Food trails: the history of Emirati cuisine and where to go for the best traditional dishes

In the first of a four-part series exploring the different cuisines of the Arab region, the focus is on Emirati food. We talk to restaurateurs and local families to find out about its history and how it has evolved over time.

Chicken majboos, centre, surrounded by traditional mezze dishes. Getty Images
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“Simple yet filling, light yet heavy.” This is how Umm Ahmed describes Emirati food. The 72-year-old mother of five from Dubai has been preparing local cuisine since she was 10. In her daily dishes, Umm Ahmed sees the birth of the ­nation.

“We took a bit from the sea, a bit from the mountains, a bit from the oasis and a bit from the desert,” she says.

“Then we took what the ships and caravans brought, put it all together and invented the Emirati cuisine.”

Given the UAE’s location, along the path of both the silk and spice roads, it is not surprising that this influenced its culinary palate.

Many of the traditional dishes have meat, dairy, cereals, wheat and ghee in them. Popular spices include turmeric, saffron, cardamom, cinnamon, pepper and salt, as well as ingredients from desert plants, such as the leaves of the Al Ghaf tree.

Modern Emirati dishes use plenty of chicken, but before the oil boom often the only poultry available was the species of birds indigenous to the region, such as the Houbara bustards.

On special occasions, such as the wedding of an important local figure, camel meat was served. Today, cultural festivals often put a twist on this tradition by offering modern variations such as camel burgers.

“In our cuisine, there is always some rice, some meat or chicken, some type of bread and then we have something very sweet: pastries dipped with date syrup,” Umm Ahmed says. “We used camel’s milk as well as goat’s milk for many of our dishes before.”

She rattles off the list of dishes that regularly appear on her dining table – majboos rice with chicken or meat (a special spiced dish that often also includes potatoes), marqoq (special curry chicken with bread), lamb or goat thareed (stew) with dried lemon, fareed (vegetable stew served with rgaag thin bread) and maleh (salted fish) dishes with rice.

Breakfast offerings include bread and sweet options, such as mohalla, a traditional sweet flatbread served with local honey and cheese, chbaab pancakes or khameer yeast bread, served with date syrup, local honey and cheese.

Some of the dishes put an Emirati take on popular Arab dishes, including harees – a type of wheat pudding or porridge with beef, spices and local ghee.

“Harees takes a long time to make [more than five or six hours] and was the food of the rich,” says Umm Ahmed. “The richest household in a neighbourhood would make enough for the whole neighbourhood during Ramadan. It captured the essence of sharing, which is part of our tradition.”

Harees also has religious roots. A stew version of the dish – called haleem – with lentils and sometimes rice was reportedly eaten by the Prophet Mohammed. It is also one of the oldest documented dishes in the region. It was mentioned in the 10th century by Ibn Sayyar Al Warraq, who compiled a cookbook Kitab Al Tabikh [Book of Dishes] with the caliphs of Islam's golden age.

As with most cuisines, traditional Emirati food is not immune to modernisation and globalisation to make it more practical for modern lifestyles.

“We know how people are always on the go, so we modernised the salona – a traditional Bedouin stew made with local vegetables, served with white rice,” says Shaikha Al Kaabi, founder of Emirati restaurant Meylas, in Abu Dhabi’s Al Muneera.

“We made it drier and rolled it up in flatbread so our customers can eat it as a sandwich.”

Meylas is a local expression that means “majlis” or a place where people gather. The traditional decor reflects this, featuring wood and handicrafts, and local music plays in the background. The eaterie was launched in 2014 as a food truck, and the restaurant celebrated its one-year anniversary in June.

“There weren’t enough authentic Emirati-food restaurants when I first thought of the idea in 2011,” says 34-year-old Al Kaabi. “I wanted a place where both the Emiratis can come and feel like they are coming home, and for the expats to discover our cuisine and ­heritage.”

Expatriates also brought something new to the UAE’s culinary experience. The British, for example, introduced the region to the much-loved sugary drink Vimto, drank in Ramadan. They also brought soda water, used to make nimlat or namleet, which roughly translates as “lemonade”.

“Back in the day, with limited options of items that were imported here, this was one of our go-to thirst quenchers,” says Al Kaabi.

As a crossroads of different civilisations and trade routes, UAE cuisine continues to tell the story of its place and time.

“It is simple, as it is born in a simple environment,” says chef Musabbeh Al Kaabi, the Emirati executive Oriental chef at Jumeirah Zabeel Saray in Dubai. “For example, there aren’t many fruits or vegetables as they don’t grow here naturally – and only recently, we have added imported and home-grown ingredients such as tomato, cucumbers and so on.”

Emiratis like their food very sweet and very spicy, he adds.

“Traditional dishes are made up of ingredients that were easily found, such as fish and salt from the sea, or the goat dishes because the livestock of the Bedouins here consisted of this particular animal,” says Al Kaabi.

“In the mountains, for example, they used honey they found produced by the bees there. Rice and the spices we use today are those that used to be brought over from India along the spice route, then we came up with our own mixes.”

Which brings us to the defining element that distinguishes Emirati cuisine from others – the ­spices.

“The spice route was actually more of a water route, with spices and herbs transported over the sea on dhows from the East to the West,” says Hasan Alnaboodah, an Emirati professor of history and dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain.

Sailors, pearl divers and fishermen would stop at the spice and herb souq in the UAE to stock up on items that would protect them from dehydration, skin problems, indigestion and fever at sea.

“It was quite an aromatic route,” Alnaboodah adds.

While the route went global many years ago, its lasting influence remains in the taste of the Emirates.

• Next week: we check out the influences that make up Iraqi cuisine