Dubai street food and traditional regional specialties that have to be tried – what are my top five? That’s what a reader has asked today in response to our story yesterday on Where to Eat in Dubai and the best street food streets and eating neighbourhoods. Here you go…
Yesterday I posted a detailed yet very personal guide to where to eat Dubai street food focused on the buzzy eat streets and gritty neighbourhoods that we loved to forage in during the many years we lived in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
A reader heading to the UAE on a brief stopover asked for the must-try dishes in Dubai and as it’s a super-short stopover asked for our top five. What a tough choice in a city with so much extraordinary food.
Coincidentally today, another friend and former Dubai resident said, in response to that same post, how much he was missing the food in Dubai. And this guy lives in China! I have to confess that writing that guide had me reminiscing about all the great eating we did there over a decade and had me longing for the food, too.
I sat down and thought about the things I really missed from our time there: za’atar croissants fresh from the bakery for breakfast; really tasty hummus, muttabal, tabbouli, fattoush, and perfect kebbe (crunchy on the outside, fluffy within, with a perfectly seasoned minced and pine nut mixture in the centre) from our go-to Arabic joints; a succulent, smoky ‘mixed grill’ (an assortment of perfectly barbecued meats); honey-soaked baklava and sweet creamy slices infused with orange blossom… and I could go on…
But then I thought about what people have access to in this increasingly cosmopolitan world that we live in, where wonders like knafeh are popular in places like Australia – thanks to a cool group of dancing and singing, Palestinian-Australian, bearded baker brothers, with a mobile ‘food truck’ (actually, a converted shipping container) who travel all over Sydney spreading the word of knafeh.
So I carefully selected my top five Dubai street food and traditional regional specialties that you have to try based not only on the snacks and dishes I have really missed since leaving the Middle East, but the specialties that I think are quintessentially Dubai (for us, anyway), even if they came from Lebanon or Iran or India, and the things that you probably can’t find so easily in your home-towns. But who knows when things like knafeh become insanely popular in Australia.
And don’t worry, I’m not going to leave this at five dishes. We’re going to expand on this guide so do let us know what your favourite Dubai street food and traditional regional specialties are that you think visitors to Dubai should try and we’ll add them to this list.
Dubai Street Food and Traditional Regional Specialties You Must Try
Dates and Cardamom Coffee
Arrive at an Emirati home and you’ll be shown to the majlis, a formal meeting room separated from private family spaces. After setting a box of tissues in front of you (to wipe away the inevitable perspiration from your brow), your host will offer a dish of delicious Emirati-grown dates and a tiny cup into which will be poured aromatic cardamom coffee.
You need to delicately move your cup from side to side to indicate you’re ready for another. Accept three to be polite. Many Dubai hotels have adopted this ritual to welcome guests in the lobby. Don’t decline! It may be your only chance to sample a slice of authentic homegrown Arabian hospitality.
Originally from the Levant – Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine – the shawarma has been adopted by Emiratis as their go-to fast food snack. Locally it translates to ‘sandwich’, yet the beloved flatbread roll is more like a pita roll or wrap in the West.
It’s eaten in the evenings, and well into the night, at Arabic eateries which stay open until late; some 24 hours. Look for a sweaty guy carving crisp, succulent slivers of lamb or chicken off outdoor vertical rotisseries, into warm Arabic flatbread spread with garlicky sauce or tangy salad. Try the branches of Automatic, dotted around UAE cities. Look out for camel shawarma!
Of Indian, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, and Pakistani heritage, the marvel that is biryani is another dish enthusiastically adopted by Emiratis. Layers of mixed rices are combined with cooked meat, vegetables, ghee, and spices such as cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander, pepper, and bay leaves.
Cooked in a sealed pot, the finished biryani is sprinkled with fried onion, garlic, and cashews. Served at home and a take-away favorite, biryani appears on menus at most Indian restaurants. Try Foodlands eateries across the UAE.
The kebab is to the Middle East and Sub-Continent as the burger is to America. There are infinite varieties, from Iraq to Iran, but the essential component is marinated meat, barbecued on skewers, and served with char-grilled vegetables, rice or flat bread, and washed down with strong black tea.
In the UAE the King of Kebabs is the Chelo Kebab, from Persia, a delicious ground beef kebab, spiced with turmeric, sumac and saffron, rubbed with butter, and served with white rice and salad. Special Ostadi’s has a place in the heart of many an Emirati and expat.
If you only sample one dessert before you leave the UAE, it’s a tough call whether that should be the creamy, cheesy knafeh, found across the Middle East, or a distinctly Emirati dessert, such as luqaimat, but that’s what I’m going to go for.
While not as decadent as the sugar syrup-soaked baked pastry, sprinkled liberally with pistachios, the glossy, golden puffs of deep fried dough, drenched in date syrup remind Emiratis of their childhoods, when times were simpler.
Watch these – and other Emirati specialties – being made at the Dubai Heritage and Diving Village by local ladies in black abayas (the black cloak they wear), shaylahs (the elegant scarves) and bronze burqas (in the Arabian Gulf these are masks that conceal the nose and mouth only).
Our Tips for Sampling Dubai’s Street Food and Traditional Regional Specialties
- Do a Dubai street food tour. We recommend you hit the ground running and do a street food tour. Try Frying Pan Adventures culinary excursions, which are guided by two self-described “food history nerds”, Arva and Farida, who grew up in Dubai.
- Use Dubai’s excellent metro system to get between the Dubai eat streets and foodie neighbourhoods we recommend, although in the evening you’ll probably want to take taxis.
- When you’re exploring Dubai on foot – even in winter in Dubai – make sure you drink plenty of water and wear a hat and sunscreen to avoid heatstroke.
- Grab a fresh fruit juice, when you see one. Dubai does them so well. They’ll provide a much needed sugar rush, but note that they are very filling.
- We’ve never been sick from Dubai street food and traditional food in local eateries, but take the usual precautions and look for cleanliness and also wash your own hands.
- You might also like our post on how to experience ‘the real Dubai’.