5 Souqs In Sharjah You Shouldn’t Miss

Most of us have fingers that itch to spend ‘just a little more’ money to buy ‘yet another something we may barely need’. Today’s post is for all such shopaholics who can’t leave a place without bringing back a part of it with them. I have been writing a series of posts on my trip to Sharjah (read Sharjah at First Sight), and I had to write one just about the souqs – the markets that can keep you busy for hours on end.

Get ready to fill up your shopping bags! (My photo was clicked by Anuradha Goyal! :-) )

Get ready to fill up your shopping bags! (My photo was clicked by Anuradha Goyal! 🙂 )

Know When To Go Shopping

In the Muslim world, religious norms of prayer are strictly followed. They pray 6 times a day, of which 4 are likely to fall between your shopping time. These times are usually around 12:30pm, 4pm, 7pm and 8pm. You’ll see boards that notify customers that the shopkeeper is out for prayer. In fact, on the inaugural night of the Sharjah Light Festival (read Glimpses of the Sharjah Light Festival), the show was paused for 15 minutes to allow for prayer at 7pm. You might have to wait for anytime between 5 and 25 minutes when the prayers are on, and you’ll usually find every store deserted (except for the tourists). Fridays are dedicated to worship, so most shops close early or don’t open at all. Apart from prayer times, there’s also a lunch hour (1-2pm) during which many establishments are shut.

 

Once you have your shopping schedule ready, you can follow my quick and easy guide to splurging your way through this emirate! 😀 I know how most of us are pressed for time, and have only a few hours that we budget for shopping. Therefore, for your convenience, I’ve curated my special list of 5 souqs that will give you a good a flavour of the middle eastern culture while you’re in Sharjah.

#1: Blue Souq (a.k.a. Central Souq)

Blue Souq (or Central Souq) is flanked by a large manicured garden circle.

Blue Souq (or Central Souq) is flanked by a large manicured garden circle.

This is the largest souq in Sharjah, and that’s no secret (unlike Khor Fakkan – Sharjah’s Best Kept Secret). The Blue Souq has a distinct blue roof and dark blue borders along its pastel walls. The marketplace is quite huge, with two wings connected by a bridge and two floors full of middle eastern goodies – artifacts and jewellery made of precious stones, glazed pots made of ceramic and clay, glass-work, especially the decorative lamps, and perfumes.

The Central Souq’s ground floor is full of dazzling gold ornaments, and a few stores dedicated to abayas (the Islamic robe-like outfit which every woman wears over her regular clothes. The floor above has beautiful Persian carpets with intricate handmade designs. Card collectors will find gold-plated playing cards, and a lot of other interesting collectibles here. Chandeliers and lamps hang low from the ceilings of a few shops that showcase the detailed glass-art on the lampshades. Even perfume-collectors have something to look forward to! Emirati perfume, or ittar, has an oil base, which makes it stronger than the regular variety, and a little goes a long way. Ittar is not sprayed, it is dabbed at the pulse points and rubbed for the skin to absorb it well.

#2: Souq Al-Masqoof

Traditional shoes are arranged on the wooden doors of a store at Souq Al-Masqoof

Traditional shoes are arranged on the wooden doors of a store at Souq Al-Masqoof

Located in the old town area of Sharjah, Souq Al-Masqoof reminds one of yesteryear. Everything form its roofs to doorways to walls seem to tell a story from another time. This is where men gather to discuss their business over some tea. Even if you are not much of a shopper, a stroll through its narrow alleys will do you good.

#3: Souq Al-Arsa

Souq Al-Arsa exudes old world charm with its stucco exterior.

Souq Al-Arsa exudes old world charm with its stucco exterior.

The oldest souq in this emirate is at Heart of Sharjah. Souq Al-Arsa has a central square with benches for tired feet that have shopped a lot. Its galleries are full of handicrafts and trinkets from Islamic countries as far as Yemen. Coral necklaces, wooden bracelets, iron daggers – you’ll be surprised at the amount of unusual tchotchkes you can buy here!

