilaration, of arrogance and awe. I could see all the way across the desert to the end of the earth. I could see where the sea dissolved into the sky. Below, the city was tiny and fragile. People were slow-moving specks. Big words, like omniscient and omnipotent came to mind.

…where the sea meets the sky…

In a dark theatrette, I waved my hand through a tube of light and watched myself take flight on giant screen.  Launching from the burj’s spire, I glided through space, circling around landmarks, swooping over rooftops, between buildings, through windows, into shops and houses, into the everyday lives of old Dubai. I peered over the shoulders of men smoking shisha and women stirring pots. I chased after children in the streets. Now I really felt superhuman.

I could have lingered on high forever, in this rarefied state, but in truth, I’m a mere mortal. I belong on earth. I need the noise, the sun and the warm air below.

“Leaving already?” asked the hostess at the elevator. I’d been there for hours but she seemed sorry to see me go.

Down on level 124 I was back in the busy real world. I was swept from the lift into a photo studio. There was a flash. Minutes later, a picture showed me smiling foolishly from a beam on the half-built burj. I joined the memorabilia hunters in the souvenir shop. Among mugs and key rings, I found something new and slightly unnerving – leftover burj bolts. I circled the deck. Below, the neat patterns of Dubai had disappeared.

One swift, silent elevator and a long, slow escalator took me down to earth.

The People who built the Burj Khalifa

I wandered alone in the quiet ground floor gallery where the At The Top Sky experience ends. Here, interactive stations tell the stories of the people who built the Burj Khalifa.

It’s a perfect finale. It is fitting that the last words on the greatest project in human history should come from the architects, engineers, contractors, artists, tradespeople, craftspeople and labourers who worked on it, shaping 330 cubic metres of concrete, 31,400 metric tons of steel, 103, 000 square metres of glass and 15, 500 square metres of embossed stainless steel into the world’s most iconic tower.  

Cost of the At The Top Sky Tour – 500 dirhams. Value – priceless.



Kia ora rawa atu, Gez