Kabayan delights: Filipino comfort food in Abu Dhabi and Dubai

From malagkit rolls to buko pie and barbecued chicken feet, here's where to find the best dishes from the Philippines

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Famously and undeniably, the UAE is a melting pot of cultures and cuisines, no matter which of the seven emirates you're in.

Over the decades, people of myriad nationalities have settled here, bringing with them a taste of home.

In particular, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos and Filipinas have moved here and settled down.

While across the country there are countless restaurants serving food from the Philippines, a few stand out.

Kabayan Turo-Turo Cafeteria in Al Attar Centre serves turon, or banana spring rolls. Victor Besa / The National

Head to Karama, in Dubai, and you'll find Kabayan Turo-Turo Cafeteria.

Turo-Turo in English means point point, for short, and when Filipinos are hungry, they go to a turo-turo and point to the food they want.

Here, popular dishes include siomai, the Filipino version of the Chinese dim sum with shrimp or chicken, and turon, or banana spring roll.

Turo-turo in English means point point, and this cafeteria is one such place, where hungry diners point out what they want to eat. Victor Besa / The National

Turon is said to have been created as far back as 1521 in the Philippines, but influenced by the Chinese.

It is believed to have been invented in communities near banana plantations when there was a surplus from the harvest, so extras would be given to locals and ultimately sold on the streets.

Over at Madinat Zayed Shopping Centre in Abu Dhabi, there's Hot Palayok Restaurant & Grill, which also has a branch in Dubai's Karama.

Hot Palayok Restaurant at Madinat Zayed Shopping Centre in Abu Dhabi. Victor Besa / The National

Hot Palayok, which is in the food court on the second floor, offers a buffet spread of authentic Filipino cuisine, but also pan-Asian dishes, with a particular focus on seafood.

But it's the desserts on offer here that really shine.

The malagkit roll at Hot Palayok Restaurant. Victor Besa / The National.

The malagkit roll, a type of rice cake or sticky roll (malagkit means sticky), is made of two different kakanins (the word for sticky rice cakes) rolled into one, topped with sesame seeds.

Then there's the sapin-sapin, a glutinous rice-and-coconut dessert composed of three layers.

Hot Palayok's sapin-sapin is a popular dessert choice. Victor Besa / The National

The top layer is yellow or orange, flavoured with ripe jackfruit. In the middle, purple yam gives it a violet colour, while the bottom layer is white and has the flavour of young coconut or plain coconut milk.

Over at Kabayan Zone, which is in front of Al Wahda Mall, it's all about the barbecued meat.

Regular customers at Kabayan Zone include TikTok personality Girly, pictured here with the restaurant's version of halo-halo. Victor Besa / The National

This is easily the busiest Filipino street food joint in Abu Dhabi, promising a buzzing vibe almost any night of the week.

Here, the most popular dishes are jumbo isaw, or barbecued chicken drowned in garlic, onions and vinegar with red hot chilli peppers, as well as "helmet", also known as barbecued chicken heads, and "adidas", which is barbecued chicken feet.

Barbecued chicken dishes are among the favourites at Kabayan Zone. Victor Besa / The National

Elsewhere, Razon's of Guagua, which is in the Al Wahda Mall extension food court, is known for its pancit luglug.

Luglug refers to the method of cooking thick rice noodles, which are placed in a blanching basket and repeatedly dipped in boiling water until completely cooked.

Pancit luglug at Razon's of Guagua goes for just Dh26. Victor Besa / The National

The dish can be arranged on a plate for individual servings and prepared in a "bilao", a round and flat rice winnower made from woven split bamboo.

Also in Dubai, is Pan Pugon TinaPIE Bakeri, at Al Attar Shopping Centre.

Pan Pugon TinaPIE Bakeri does a mean ensaymada. Victor Besa / The National

Here you can find ensaymada, a classic Filipino bread created during the Spanish colonisation of the Philippines. Originally from Mallorca, Spain, it is a spiral-shaped pastry made with sweet yeast dough and topped with powdered sugar and cheese.

While you're there, pick up a buko pie.

Buko pie is a favourite at Pan Pugon TinaPIE Bakeri. Victor Besa / The National

"Our shop survived the pandemic because of our buko pie sales," says owner Edward Bernabe. "We started using fresh coconut meat and not from the can or bottled coconut.

"Fresh baked is our bread of life, quality is the bread you deserve."

Updated: September 23, 2022, 6:01 PM