I enjoy a cup of Arabic coffee at Al Alrsa Cafe

I enjoy a cup of Arabic coffee at Al Arsa Cafe

I always need to sit down and eat something every time I’m on a shopping spree. Staring me in the eye was the Al Arsa Cafe, with its interiors resembling that of the Irani cafes in India. I hopped in for some Arabic coffee (read Vegetarian Food In Sharjah – What Nobody Tells You About Emirati Cuisine) and sat down to a room full of old men in their traditional attire looking grave in their photoframes.

Clocks, planets, jugs and ropes - a lot of interesting antiques are paraded inside Al Arsa Souq

Clocks, planets, jugs and ropes – a lot of interesting antiques are paraded inside Al Arsa Souq

If you’re a fan of antiques, this is the place to be! Swords, scabbards, clocks, jugs and other interesting vessels in various stages of wear and tear are stocked up at this place. Even old furniture is not hard to find in these little shops.

#4: Souq Sagr

One can smell the aroma of spices from a distance at Souq Sagr.

One can smell the aroma of spices from a distance at Souq Sagr.

The foodies and cooks reading my blog must be waiting to hear about the spices and local produce of UAE. I’ve saved the best for the last! 🙂 Close to Souq Al Arsa, Souq Sagr has a lot of stores that sell local dates and a plethora of condiments. Take your pick of lavender, dried rose petals, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, saffron and more from these shops that let you taste their dates before you buy them.

#5: Souq Al Jubail

Souq Al Jubail is Sharjah’s largest market for fresh produce. It is located on the coast and has 4 sections for fish, meat, fruits and vegetables. There is a large circular courtyard at the centre where at 5pm every day, the fishermen bring in their catch, straight from the sea (one can see their boats docked outside) and start haggling with traders to sell their fish. This is quite a spectacle to watch! Their sections for dry fruits was where I went for a lot of free tasting of dates, walnuts, almonds, cashews, pistachio and raisins, and also bought bagfuls of dates from various regions. Dates are cheaper in Dubai, but if you aren’t planning to visit there, get your fill from this souq in Sharjah.

You can't leave the UAE without buying dry fruits!

You can’t leave the UAE without buying dry fruits!

Are you a shopping-pro who’d like to share some tips?

Do you know more places to shop in Sharjah?

Let my readers (and me) know through your comments below! 🙂

Follow me on InstagramFacebook and Twitter for more pictures, tips and stories from my travels! Do spread the love by sharing this article with all the shopaholics you know! 🙂

Disclosure: I was hosted by the Sharjah Tourism and Commerce Development Authority. However, all views are entirely my own.

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Vegetarian Food In Sharjah – What Nobody Tells You About Emirati Cuisine

A journey to any new place is incomplete until you’ve eaten what the locals eat. If you have been following my recent blogposts on Sharjah, you must have guessed that I’d have had my fill of Emirati cuisine. I am a big eater, and was easily tempted by the interesting dishes served up before me while I stayed there.

Don't fall for the typical English breakfast trap!

Don’t fall for the typical English breakfast trap!

Perhaps the worst thing to do on any foreign trip is to stick to what you know and what you’ve always been eating. Life is too short to waste your time on the same dishes everyday and every vacation. Let your tastebuds explore new countries through their cuisines! When you heap up your plate with the complimentary breakfast at your hotel, don’t follow the crowd to the egg and toast counter. Instead, take spoonfuls of the new items you’ve never tried before. You’ll love yourself for giving your palate a break!

Keep Your Date With Arabic Coffee

In Sharjah (read – Sharjah at First Sight), I would begin my mornings with a cup of Arabic coffee and a date. I like my coffees strong – without milk or sugar. I love the raw flavour of the brew. Emiratis have a habit of chewing on a date while they take their coffee. This eliminates the need to add any sweetening agent to your beverage. Dates are a beloved accompaniment also for teas. And the dates you get in this part of the world are undeniably the best! I have never seen so much variety in colour, size, succulency and sweetness in the dates which are imported to my country.

Introduction To A Full Course Emirati Meal

Middle East has so many dishes on offer that your plate will not be able to hold them all!

Middle East has so many dishes on offer that your plate will not be able to hold them all!

