A friend from London visited me recently. Well, to be more accurate, my former university colleague was on a 12-hour transit in Abu Dhabi before hopping on a connecting flight to Sydney.
We got straight to business, and for us, that means food. Our decade-long friendship has always been punctuated by epic meals, so a three-hour culinary session was mandatory. I suggested a Lebanese feast, my reasoning being its variety of shared plates would complement the bonding session. Her withering look suggested otherwise.
“You seriously think I am going to have Lebanese food in Abu Dhabi?” she exclaimed. “I can find that back home in London. Everything is halal in Abu Dhabi, I want to try every cuisine.”
And then I realised, after seven years of living in the UAE, the variety of halal food on offer is something I take for granted. In my former home of Melbourne, Australia, a halal burger joint or a restaurant that served chicken parmigiana that I could eat was a good 15-minute drive away.
In my first few years in the capital, I revelled in the freedom of being able to order virtually anything off the menu without asking if the meat was prepared to Islamic standards. The UAE was recently named the destination of choice by Muslim travellers in an analysis by the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and while the report didn’t name its culinary scene specifically as one of the “key factors”, I would say it is high up there.
In addition to great cultural events, my Abu Dhabi experience has definitely widened my palate, with its halal options covering all corners of the globe.
So, in that spirit, I devised an impromptu food trail for my pal, with the goal of trying cuisines that are hard to find in halal form back in Australia. We began in Dragon Bao Bao cafeteria, a small gem of a Chinese restaurant off Hamdan Street. While halal noodles are accessible in Australia, the dumplings are harder to find. It was gratifying to see her polish off a bowl of steamed beef dumplings in a few minutes.
We hopped back in a cab for a five-minute drive to the Russian Kitchen House Cafeteria for some Ukrainian grub (the owner and chef Anna once told me it was a convenient name considering her restaurant was next to the Russian Embassy). Here, my friend and I dug into a famous-in-the-UAE borscht, a hearty soup with a colourful mix of lean meat, beetroots, vegetables and sour cream.
I saved the best for last: with no halal French restaurants in Sydney, as far we both know, we had our main meals at Abu Dhabi institution, Le Beaujolais on Hamdan Street. We wasted no time and went straight for the meat. She tried her first roasted duck leg and I went for my usual medium rib-eye steak. “Mashallah, you are lucky to live here,” she said, tired and sleepy after our mini Abu Dhabi halal tour.
“I know,” I smiled. “Alhamdulilah.”
Read more from Saeed: