How do we spur Emirati cuisine into modernity?

The UAE's challenges with globalisation and sustanability extend to its cuisine.

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Primitivist is not the polar opposite of futurist, and there's nothing prize-worthy or paradoxical about being agile enough to hold a fork at dinner after eating rice at lunch with one's hands. The UAE has long been dubbed a model of coexisting contrasts and contradictions. Unfortunately, it's also subject to tired and erroneous instances of mock sophistication acquired overnight. People continue to ask why the UAE contains no Emirati restaurants, per se, and the topic continues to generate discussion.

I can't decide if I find the question irritatingly self-conscious or just plain irritating. It's no longer enough in the UAE to be the first to do something; if you're going to do it, it's important to do it well. Though Emirati food can be delicious to the extreme, delicious alone does not a winning restaurant make. Sure, studying the way any culture eats is an opportunity to learn about their perceptions, but we're talking about people, not captive animals. There is a strain of Emirati nationalism so tenacious that it is at risk of essentially consuming the subtlety and mutability of our true cultural identity. Like anything, this identity needs to breathe in order to evolve or it will become obsolete.

If we assume that most of the world's tastiest dishes come out of kitchens run by people cooking their native foods, then who is going to cook ours? And who is going to eat it? If not Emiratis, then who? If it's just for tourists, how does that make it more Emirati than the Yemeni mandi joint downtown that's crowded with locals? Emirati food wasn't made for single servings, either, so you can kiss your obsession with individualism goodbye - as well as your taste for seasonal diversity. Finally, because we don't have a tradition of pedestrian walkways, we also don't have a culture of street food.

Some passions, like knitting, tend to skip a generation before they become retro and then cool again. Given the size of our generation gap in terms of lifestyle and literacy, we don't have the luxury of time on our side. Emiratis of my generation like food but aren't interested in preparing it; they like cars but don't care much about mechanics. What will really motivate our cuisine into modernity is a breaking down of both real and illusory socioeconomic barriers - not merely the ones that keep us from eating the same meals as our cooks (though that would be an interesting start), but also from getting our hands dirty.

In Arab countries where cooking is not stigmatised by gender or income, it's difficult to find someone who'd openly admit to not being a great cook. Here, we have the opposite problem. In the end, all of this is symptomatic of something far greater that is in jeopardy than an oral history of machbous recipes. Some of us are actively supporting our local communities and discovering new ways to reduce our carbon footprints, but the notion of knowing the farmers and fishermen who bring us our daily bread is foreign to us. Granted, the UAE isn't Provence or San Francisco, and why should it be? It seems ridiculous to shed blood, sweat or tears over a fate it never had. We could no sooner sustain a culinary identity on a vision like that than we could electrify the stock market on a whim and a prayer.

It's disparities such as these that are so maddening. Things in the US haven't been this bad since the Great Depression, and over 25 million Americans are using emergency food assistance every year. The UAE isn't in nearly such poor shape, but just 45 minutes outside of Dubai are local women in their 70s and 80s who are so suspicious of medical doctors that they've never seen one. And at the swanky new Jones the Grocer, the pretty packages of "Persian fairy floss" are much more expensive than the same stuff, alternately called Pashmak, at an Iranian grocery just a few kilometres away. Everyone wants to eat delicious food, not just the rich. And anyone who thinks that a keen interest in food is expensive is either in it for the lifestyle or simply lacks imagination. Some of the worst food in the UAE can be found at the most expensive restaurants.

Our current food distribution system is not sustainable, nor does it ensure a secure food supply, especially given that the UAE is a net importer of food from other countries. Our year-round food supply simply cannot continue to come from thousands of kilometres away. We are already cultivating and supporting one food system for the poor and near poor, and one for the wealthy. How is this sustainable? How is it digestible? How is it acceptable?

Elitism is a selective application of a principle, and it needs to be abolished, or we can all look forward to a future when there's simply not enough to feed all of us.