All of my lunches and dinners in Sharjah during the annual Light Festival (read – Glimpses of the Sharjah Light Festival) were elaborate affairs. They would begin with some soup and salad, and follow on to the mains, and finally, end with an array of desserts. My routine during those 5 days was to eat, explore the city, eat again, see the light festival, eat some more, and finally hit the bed! I had gained so much weight that I was really looking forward to my upcoming hiking vacation (read – Forsyth Trail – A Hike through Satpura’s Core Tiger Zone).

Middle Eastern Dips & Salads

Salads and dips to whet your appetite

Salads and dips to whet your appetite

Middle Eastern salads are among the most nutritious, with an abundance of greens, chickpeas, eggplant and pomegranate. Fattoush is a healthy mix of vegetables and toasted flat-bread which adds a nice crunch to your mezze. Parsley lovers should give tabbouleh a try. You will be surprised to learn that foul madamas, a dish made of fava beans, which looks like something you’d have for dinner, is a breakfast staple here. When you are in Sharjah or any of its surrounding towns (read – Khor Fakkan – Sharjah’s Best Kept Secret), don’t return unless you’ve had a ladle full of their delicious dips – hummus, mutabbal and baba ghanoush. Baba Ghanoush is similar to mutabbal (both have eggplant), except that it has pomegranate and parsley also. Mutabbal, on the other hand, is yogurt-based. All the three dips have tahini – a paste of powdered sesame seeds.

Breaking Bread in UAE

After you pick up some pita and other breads, it's time to get some pickles!

After you pick up some pita and other breads, it’s time to get some pickles!

With the dips, you will need some bread. There are several varieties of Arabic pita, naans and phulkas. The breads are rarely plain; they mostly come spiced with some thyme and sumac for enhanced flavour. Many restaurants will serve unlimited hummus and bread with their compliments when you order the mains. These breads are best enjoyed warm. So, if your bread has turned cold and chewy, ask for your breadbasket to be replaced.

Tickle Your Tastebuds With Some Pickle

So many pickles, you'll be spoilt for choice!

So many pickles, you’ll be spoilt for choice!

You can have bread not just with Arabic dips but also pickles. Emirati pickles are not like Indian pickles which are mostly fruit-based. They eat a lot of pickled olives (both green and black), jalapenos, carrots and cucumber. Another interesting accompaniment is the labneh – a sour Arabic cheese which is balled up and pickled, sometimes, also with zaatar – powdered herbs.

A Whole Meal

A vegetarian Emirati fare - Arabic bread, fattoush, baba ghanoush and mutabbal with some eggplant

A vegetarian Emirati fare – Arabic bread, fattoush, baba ghanoush and mutabbal with some eggplant

As a vegetarian gourmand, I am always looking to satiate my hunger for local food without compromising on my dietary choices. It is a myth that Emirati cuisine is mostly about meats. Yes, they do have a lot of exotic meat dishes (including camel-based dishes where an entire camel is stuffed with Levantine dips and condiments and cooked), but there is a plethora of vegan-friendly items one can have! You will notice the generous use of brinjal and olive oil, as many of their dishes are borrowed from the countries on the eastern side the Mediterranean Sea (Egypt, Syria, etc.). If you stay away from the meats, you will find that Arabic food is a healthier alternative to most other Asian cuisines. (Olive oil has mono-unsaturated fatty acids, or MUFA, which is much better than other oils used in Asian cooking.)

Indulge Your Sweet Tooth

When I am in UAE, western desserts can wait

When I am in UAE, western desserts can wait

When the mains are done, it’s time for the sweet dish! 🙂 All the 4 and 5 star properties in Sharjah that I dined at had a decent spread of continental desserts – mousses, cakes and chocolate boats, to name a few. The walnuts and almonds used in their plat du jour, however, were the highlight, as those were of a superior quality. The emirates are one of the best places to get your dry fruits from!

Delectable Desserts

Bored of the pastries (which one can find in about any country with ease), I was on a mission to find restaurants that would serve me Sharjah’s authentic desserts (which were playing hard to get). I had the privilege of tasting some unique Middle Eastern desserts at the Tulip Restaurant in Golden Tulip. I relished the Umm Ali (a milk-based pastry-pudding garnished with raisins, cashews and pistachio), Asabe’ Zainab (a hard deep fried semolina-dough drizzled with a sweet syrup), Aish El-Saraya (sweet bread slathered with cream) and  Luqmat al Qadi (honey-coated deep fried morsels) I had there.

