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