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.