Gluten-free in the UAE

With the demand for gluten-free products on the rise, we talk to Areej Jomaa, the owner of the only 100 per cent gluten-free bakery in Dubai, who also makes specially tailored foods for allergy sufferers.
Gluten-free bread from Sweet Connection. Pawan Singh / The National
Gluten-free bread from Sweet Connection. Pawan Singh / The National

Ten years ago, regardless of the country in which you resided, a request for gluten-free flour or pasta that wasn’t made from wheat is likely to have proved fruitless or necessitated a trip to a specialist store. However, the recent gluten-free food boom has put paid to that and moved this once-niche market firmly into the mainstream. An article in the UK’s Daily Telegraph in June 2010 reported: “Supermarkets said that so-called ‘free from’ foods aimed at people with food intolerances were the fastest-growing category over the last 12 months.”

While the UAE may have been a little slower to adapt, step into one of the major supermarkets today and many have designated gluten-free sections selling ready-made goods and baking ingredients such as rice flour and tapioca starch.

Areej Jomaa first started experimenting with gluten-free ingredients long before the term became widely known: her sister was diagnosed with coeliac disease 20 years ago and she has been devising recipes for her ever since.

Earlier this year, having lived and baked in a number of different countries – in Cyprus she delivered cookies to a local school on a daily basis, while in Qatar she started a small business specialising in gluten-free and diabetes-friendly products – she opened Sweet Connection, Dubai’s first 100 per cent gluten-free commercial kitchen.

This was, she says, a natural progression. Thanks to her regular stand at the weekly Ripe market at the Dubai Garden Centre and a host of word-of-mouth recommendations, it was no longer feasible to run the business she established in 2005 from home.

These days, with the help of two assistants, she bakes a wide range of gluten-free goods made from high-quality, natural ingredients in an airy, spotless kitchen in the Greens Community.

All the products – pizza, cookies, cakes, flavoured breads, doughnuts, brownies, focaccia and much more – are made from scratch and Jomaa is meticulous about ensuring that every ingredient that crosses the threshold of the Sweet Connection kitchen is devoid of gluten. While some of the items she uses are sourced from Canada, the majority can be found in the UAE – she particularly recommends the selection at Dubai’s Park n Shop, as well as Organic Foods & Cafe.

Jomaa also caters for people suffering from other food intolerances and makes dairy, egg, sugar, soy and nut-free goods on demand. As her reputation has grown, doctors at the Dubai Herbal & Treatment Centre have referred a number of patients to her; she studies their test results and blood work and concocts recipes tailored to individual needs. “I make special chocolate cupcakes for a little boy who has a number of allergies – it means that he can take them with him when he goes to a party and doesn’t feel left out. I have another customer whose daughter had never had pizza before, but we created a recipe for her and she loved it. I then keep the recipes on file, ready for next time,” she explains.

While customers with more specific dietary requirements often like to speak to Jomaa in person or visit the Sweet Connection kitchen before placing an order, it is possible to purchase goods by ordering online ( or over the phone. Sweet Connection products are also sold at the Ripe Farm shop; at the Ripe Market in Dubai Garden Centre; at the Ripe Market in Al Raha Gardens, Abu Dhabi; and when they reopen after the summer, at the Baker & Spice Farmer’s Market on the Terrace in Dubai. In the coming weeks the company expects to start operating a home-delivery service throughout -Dubai.

What is coeliac disease?

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease, whereby the body reacts to gluten (a protein commonly found in wheat, barley and rye) by damaging the lining of the small intestine and hindering the absorption and digestion of nutrients. Due to the wide number of symptoms it can be very difficult to diagnose. It is generally regarded that the most efficient means of testing for coeliac disease is through a biopsy.

Eating gluten-free in the UAE is an online shop selling all manner of gluten-free items, from dry goods such as cereal, pasta and bread, to sweets, crackers, snacks, pastries and condiments, as well as skincare products. It offers home delivery throughout the UAE and it’s worth checking out its recipe data base and signing up to the weekly newsletter to learn about special offers.

Gluten Free UAE, a non-profit awareness group set up by the Dubai-based mother Linda Forster, has rapidly become the go-to site for those looking to live a wheat-free existence in the Emirates. This informative website ( offers a wealth of relevant information, from advice on where to shop for gluten-free products to recommendations about doctors or hospitals that are particularly apt at dealing with coeliac disease or gluten intolerance, as well as recipes and stories from other members. The group organises regular meet-ups (there is an “Ask the Doctor” event planned for September 29) and are active on Facebook and Twitter (@GlutenFreeUAE).

The Dubai-based Iranian-born chef Ariana Bundy’s first book, Sweet Alternative, features more than 100 dessert recipes, all of which are free of gluten, dairy and soy. Bundy is a Le Cordon Bleu-trained pastry chef who discovered that she had a number of food intolerances after qualifying. She decided that this wasn’t going to stop her enjoying the occasional sweet treat and put her training to good use here. From the pink peach and quinoa crumble to the white chocolate mochi cake, there are some really interesting ideas in this book.


Gluten-free sandwich bread

Makes 1 loaf


2/3 cup sorghum flour

1/3 cup gluten-free cornmeal

1/2 cup millet flour

1 cup potato starch

2 tsp xanthan gum

1 tsp salt

2 eggs

2 ¼ tsp gluten free yeast

1 ¼ cups warm water

4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

3 tbsp agave nectar or honey

1/2 tsp mild-tasting rice vinegar

sesame seeds



First, whisk the dry ingredients in a bowl and set aside.

Proof the yeast in the warm water for 15 minutes, then add a pinch of sugar.

Add the proofed yeast to the dry ingredients, then add the olive oil, agave nectar, rice vinegar and eggs.

Beat until a smooth batter forms.

Scrape the dough into a 1.5-pound loaf tin and smooth the surface evenly using wet fingers. Top with sesame seeds.

Allow the dough to rise in a warm place for 20 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 180°C/350°F.


Bake the bread until it sounds hollow when thumped. This will take around 30 to 40 minutes.


Gluten-free chocolate mocha biscotti


2 ¼ cups almond meal

1/4 cup cocoa powder

2 tbsp arrowroot

1 tbsp coffee, espresso grind

1/4 tsp salt

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 cup agave nectar



With an electric mixer, combine the almond meal, cocoa powder, arrowroot, ground coffee, salt and baking soda. Pulse until ingredients are well combined.

Next, pulse in the agave nectar until the dough forms a ball.

Remove the dough, form into two long logs and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Bake at 180°C/350°F for 15 minutes then remove from the oven and cool for one hour.

Cut the logs into half-inch slices on the diagonal with a sharp knife. Spread the slices on a baking sheet and bake for another 12 to 15 minutes.


Remove from the oven and cool.


Sweet Connection, The Gluten Free Kitchen, Dubai Investment Park, Green Community, Mayfair Building Shop #6. To place an order, call 050 876 3351 or email


Published: September 19, 2012 04:00 AM


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