If you're a food-lover, Ramadan is akin to the Olympics. Throughout the holy month, dozens of Abu Dhabi's hotels vie for customers' attentions through their buffets. The cuisines on offer are wide and varied, ranging from local to Indian, Japanese and Thai.
We city residents love it. I know people – admittedly single people – who are yet to have an iftar at home. Instead, like explorers, they trawl through different Abu Dhabi venues in search of the perfect lamb ouzi, harees or Umm Ali.
While that’s all well and good, the hotel buffet is only one small part of Abu Dhabi’s food scene during Ramadan. What I’ve learned over the years living in the capital is, if you’re serious about the delicacies this month has to offer, one has to step away from the luxurious hotels and enter the relatively gritty streets and neighbourhoods of downtown.
There, you'll find a slew of restaurants that do a roaring trade, thanks to the dishes they focus on through the month. Here are my five favourite examples – ones I strongly recommend you try...
Stuffed falafel: Not every falafel is made equal. Like most relationships, it's the interior that makes a falafel a keeper. For that, you need to order the ones served at Al Rayyan Restaurant. Located on 8th Street and near Khalidiya Park, this popular establishment is a favourite of Ramadan night-owls due to its stuffed falafel sandwiches, which include onions and sumac. It's delicious – and one sandwich is never enough.
Kunafa: While this is a favourite throughout the year, it is in Ramadan that this legendary Levantine dessert – made with thin noodle-like pastry, sugar syrup and piping-hot cheese – comes into its own. While the question of which establishment serves the best kunafa has landed me in a few arguments in my local coffee shop, I stand by my recommendation that Al Aqsa Sweets at Tourist Club wins the title. It's the gooey cheese I love the most.
Samosa: This South-East Asian stuffed pastry treat is another dish that takes on extra significance at the iftar table. The sad fact is that hotels just don't know how to do them right. They are either too stingy when it comes to the meat or vegetable stuffing, or serve it way too cold. To eat it right, you need to get it straight out of the deep-fryer, and the House of Tea cafe in Abu Dhabi's Khalidiyah does just that. Their samosa sizes are formidable and the outer pastry has just the right amount of crunch. That said, give it one or two minutes before you bite into it.
Luqaimat: If you visit an Emirati household during Ramadan then you will know that luqaimat, the crunchy and normally sweet dumpling, is the regular go-to side dish during iftar or a post-meal snack. The fact that it takes a lot of time to make this treat perfectly means families are increasingly looking to specialised restaurants for their fill. Enter Lgymat & Rgag – a place to seek out, if you want to truly taste luqaimat in all its glory. Located in Khalidiyah, about 200 metres from the aforementioned House of Tea, this takeaway establishment is a hive of activity, with half a dozen cars parked outside at any time awaiting orders.
Sahleb: Described as "the hot chocolate of the Middle East", this delicious drink also plays a traditional role in Ramadan evenings. Often served in Middle Eastern cafes, sahleb takes its Arabic name from the powder that comes from the grounded roots of orchids. When stirred with hot milk, it becomes deliciously thick, so it can either be consumed using a spoon or in long and slow sips. I normally have mine at Cafe Blanc, an admittedly more upscale eatery at the Eastern Mangroves, and I find it to be a perfect late-evening drink that can also work as a meal replacement. If you don't have a sweet tooth, you can request minimal sugar.
This list only scratches the surface of the culinary delights on offer during Ramadan in the city. The point is, we have to go out and seek them. Because, it is in these smaller establishments, often family-run for generations, that you’ll find the congenial and generous spirit that the holy month fosters. Go out, and eat well.