 

Another great find was Zahr El-Laymoun by the Sharjah waterfront. Their classic cheesecake was topped with pomegranate seeds and lavender. The Halawat Al Jibn (philo pastry sweet rolls dressed with pomegranate and ground pistachio) was served with some rose water on the side, which was to be poured over the dish just before consumption.

Tea & Cookie After Lunch

The last course after dinner - tea with a ghorayeba cookie

The last course after dinner – tea with a ghorayeba cookie

After a large meal, you need some tea for the food to settle in. My pot of fragrant chamomile tea came with a locally baked ghorayeba biscuit which crumbled with ease in my mouth.

With this, we have come to the end of my Emirati dining experience. I hope you now know that there is more to this cuisine than shawarmas and hummus! 😉

Khor Fakkan - a town in Sharjah where the platter is just as beautiful as the panorama

Khor Fakkan – a town in Sharjah where the platter is just as beautiful as the panorama

Are you vegetarian and skeptical about trying local cuisine? Do you know about more middle eastern dishes which I haven’t tasted? Let my readers (and me) know through your comments below! 🙂

Follow me on InstagramFacebook and Twitter for more pictures, tips and stories from my travels! Do spread the love by sharing this article with all the foodies you know! 🙂

Disclosure: I was hosted by the Sharjah Tourism and Commerce Development Authority. However, all views are entirely my own.

Onboard Air Arabia’s A320

I’m not a fan of late night flights, but there is little you can do to control the time you fly out of your home city (Mumbai in my case)  when you wish to arrive at your destination in the morning. I still remember my first flight to Goa over two decades ago, when I was only 4 and my sister, 2. I had thrown up just before the landing, and all the passengers had to leap over the puddle of vomit on the aisle. Those days of free unlimited candies and poor cabin pressure management are long gone. Cut to the present, and one can get an exclusive first class suite and a pre-booked slot for a shower cabin up in the air!

This post, however, is not to highlight the milestones the airline industry has crossed, but to tell you about my in-flight experience on Air Arabia.

Chaos at the airport. Sounds familiar?

Chaos at the airport. Sounds familiar?

A Look At Air Arabia’s Hub – Sharjah

The Sharjah airport is nothing to write home about. But this cost-effective hub means the planes landing and taking off from here will have to pay them less, and in turn, your flight tickets will be more affordable (hopefully). Being a low-cost carrier, Air Arabia has no exclusive lounge at this airport. The airport itself is like a fish market, full of commotion and little regard for queues. The staff seems reluctant to help. At the boarding gates, the ladies in charge behave like school teachers trying to tame an unruly class. After a couple of hours at the airport, it is finally time for me to board my plane.

There's nothing like a hot cup of tea to calm your senses!

There’s nothing like a hot cup of tea to calm your senses!

The Experience Onboard

Our A320 was a nifty aircraft, and I thought my seat in the economy class was fine. I asked for a cup of tea to relax for the next few hours that I’d be airborne. It must have worked, because I slept well. I always carry my eye mask and inflatable neck pillow to catch up on my sleep, which I never seem to get enough of (even on vacations). I was was in Sharjah to cover the light festival (read – Glimpses of the Sharjah Light Festival), and I did too much in too little time.

I pick what I'll be reading before the cabin lights are dimmed.

I pick what I’ll be reading before the cabin lights are dimmed.

I usually prep my mind to sleep by reading the in-flight magazine and waiting for the plane to go quiet. I previously wrote about my onward trip to Sharjah (read – Flying with Air Arabia), but on my return trip, the excitement had worn off as I wasn’t looking forward to going back to office and continuing with the long hours of work (usual at the investment bank). The air hostess soon cheered me up by getting me some dinner.

Time for Food! 🙂

My vegetable biryani arrives with coconut chutney on the side.

My vegetable biryani arrives with some raita on the side.

