Meals, deals and dishes to try
1 Frying Pan Adventures's National Day Food and History Crawl will take place in Dubai on December 8, offering guests the opportunity to "hunt out nuggets of Emirati food, culture and society, while walking down memory lane in Deira". Expect a delicious fusion of history, interaction, exploration, food, and insights. Book at www.fryingpanadventures.com.
2 The newly opened Dickey's Barbecue Pit, a Texan restaurant in Yas Mall, Abu Dhabi, will offer its signature barbecue sandwich and refillable Big Yellow Cup (pictured right) for Dh47.
3 Fancy a free coffee or meal? Visit Park House at Nessnass Beach, Dubai, between 9am and noon and enjoy a cup of joe, gratis. Or head to Taqado Mexican Kitchen's Mercarto Mall location at 5pm, when it will be giving away 1,000 burritos.
4 Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi has a whole host of National Day events and activities planned. On the food side of things, you can try themed cakes and afternoon tea at Le Cafe, new additions to the menu at Emirati restaurant Mezlai, and take in the hotel's impressive display of dates.
5 Cascade Dining at Yas Mall on Yas Island has three days of fun, child-friendly festivities planned, many of which have a foodie slant, such as interactive cooking classes that will teach little ones to form the UAE flag out of food. Visit www.cascadedining.ae.
6 Origins, the pop-up craft market at The Sustainable City in Dubai, which celebrates ethical, eco-friendly products, will mark National Day with activities celebrating the UAE's heritage and food, as well as live music and market stalls.
7 Dine at Seven Sands restaurant at The Beach, opposite JBR, today, and you can sample its Emirati Culinary Experience menu (dishes include bezar salad with yak cheese, harees, fish fouga and camel milk ice cream), while watching the fireworks from the terrace. It was also serve legemat in the colours of the UAE flag.
8 Should your plans include a trip to The Beach to take in the fireworks (the sky will be lighting up at 8pm tonight), also note that Almaz by Momo is running a set menu for Dh99, or you can go taco-crazy at Poco Loco with unlimited tacos for Dh111, or enjoy hot and cold mezze, a main course, dessert and drink for Dh175 at Awani restaurant.
9 Take a trip to the Sharjah branch of Al Fanar Restaurant, and you'll spot something rather special: a mural of the UAE flag measuring 4.8 metres by 2.4 metres made entirely of spices.
10 Check out Treej Cafe, a young, funky Emirati cafe with locations in Al Ain, Sharjah and Dubai. Expect Instagram-worthy decor and a mix of international fare and local dishes including an excellent Emirati breakfast spread featuring om balaleet, chebab, regag, keema and Arabic tea.
11 If you're in Abu Dhabi and fancy sampling Emirati food in a picturesque setting, head to Meylas at Al Raha Beach. There are several interesting dishes on the menu, but for a gentle and delicious start to the day we recommend the mohalla (sweet flatbread served with honey and cheese) and a glass of chai zaatar.
12 Also note that Meylas's distinctive food truck will be parking up at Zayed Sports City as part of the extensive food offering for today's National Day celebrations.
13 Home-grown craft chocolate-maker Mirzam Chocolate will serve a gahwa speciality hot chocolate infused with Emirati coffee and cardamom at its in-house cafe and chocolate factory in Dubai. It has also created a special-edition Emirati Collection Gift Box, featuring a hand-drawn illustration by Emirati artist Saeed Al Madan, and containing an array of chocolate inspired by local flavours – think dark milk chocolate with crispy rgag bread, dark chocolate with halwa brittle and white chocolate aseeda.
14 For dessert at The Beach, there are patriotic options a-plenty: indulge in National Day-themed macaroons at Laudree or cupcakes from Leopold's of London, or opt for legomat at Seven Sands.
15 Gaucho DIFC will serve a 2 for 1 Roast today and tomorrow, with Bife de Chorizo or Bife de Ancho served with Yorkshire pudding, roasted potatoes and all the trimmings.
Experts on the diversity of the UAE food scene
16 As one of the region's longest-standing and most respected food bloggers, Sally Prosser is known for her thought-provoking posts. "My favourite thing about food in the UAE is that with 200 different nationalities making this their home, they all bring their food. From Ethiopian feasts eaten by hand to Filipino boodle fights and everything in-between, it's a way to connect with different cultures through something that unites us all."
