Of all the food trends that have swept across the Emirates – from food trucks and poke bowls to kimchee and monster milkshakes – the one we're most excited about is the steadily increasing number of healthy bites making their way onto menus across the region.
While good-for-you options are abundant at the trendy, health-focused eateries popping up, there are fewer options available for healthy dining at restaurants serving up traditional Middle Eastern fare. The cuisine is so steeped in tradition that many chefs resist deviating at all from dishes their grandmothers might have served on a Friday afternoon.
According to Charlie Antoun, brand manager of the Dubai-based specialised restaurant operating platform Eathos, Middle Eastern restaurants in the UAE won’t have an option soon, saying that there will come a time when restaurateurs and chefs will be forced to include healthy options on their menus in order to stay relevant. But he knows it will be difficult for some chefs to adjust to this.
“This has to do with the culture and the way people eat and gather at the table, and the number of hours they sit together and eat a meal,” he says. “These different recipes have been passed on from generation to generation; they are still rich in oils and fat, it won’t be easy.”
The results of a 2015 Nielsen Global Health and Wellness survey, in which 30,000 consumers in 60 countries responded, showed that foodies around the globe wanted healthier restaurant options, including natural foods, organic options, gluten-free dishes and foods high in fibre, protein, vitamins and whole grains. According to the data collected, a third of all respondents said sustainably sourced and organic ingredients were important to their dining experience, while 21 per cent deemed gluten free foods “very important”.
The Middle East respondents showed a desire for those foods high in protein and those fortified with calcium, vitamins and minerals, with 92 per cent of respondents saying they were willing to pay more for it.
Bassel Ibrahim, executive chef at Seven Sands Emirati restaurant in Dubai, says chefs need to cater to what their guests want or their clientele will simply go somewhere else.
“We have a lot of guests asking more questions about how we cook items,” says Ibrahim, acknowledging that diners are becoming better educated, more health-conscious and more demanding. “They want to know if something is fried and they will request to have it steamed or roasted [instead]. They’re also asking us to add ingredients like pomegranate seeds and quinoa.”
When Ibrahim introduced his new menu last month, healthy options were a priority. The dishes he serves up include a green mango salad; kale and chicken salad; and one that includes figs and ricotta cheese that Ibrahim makes in-house using camel milk.
There are still plenty of dishes to appease those with a more traditional palette, but Ibrahim says the new menu should satisfy those searching for healthy options. "We use ghee for some of the food because ghee is a tradition. We have rice we cook in ghee. We can't cook it in olive oil or it won't be traditional anymore. But we also have steamed rice where there is no ghee and no butter. We have fresh chicken that we roast in the oven. We have fresh fish that we grill. We don't fry it … it's very healthy."
Diners can expect to see superfoods such as pomegranate seeds and walnuts popping up on more Middle Eastern menus around the country too.
Chef Khalid Eftaiha, the corporate executive chef for Abu Dhabi’s Al Wasita Group – local catering specialists – says “superfoods are a new generation of food and chefs are always looking for new presentation and creative ideas.
“It’s still a new trend and few [Middle Eastern] chefs have done this but they’re experimenting with it with dishes such as tabbouleh with quinoa and hummus sushi.”
So as to avoid sweeping changes and risking putting off less health-conscious eaters, Eftaiha, the former executive chef of Reem Al Bawadi, says chefs can start incorporating small changes now to attract health-conscious diners.
“We have to focus on the quality of food products and we have to use low-calorie and low-fat products instead of full-fat,” he says. “We need to create more vegetable and seed dishes and we need to grill and boil meats and vegetables instead of frying them.”
Colin Clague, executive chef of the modern Turkish restaurant Ruya in Dubai, doesn’t think it will be difficult for Middle Eastern restaurants to accommodate the drive towards healthy eating.
"It's a very healthy cuisine already," says Clague. "There is such a choice of salads, grains, grilled meats and fish. But chefs have to move with the times. It [business] is very difficult in Dubai at the moment ... if you don't give customers what they want, you will be empty." According to Clague, 50 per cent of Ruya's menu is already "very healthy", serving up vegetarian dishes and gluten-free choices. Seven Sands is going that way more too, with plans to expand on that in the coming months.
For restaurants like Kababji Grill, one of Eathos’ most successful UAE concepts, the menu already offers brown rice, quinoa and gluten-free oatmeal bread, as well as light kebab options as opposed to those that are often loaded with fat, which makes the meat juicy and adds flavour.
“With the light option, the fat content will not exceed 10 per cent,” says Atoun.
“In some restaurants, the fat content in kebabs can go up to 35 and 40 per cent. Fat adds flavour. It makes the whole experience better, but it’s a slow-killing poison.”
Calorie content is also listed on many dishes on the Kababji menu. “Kababji has an edge right now over other Lebanese restaurants because we highlight these healthy options,” says Atoun.
“At some point, I do believe this will no longer be an option for restaurants. It will become mandatory to list the calorie count. This is going to be something to be that’s going to be demanded, for sure.”
And the demand is not just coming from consumers, in fact just recently, Al Arabiya, the Saudi Arabian Food and Drug Authority, launched a campaign that will require all restaurants to list the calorie content of their dishes.
While it’s optional at the moment, by the end of 2018, restaurants in Saudi Arabia will have to provide the nutritional information on their menus for diners.
“They’re giving restaurants enough time from now until then to do whatever they need to do to have this calorie content displayed for customers by the end of next year,” says Atoun.
“And whatever is done in the UAE or Saudi Arabia, the others will follow. I believe that by next year, or in a short period, all of the GCC countries will start introducing this.”