The UAE restaurant scene serves up dishes from every corner of the globe, and now a tantalising initiative is shining the spotlight on the national cuisine. The Emirati Cuisine Programme (ECP), led by Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism, completed its second phase this month, which involved training the capital’s top chefs in Emirati cuisine.
Now, 46 hotels across Abu Dhabi are offering their own take on Emirati classics – serving everything from 24k-gold-dusted luqaimat to fluffy chebabs – with a view to elevate authentic local cuisine to new heights.
From the intoxicating smells emanating from the kitchen to the varied dishes that form a medley of colour on the plate, Emirati food is a lesson in not only flavour, but also history, culture and hospitality – and there’s no better person to bring it to the city’s diners than local chef Khulood Atiq.
Throughout her career, Atiq has trained fellow chefs in Emirati cooking techniques and has appeared on numerous cooking shows to promote the cuisine. ECP has given her the biggest platform yet to raise the profile of these dishes, and educate international chefs across the capital about traditional recipes and cooking methods through virtual training sessions. The chefs, in turn, introduce the dishes to the hotels and restaurants they helm across the capital, thus opening up the cuisine to more and more diners.
“Emirati cuisine is the closest to my heart and a pure reflection of my childhood and memories,'' says Atiq. "The first dish I learnt to make was Emirati, and I was always eager to learn more about the food of my ancestors.
“It is part of our culture and heritage that I am proud of, and I am pleased to have had a chance to educate people about it.”
The dedication the “country’s first female national chef” feels in promoting Emirati cuisine is unwavering, despite facing countless challenges along the way.
“Everyone assumed I couldn't handle the high pressure and long working hours that come with being a chef, solely because I am Emirati, let alone a woman standing in the kitchen among all-male colleagues,” she says.
“[When I started] a female wearing a chef’s coat instead of an abaya was an oddity, but I am proud to say that people’s perceptions changed when they saw I was committed, strong and confident.
“I feel like a role model for other female Emirati chefs and I’m encouraging them to hold their own in any kitchen.”
Atiq has changed perceptions in not only her own kitchen, but also kitchens around the world with chefs clambering for a place on the programme. “There’s been an overall positive response, to the extent that some hotel chefs from the first phase of the programme continued into the second phase to learn new recipes,” Atiq says.
For Jouni Ibrahim, executive sous chef at Conrad Hotels & Resorts, the opportunity to learn Emirati cuisine from Atiq was not something he could pass. “Emirati food has an incredible amount of flavour with an astounding diversity in its spices,” he says. “As a chef, it’s an exciting cuisine to cook and I love learning new skills.”
The new dishes available at the hotel’s Li Beirut Lebanese restaurant include luqaimat dusted in real gold, as well as tender lamb shank machboos.
“I’ve kept the traditional taste with authentic ingredients and spices, and added our own twist to the presentation,” says Ibrahim. “So far the response has been amazing; our diners love it.”
Over at Saadiyat Rotana Resort & Villas, chef de cuisine Mohamed Bouhlal is of the firm belief that visitors to the UAE should be able to sample its flavours. “Abu Dhabi is becoming known as a destination for great food, and it’s important that Emirati cuisine is part of that,” says the chef, who is originally from Morocco.
The hotel has introduced traditional dishes including harees, machboos, luqaimat and madrooba to its all-day dining restaurant, banquets and in-room dining, and Bouhlal is keen to continue expanding Emirati options.
“The flavours and hospitality are an integral part of the UAE culture, and as a local brand, we are proud to not only introduce, but also elevate local food,” he says. “I plan to continue to expand the menu, but for now I can’t recommend the chebab enough.”
Guests at the Crowne Plaza Yas Island will also be able to tuck into authentic dishes including fish machboos and tahta shrimp, thanks to the efforts of cluster executive chef Oscar Cardenas Diaz, who took on the ECP training with Atiq.
“We want people to visit our hotel and get an insight into the unique Emirati culture, and then go home and tell everyone about our food,” says the chef, who is originally from Buenos Aires.
“You understand a country by tasting its food, and we want to share an explosion of flavours from the UAE.”
Atiq, who has also published a book about Emirati cuisine, taught the first phase of the ECP in 2020 and has since adapted the flavours to accommodate a global palate.
“Inspired by Abu Dhabi's diverse population of more than 200 nationalities, the second phase of the Emirati Cuisine Programme featured new fusion recipes that intertwined the cuisine with classic dishes from other cultures,” she explains.
“For example, chef Sandeep Ail from Punjab Grill fused Indian and Emirati flavours to create standout dishes that include fragrant Emirati-spiced Gulf shrimp, sumptuous samak machboos and Hyderabadi oonth ka kebab.”
“Meanwhile, chef Don Munasinghe from Osmo Lounge and Bar added an Emirati touch to the restaurant’s quirky drinks and desserts menu, with sweet sticky luqaimat cream puffs, light fluffy gahwa tiramisu and a surprisingly delicate saffron milk cake.
“With cuisine, we should always be searching for new ideas, inspired by the world around us and focusing on unique tastes and stunning presentation,” says Atiq. “If we want to stand out among international cuisines, it is essential to look for novelty and experiment with trends.”
Of the 46 hotels that have completed the programme, 23 are new graduates of the second phase, doubling the options for Emirati cuisine in Abu Dhabi.
For Atiq, it’s a resounding success. “Our local dishes are a true reflection of the UAE's trading heritage, with Emirati food infused with spices and ingredients from across Asia and the Middle East,” she says.
“It is crucial for me to educate chefs on the right way to prepare and present local dishes, and consequently change Abu Dhabi’s culinary landscape by bringing Emirati cuisine to the forefront.”