There was a time, not so long ago, when eating out in the UAE meant one of two things. You either really went for it, throwing any concern for budget and healthy eating out the window, and ventured to a high-end restaurant most likely housed in a five-star hotel. Or, at the other end of the scale, a mosey through a mall food court that ended in a burger and fries, pizza or fried chicken situation, which was obviously less expensive, but certainly no better for you.
Things are radically different today. Our food scene has changed significantly over the last few years, acquiring a tangible depth and maturity. This is for the most part fuelled by the realisation that looking inwards and promoting local talent, homegrown businesses, producers and start-ups serves the region and its food-lovers far better than simply relying on celebrity chef-endorsed restaurants and international chains for clout.
One of the many positive consequences of this development is how easy and affordable it is to now eat well when dining out. By that we mean well as in great-tasting food, but also well in terms of a meal made from wholesome, healthy ingredients. No longer does a special occasion dinner leave the bilious taste of overindulgence, both financial and food related, lingering in the mouth.
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The opening of a proliferation of independent restaurants, cafes, juice bars and health-focused kitchens has certainly contributed to this sea change and increasingly means that all tastes, diets, free-from requirements, lifestyle choices and culinary preferences are being catered for in an unprecedented fashion. This movement began slowly, and not before time, around six years ago, when a few restaurants started to wise up to the fact that in order to appease the growing number of customers looking for meat and fish free meals, dietary alternatives and healthy options, they needed to up their cooking game and offer something beyond a lone, frankly lazy, butternut squash risotto on the veggie menu.
As is often the case in the UAE, momentum quickly picked up and now we have choices galore. Homegrown neighborhood coffee shops such as the excellent Spill the Bean in The Sustainable City offer gluten, dairy and sugar-free sweets and baked goods as standard, and spots like Comptoir 102, Life’n One and Wild & The Moon make nutritious, balanced eating a pleasure. There are countless juice bars and smoothie spots dotted around the country and almond, soy or oat milk lattes can be ordered with ease and aplomb, rather than a slight sense of trepidation. We’re able to select from an entirely paleo-friendly menu at The Cycle Bistro in Dubai, dabble in the raw food diet at Abu Dhabi’s Raw by Nolu’s and nibble on cauliflower popcorn, kale tabbouleh and super green hummus at DIFC’s latest hotspot, BB Social Dining. The list goes on.
Perhaps more significantly, though, there is pressure on the restaurants that market themselves as being the best in the region, with price tags to match, to acknowledge that diners have a right to choice. Whether this means providing a gluten-free bread basket, balancing menus to include vegan and vegetarian dishes or offering desserts without dairy, there is an expectation in place now that simply wasn’t entertained before.
This is not to suggest that things can now plateau or that there are not still issues. We all need to be careful about labels, buzzwords, fads and how we define health and healthy eating. Yet what we’re celebrating here is real growth in the UAE food scene with regards to diversity, accessibility and affordability, all wrapped up in an appreciation of local passion, skills and ideas and an awareness of healthy living. Things aren’t perfect, but are we on the right track? Absolutely.