17 Riath Hamed, founder of Balqees Honey, which specialises in raw Yemeni honey, agrees with Prosser: "Food provides a meeting point for a fusion of cultures – everyone brings a little of themselves to the UAE and contributes to the richness and variety. For example, I describe myself as Yorkshire-Yemeni with a strong heritage from both; in the UAE, I can order perfect Yorkshire pudding at a smart table with gleaming cutlery or I can sit on floor cushions to share traditional mandi, eaten by hand."
18 Ian Ohan, founder and chief executive of Freedom Pizza, describes the business as "a fiercely proud, made-in-the-UAE company" and says that its success is a testament to the spirit of the region and its people. "Today, we celebrate the UAE's unwavering drive and ambition, its cultural diversity, leadership and the incredible entrepreneurial spirit that is the backdrop in fostering one of the most vibrant, innovative and dynamic food and beverage industries in the world. The UAE food scene has moved from being the recipient of the best and most innovative restaurants in the world, to creator."
19 "I have a hunch that we're breaking – and should be celebrating – a world record in food, even though I've got no data to support it," says Arva Ahmed, founder of Frying Pan Adventures with a laugh. "We preserve the highest number of food cultures and ingredients from the old world. Whether you're looking for Afghan kebabs or Egyptian molokhia, Chinese hot pot or Palestinian musakhan, Georgian khinkali or Indian dosas, you can really eat through the spectrum of foods here. World record or not, that variety is worth celebrating across the meals we enjoy in the UAE every day."
Uniquely UAE dishes and drinks
From ever-so sweet beverages to surprising sandwiches, there are some delightfully unusual items to be found on UAE restaurant menus. How many have you tried?
20 Chips Oman sandwich: can you call yourself a true UAE resident until you've devoured a hot-from-the-pan paratha bursting with processed cream cheese, hot sauce and crushed Chips Oman crisps (spicy flavour, of course)? Try it at Abu Dhabi's Baith Al Baraka
21 More Chips Oman: riffing on the same theme, but moving away from the nostalgic original is the Chips Oman Doughnut at Il Donnaccino in Dubai – deep-fried dough filled and topped with cream cheese, grated cheese, Chips Oman crisps and chill flakes.
22 Gold leaf coffee: described as "the epitome of indulgence", the Palace Cappuccino served at Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi comes with a liberal sprinkling of real 24K gold dust. Whether it tastes better than a dusting of cocoa powder is still up for debate, though.
23 Vimto: this is not strictly exclusive to the UAE of course, but the quantity and enthusiasm with which this distinctive sweet drink (which originates from the United Kingdom) is quaffed, is certainly worth noting.
24 All things camel milk: the health benefits and versatility of camel milk have been getting some serious recognition on the international food scene of late. In the UAE, we're well ahead of the game, consuming all manner of camel-milk dishes and drinks, from lattes and milkshakes to chocolate bars, ice creams, cheeses and more.
25 Legemat of many flavours: there are plenty of familiar dishes on the menu at Emirati restaurant Logma (which has locations in The Dubai Mall's Fashion Avenue and at Boxpark on Al Wasl Road), but it's the legemat that really gets people talking (and buzzing from the sugar), thanks to toppings such as milk and white chocolate with Oreo crumbs, salted caramel and pecan nuts, and Biscoff spread with Lotus crumbs.
26 Shawarma, more shawarma: the scope for eating shawarma in the UAE is second to none – you can munch the much-loved wrap at hole-in-the-wall joints galore, take your time over a shawarma platter, sample deconstructed versions of the street food in high-end spots or brave shawarma sushi. Whichever way you roll, we say keep the toum (garlic sauce) coming.
27 Butter chicken at Ravi's: a UAE institution rather than a hidden gem, the fact that the original Ravi's in Satwa is home to many a UAE resident's weekend treat, occasional cheat, and farewell meal as they prepare to depart the country, is a testament to the simple brilliance of this spot (and gives an indication of how good its butter chicken is).
Emirati cuisine: a quick (and far from exhaustive) primer
28 Dates: the small, sweet fruits native are a popular snack and a key ingredient of many traditional dishes. They are also said to hold many health benefits. As the old Emirati saying goes: "Al tamr mesmar al rukba", which means the date is the nail of the knee.
