The Nutella sandwich, a distinctly Gulf tradition

It was 50 years ago this week that the world saw the first jars of the sweet hazelnut spread. The Arabian Gulf is as taken with its taste as the rest of the world, but the question must be asked: who first thought to smear it over pan-fried cheese?

Abdulsalam Mohammed, 31, from India, prepares a Nutella regag sandwich with spicy Chips Oman crisps, said by many to be the pinnacle of Nutella sandwiches, at Abu Dhabi’s Al Dhifa cafeteria near Airport Road. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National
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The public was introduced Nutella 50 years ago this week, but it was only a matter of time before the Arabian Gulf put its own twist on how to serve the hazelnut spread.

The sweet paste from a small confectionery in the northern Italian town of Alba is now locally synonymous with a distinctly Gulf tradition: the Nutella sandwich.

A mainstay of Gulf street cuisine, the snack is a drive-in favourite served at cafeterias alongside other local treats such as Burj Khalifa cocktails and “zinker” fried chicken burgers.

For the uninitiated, the Nutella sandwich is a cross between a Parisian crepe and the sweet Levantine kunafa cheese pastry.

Processed cheese is melted on to a pipping hot pan-fried paratha. After the cheese bubbles and browns from the bottom up, two thick spoonfuls of Nutella are swirled on. It is a Gulf product of globalisation, loved by Emiratis and residents raised here.

“They do it with paratha and they do it with cheese,” says Abdulla Al Kaabi, an engineer from Abu Dhabi. “They put it in UAE traditional bread. You can do it as you like, but I don’t eat it because it has cholesterol.”

Unlike the chips Oman sandwich served at cafeterias and small grocers in even the smallest Emirati villages, the Nutella sandwich is more of an urban phenomena, something that belongs to the metropolises of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Mr Al Kaabi claims the city’s best is at Al Dhifa, a takeaway behind Carrefour on Airport Road.

His directions are vague but effective – right at a roundabout, make the first U-turn and park beside the mosque.

The car park outside the signless shop is full, even during mid-morning and mid-week when business is at its slowest.

Inside the shop, a place patrons never venture, glass shelves are stacked with all the contents of a good Emirati cupboard – jars of honey and date syrup, tins of condensed milk, bottles of hot sauce, boxes of Lipton tea and glass jars of Nutella.

This is the capital’s premium place for one of its classic sandwiches: Nutella regag.

Al Dhifa’s take on the sandwich substitutes regag, a paper-thin Emirati bread, for the thicker paratha sandwich.

“Regag is best because you really taste the Nutella,” says Mr Al Kaabi. “The bread is thinner, thinner than a crepe. Even you are in a hurry you can have it fresh.”

He points at the idling 4x4s outside Al Dhifa. “See all the people who have come for Nutella and regag?”

When the Emirati entrepreneur Mohammed Abdulla opened the cafe in 2009 he offered a menu of 50 items. Most are sandwiches and Nutella is one of the most popular.

“This is Emirati bread and it’s not sold just anywhere in Abu Dhabi,” says Mr Abdulla, 24. “Its name is regag and it’s the Abu Dhabi crepe.”

Nutella combinations include the classic with labneh and, for the truly adventurous, item number 45 – Nutella with Chips Oman spicy crisps. The sweet and salty combination is not unlike peanut butter.

“The people asked for chips on Nutella,” says Mr Abdulla. “I said sure, why not?”

“Regag is old style of bread and Nutella is an old style. We sell more of these sandwiches in winter. When it’s cold outside, nationals want this sandwich.”

Some might dismiss Nutella as a child’s indulgence but Al Dhifa’s patrons are the city’s professionals. Every one of them has a soft spot for the hazelnut spread.

“Nutella is 50 but it’s still young, it’s not getting older,” says Abdulla Al Muttawa, 23, civil engineer who was parked outside. “I feel it’s for children but I have to eat it.”

Al Dhifa’s customers eat an average of 3.5 jars a day. That’s nearly 1,000 kilograms a year.

“Nutella is like a pretty girl,” says Khaled Al Hashimi, 23, a law student. “Wallah, I think there is some magic in this chocolate.”

The spread’s devotees are not put off by its high sugar and fat content. It is a popular school snack, even for toddlers.

Some carry this devotion into adulthood.

Mohammed Hamed, an outdoor instructor from Sudan raised in Ras Al Khaimah, rises at 4am every day to prepare Nutella and cheese for his lunch at work.

“I tried to convince people at work to have it and they wouldn’t try it,” says Mr Hamed. “For my generation, this is definitely something. It’s awesome, honestly.”