My early morning snack on my onward journey was a couple of dosa rolls with a filling of potato and chutney on the side. On my return journey to Mumbai, I had vegetable biryani with some raita. I thought the food was quite appetizing, even if a little too spicy for my palate. The portions were good too. They say that the way to a person’s heart is through her stomach. The rest of my flight seemed smooth after the meal, and the airline’s timing again was perfect! Here’s a selfie from my arrival in Sharjah (the smile is thanks to a full stomach 😉 ):-

I land just in time for the middle eastern sunrise!

I land just in time for the middle eastern sunrise!

Don’t forget to follow me on InstagramFacebook and Twitter for more pictures, tips and stories from my travels! Do spread the love by sharing this article with your friends who might be interested in travelling to Sharjah! 🙂

Disclosure: My flight to Sharjah was sponsored by Air Arabia. However, all views are entirely my own.

Khor Fakkan – Sharjah’s Best Kept Secret

“Sharjah” – this name would often conjure up an image of a desert with mosques scattered across its parched terrain. I thought this Arab city would be a quick trip – a short walk by the souqs, a desert safari, and I’d have seen pretty much all that this place has to offer. I would realize on my maiden trip to this emirate how wrong I was in my imagination.

Khor Fakkan - beyond the desert plains

Sharjah – beyond the desert plains

Big Surprises Come in Small Packages

On my third day in Sharjah, the plan was to visit the town of Khor Fakkan. Little has been spoken or written about this place which technically is a part of Sharjah, but geographically surrounded by Fujairah. It was a long road journey which took us through the Hajar range of mountains, and well into the emirate of Fujairah.

Our terrain transforms from plains to mountains

Our terrain transforms from plains to mountains

Time-Traveling to the 15th Century

We passed a couple of mosques on our way to Khor Fakkan, but the most striking of all was Al Bidiya – a mosque wrapped in layers of plaster from 1446 AD. This mosque is quite unusual in its architecture as it has four pointed domes – something missing in the modern mosque designs.

We had started ascending the Hajjar Mountains soon enough. And, I knew this when it started to get cold. I wasn’t carrying a jacket as I’d assumed Sharjah would be anything but cold on that sunny afternoon. I did not have the time to hike up those mountains, and I know I’ll have to go back to do just that someday.

We start gaining altitude on the Al Hajar mountains

We start gaining altitude on Al Hajar mountains

Mountain-Top Local Markets

We stopped for a while in a little village to have some Suleimani chai and succulent dates. You will be surprised to know of the amazing variety of fruits and vegetables that are grown in the Emirates, especially around oases. The fertility of the soil varies here. This land is not all dry and barren. Local markets are also where you can bargain well. The friendly shopkeepers will let you taste some of their dry fruits on display when they know you will be buying. Food aside, you can also find warm kaftans and jackets with middle eastern prints as you stroll through the roadside.

A fruit market in a village in Fujairah

A fruit market in a village in Fujairah

Seeing the Arabian Sea

As we drove further, our view changed completely! We were driving along the Gulf of Oman, gulping down the dazzling waves of the Arabian Sea with our eyes. Khor Fakkan (which literally means ‘gulf of jaw’) is the only town in Sharjah which lets you see the Gulf of Oman.

The Gulf of Oman beckons!

The Gulf of Oman beckons!

A Bite of Luxury at the Oceanic Hotel

Khor Fakkan’s 4 star Oceanic Resort and Spa was the perfect place to put up my feet and take in the view of the turquoise waters of the Khor Fakkan Beach. Even though alcohol is strictly prohibited all across Sharjah, you will miss none of the beach excitement when you can spend your lazy afternoons sipping on some iced tea and gazing into the horizon before you.

Chilling at the private beach of the Oceanic Resort at Khor Fakkan

Chilling at the private beach of the Oceanic Resort at Khor Fakkan

Meandering into Mleiha

A short drive from Khor Fakkan lies the Mleiha Desert. Its sand is distinctive with a touch of orange in the light brown. The Mleiha Archeological Centre is where they study fossils unearthed from this desert. There is a museum here that every kid touring Sharjah must be taken to. It’s quite experiential and informative.

