Where's all the Emirati cuisine?
In the cultural and culinary melting pot of the United Arab Emirates, travelers can chow on everything from French to Japanese, kimchi to ceviche.
But despite the UAE’s deserved reputation as a culinary capital, one thing is lacking -- Emirati food.
Blame all those expats. They now account for more than 75% of the country's population, even outnumbering locals 11 to 1 by some estimates.
Those numbers are reflected in restaurants in UAE cities –- from Zuma to Hakkasan, trendy gastronomic brands dominate, as do celebrity chef places from the likes of Gary Rhodes, Pierre Gagnaire and Nobu.
Add to the mix great backstreet eateries serving the best Indian food this side of Madras and you can eat from the tables of almost every continent.
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“Emirati restaurants being so scarce did strike me as odd at one time,” says British expat John Thatcher, a UAE resident for nine years.
“But after asking a few questions and discovering that all Arabic food is pretty much the same it no longer surprises me, especially as less than 20 percent of the population is local and there's more chance of attracting tourists by building an outsized mall than stuffing a lamb's arse with rice.”
Still, what few realize is the UAE has a cuisine all its own, one that dates back thousands of years.
Even if it's not easy to find, I want a taste of it: harees, madhroobah, mahshi (this is where the sheep comes in), the kind of food Bedouin tribes ate back when the Burj Khalifa was still a mirage.
The kind of food that today remains largely locked up in Emirati homes.
No Emirati chefs means no Emirati restaurants
My best shot at tasting the real thing is to find an Emirati chef.
I sift through the handful of advertised restaurants and find just one: Ali Ebdowa, or "Chef Ali" as he’s best known. He's a man of legend –- no one I speak to has actually seen him.
Beneath the gargantuan gold dome of Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace, I walk into Mezlai -- billed as "the first Emirati restaurant in the UAE" -- and am ushered into a hot kitchen by Chef Ali himself. Like a riveting episode of "Hell’s Kitchen," there are lots of men in chef whites shouting what sound like Arabic insults at each other.
A bit stocky, with short hair, glasses and a welcoming smile, Chef Ali is friendly and talkative.
"You are Emirati?" I ask Chef Ali.
“Absolutely,” he nods, hoisting a whole lamb onto the steel counter beside me by way of proving the point.
"Why are there so few Emirati restaurants in Dubai and Abu Dhabi?" I ask.
“There are no Emirati restaurants because there are no Emirati chefs,” Chef Ali replies, adding that the lack of local chefs comes down to culture.
While the Western world may obsess over the latest creations of their top chefs, Emiratis -- men especially –- are reluctant to follow cooking on a professional level.
“Emirati people are shy of this job,” says Ali.
“Some men I know, they cook at home but will say to me, ‘No, I don’t cook.' I say, ‘I’m challenging you.' He says, ‘No I don’t cook, even an egg I don’t do.' He thinks this is good, he thinks it’s to be proud of … some people they feel shame, they say ‘Even tea I don’t do.'”
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Hotels would not take the local
Rather than be annoyed at this, Ali is amused. He learned to cook in the military, so few consider his talent a point of emasculation.
“I am an army man, and I like the food I learned from my mother,” he tells me, eyes on the lamb carcass.
Still, Emirati stereotypes have been a hurdle for Ali.
“I feel I have something, but so many hotels would not (employ) ‘the local,'" he says. "They think I want a big salary, that I would not work … It was difficult.”
Ali toughed out the job search and landed posts at Jumeirah Emirates Towers and the Burj Al Arab.
“I was the only Emirati in the whole of Jumeirah," he says. "I worked with 95 nationalities.”
The real thing
So what is true Emirati food?
“The food is the food,” says Ali. “Machbous is machbous [spiced meat with rice], mahshi is mahshi [stuffed cabbage] with meats, rice, chicken and spices ... spices are very, very important. Ours are like Indian spices, but everyone has his own style.”
The rice is sunflower yellow (dyed with orange saffron milk), shark meat is bathed in blood-red sauce (tomato braised), UAE chicken is yellow-tinged (more spice) and sides include “camel milk mash.”
Everything is hearty.
Ali shows me how he’s revived an Emirati cooking tradition and sends a lamb shoulder, wrapped in banana leaves, to be slow-cooked in an earthen hole -- or, in this case, a special oven masquerading as a hole.
Ali says another reason Emirati cuisine been sidelined in favor of foreign cuisine is the Emirati family tradition of sometimes eating with the hands, with many plates, all together at one time.
As for the future, though a wave of young Emirati chefs seems unlikely, it's worth noting that Ali has seven children of his own.
When asked if there’s a budding chef among them, he smiles.
“One," Chef Ali replies.
For now, that's enough to keep a tradition alive.
Where to eat Emirati cuisine in the UAE
Al Fanar Restaurant, Dubai Festival City Mall, Dubai; +971 4 232 9966; www.alfanarrestaurant.com
Al Hadheerah, Bab Al Shams Desert & Spa Resort, Dubailand; +971 4 809 6194; meydanhotels.com/babalshams
Al Makan, Souk Madinat, Jumeirah, Dubai; +971 4 368 6593; www.jumeirah.com
Local House, Bur Dubai, Dubai; +971 4 354 0705; www.localhousedubai.com
Mezlai, Emirates Palace, West Corniche Road, Abu Dhabi; +971 2 690 7999; www.kempinski.com
Do you have a favorite Emirati dish? Share your comments in the box below.