29 Loomi: known for its unique tart and sour taste, loomi is a staple in spice cabinets throughout the Middle East. Sometimes called "black lime", loomi is made by boiling fresh limes in salt water, before leaving them to dry out in the sun, which gives them their distinctive look and flavour.
30 Rosewater: used in Middle Eastern cooking for centuries, this flavoured water is made by steeping rose petals in water. It is often sprinkled over cakes and milky puddings such as kheer, or added to syrups and jelly mixes.
31 Ghee: this clarified butter might originate from India, but it is widely used in Emirati households. Ghee was originally created to stop butter from spoiling in the warm weather, and can go for weeks without being refrigerated.
32 Cardamom: made from the seeds of the Elettaria and Amomum plants, cardamom is used in many traditional drinks, and it is what gives Arabic coffee its unique flavour.
33 Majboos: this hearty, pilaf-like dish combines rice, potatoes and marinated lamb, chicken or seafood flavoured with bezar, a traditional Emirati spice, among others.
34 Regag: this thin, almost crepe-like bread is equally good topped with melted butter or mahyahway (fish sauce), as it is eaten with eggs, zaatar or cream cheese. It can also be crumbled into pieces to form the base of thareed – a traditional meat broth.
35 Aseeda bobar: a must-try dessert made from pumpkins cooked to a smooth, sweet puree. It is often infused with saffron, cardamom, rosewater or cinnamon and topped with ghee, dates and almonds or currents.
36 Thareed: featuring a hearty mix of meat (usually lamb) with vegetables and potatoes and the aforementioned regag, this Bedouin dish may be thousands of years old, but its popularity endures.
37 Ice cream: specifically of the camel-milk variety. Arguably not an entirely traditional dish, however camel-milk ice cream features on menus at a number of modern Emirati restaurants, where its slightly salty flavour cleverly offsets any sugary toppings.
38 Chebab: small, sweet porous pancake that hint deliciously at the taste of saffron, and are often served for breakfast with cream cheese, date syrup or honey.
39 Ursiyah: this is a silky, easy-to-eat dish that's best described as a soupy, savoury porridge, made from rice and chicken simply simmered in broth. Comfort food at its most gentle.
40 Iced jallab: the classic purple-hued drink (made from a blend of dates, molasses and rose water) is at its refreshing best when served over crushed ice and finished with a garnish of pine nuts and raisins.
41 Saffron: this spice imbues sweet dishes such as balaleet and legemat with its distinctive aroma, adds depth and complexity to rice and stews, and gives Arabic coffee an extra flavour dimension.
42 Samosas: an import from India, yes, but the popularity and frequency with which samosas appear in Emirati meals, makes them worthy of note. There is also plenty of appreciation for Emirati samboosas, which see the crisp, flaky pastries dusted with bezar before serving.
43 Bezar: a flavourful, aromatic Emirati spice mix which commonly includes a medley of flavours including dried limes (loomi), ground coriander, cumin, black pepper, turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and red chilli peppers.
44 Qamar el-din: with its sunshine-yellow hue and thick, pulpy texture, qamar el-din is a popular drink during Ramadan. Its origins can be traced back to Syria, while the name translates as "moon of the faithful". It is prepared by soaking apricot leather in water before straining them and mixing with water, sugar and often a drop or two of orange blossom.
The future of the regional food scene
45 Sally Prosser on Emirati food: "I'm glad that the food of our host nation is now becoming more accessible. It's emerging from private gatherings and into restaurants, where everyone can enjoy this delicious cuisine, which has evolved from a number of different influences."
46 Iranian cookbook author Ariana Bundy, who lives in Dubai, on where she believes Middle Eastern food is headed: "It's wonderful that we're celebrating Middle Eastern food, but I'd like to see this even more. Ingredients such as rosewater, pomegranates, pistachios and saffron all feature in Iranian, Moroccan, Tunisian and Emirati cooking, and yet the way they are used, and indeed taste, in each of these regional dishes is unique and very different to one another.This is something we have yet to explore further and really should."
47 UAE food critic and host of Sony Television Asia's Weekend Out show Gaurav Tandon says that the breadth and diversity of food on offer in the UAE deserves international recognition: "When I'm travelling and someone asks me to describe the food and restaurant scene in the UAE, it makes me feel very proud to tell them to simply think of a cuisine that they want to try, and the UAE will provide it to a world-class standard," he says.