We arrive at a gorgeous oasis and see scores of palm trees

We arrive at a gorgeous oasis and see scores of palm trees

Time for Desert Safari

Mleiha is also where you can take a desert safari over the undulating sands. Unlike in Dubai, the experience you have in Sharjah will be more intimate as you won’t have the crowd. This is also a no non-sense desert safari which focuses on nature, and skips the belly dance in the end. Plus, you get to stop at some locations to examine some fossils yourself! (I can already see the paleontologists smiling 😉 )

The smooth sands of Meliha desert are perfect for a safari!

The smooth sands of Mleiha desert are perfect for a safari!

Khor Fakkan and Mleiha may not be Sharjah’s only (open) secrets, but they sure are worth exploring! We often make the mistake of judging a place by the first look or through someone else’s opinion. It is time we went out on our own to discover what popular media won’t tell us. Some secrets are better kept when shared, don’t you think? I’ve let you in on Sharjah’s secret. Won’t you tell me yours?

Soaking in the breeze of this arid land

Soaking in the breeze of this arid land

Have you also discovered lesser known things about popular places? Let my readers (and me) know through your comments below! 🙂

Don’t forget to follow me on InstagramFacebook and Twitter for more pictures, tips and stories from my travels! Do spread the love by sharing this article with your friends who think Sharjah is all about sand! 🙂

Disclosure: I was hosted by the Sharjah Tourism and Commerce Development Authority. However, all views are entirely my own.

Flying with Air Arabia

It is past 2 in the night. My brain is only half awake. I cannot quite remember how I dragged my sleep-deprived body out of the waiting chair in front the boarding gate for my Air Arabia flight. I blinked through the aisle of this Airbus A320, found my window seat, took off my sneakers, pulled on my eye-mask and got ready to sleep through my 3 hour flight from Mumbai to Sharjah.

Air Arabia's Airbus A320 - the flying machine that brought me to Sharjah

Air Arabia’s Airbus A320 – the flying machine that brought me to Sharjah

Because Kids Do It Better!

I was woken suddenly by a bunch of babbling children reminding me to fasten my seat-belt and keep my seat-back upright. Air Arabia’s in-flight safety video is the cutest one I’ve ever watched! I’ve flown with this airline to Moscow before (read – Glimpses of Moscow – A Photo Essay), and I quite enjoyed watching the same clip. I think you should watch it too! 🙂

You Cannot Fly Without Reading At Least One Magazine!

It is hard to fall back into deep sleep once you’ve been woken. I shrugged at my situation and decided to skim through Nawras – Air Arabia’s in-flight magazine. ‘Nawras’ literally means ‘seagull’ in Arabic. The name is so apt for a publication aboard a plane! That month’s edition had stories from the places where Air Arabia flies. You may also want to read about my first impressions of Sharjah – Air Arabia’s hub.

Ignoring my jet lag with the in-flight magazine

Ignoring my jet lag with the in-flight magazine

Food and Beverage

Before I could doze off again, the flight attendant brought me my pre-ordered meal of masala dosa and tea. Now, Air Arabia is a low-cost carrier, and its fare does not cover any in-flight meal. But you can buy your grub onboard or online. I really wasn’t hungry as this was way past my dinner time and too early for breakfast. But I never say “no” to food.

Time for some midnight snacking!

Time for some midnight snacking!

We Reached On Time!

I looked out my window, hoping to catch 40 winks before the landing, but I could already see signs of civilization, glittering to signal I should lace up my shoes and fold up my tray table. Sigh! But I perked up, remembering why I was in this emirate – to attend the Sharjah Light Festival (read – Glimpses of the Sharjah Light Festival).

Bird's-eye view of Sharjah - just before we land

Bird’s-eye view of Sharjah – just before we land

Have you flown with Air Arabia before? I’d like to know your feedback in the comments below!

Do follow me on InstagramFacebook and Twitter for more pictures and stories from my travels! Please spread the love by sharing this article with your friends who are looking for pocket-friendly airlines to fly to the UAE! 🙂

Disclosure: My flight to Sharjah was sponsored by Air Arabia. However, all views are entirely my own.