Friday, December 26, 2014

delicious dubai

2014: The year I spent Memorial Day in Taiwan, and Thanksgiving in Dubai. Yep, this Midwestern girl learned what it was like to feast in the Middle East! I still feel slightly ridiculous telling people I went to Dubai... isn't that kind of vacation only for the 1%? Doesn't everyone over there drive Lambos and Bentleys? Don't the ATMs dispense gold bars and the restaurants all have a $250 minimum? How? Why? Would little old Iron Stef go? Well it turns out, Dubai is not just for billionaires! It helped that I have friends over there who I could stay with to save money, but an affordable vacation can be had. The beaches are free, there are tons of good eating options that won't break the bank, and it's just a really neat place to experience. (but there really are gold ATMs and more Lambos and Bentleys than average...)

This was my first meal in Dubai... my flight got in about 10 pm, so by the time we got back to my friends' apartment, it was pretty late. They ordered shawarma and a bunch of other Middle-Eastern delights to be delivered from a nearby Lebanese place. Late night shawarma delivery? I was loving this place already!

The first place that I insist you must go if you are so fortunate to visit Dubai is The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. They host traditional meals during which you learn about Emirate food, culture and people.
A volunteer speaker explains Emerati culture as the traditional buffet awaits.

The food was fantastic, a spread of pilafs, chicken, salads and more laid out in the middle of the floor. Everyone sits around on cushions while a guide talks about history and culture, and answers questions. So informative and eye-opening! 
No shoes allowed, but definitely bring your appetite.
chicken, rices, vegetables.
Sweet dough balls with date syrup.
I gotta be honest, I didn't plan well for this trip. When my friend asked me where I wanted to go during my visit, I didn't have many ideas... I just thought we'd go to the beach a bunch. I did know I wanted to go to a Shake Shack. I just think it's kind of crazy that there's several of them over there, yet I had never been to one here in the states. We went to the one on Jumeira Beach. I can see why Shake Shacks are so popular all over the world. The burger was impressive and the custard in my root beer float was the creamiest substance I have ever had. I wouldn't normally condone going to an American chain when overseas, but this was a great choice for beach day. Got me nice and drowsy before relaxing in the sun.
Shake Shack or Shieke Shack? Hahahaha. Really though,  best root beer float of my life.

It wasn't until I was already over there, but I did discover an Episode of No Reservations in which Anthony Bourdain was in Dubai. I had somehow missed that!! It came in handy... I will always go where Tony has been when given the opportunity. Of course, several places in the episode involved planning (reservations? wait a minute!, all-day activities, $$). Al Bait al Bagdhadi, an Iraqi restaurant, however, was totally doable. They specialize in the national dish of Iraq, a charcoal-roasted fish dish called Masgouf.  This was another late-night dinner... I think t was almost 10 by the time we got there! 
Our fish being weighed to show us how big it is.
They still had the fire pit going though, and immediately picked out a fish that was a good size for 3 people, and put it on the scale to show us. We then sat outside and ordered a variety of fresh Mezze (hummus, fattoush, Moutabbal)  and some of the scrumptious flat bread that is baked stuck on the side of a super-hot wood oven. The service was excellent, there was a group of Iraqi men having tea next to us, and a parking lot badminton game going on across the street. 
Flat bread, cooked by slapping it on the side of a special oven.
The extensive Mezze portion of our Iraqi meal
When I went inside to take a photo of our Masgouf cooking by the fire, the waiter saw me and waved me around the counter and into the fire room so I didn't have to try to shoot through the fogged-up glass window. It was embarrassing, but so nice of him! I'm sure they are used to nerdy food fans since Bourdain came through.

Masgouf roasting on an open fire...
The fish came out on a platter, and the waiter skillfully cut (well, more like, scooped... ) the tender charred flesh from the skin and deboned it and served us all. The pieces from the middle top were kissed the most by the flames, and tasted like fish bacon. Yep, fish bacon.

The finished Masgouf being carved and served by our waiter.
Dubai is not a dry country, per-se, but it is certainly less-boozy than I'm used to. My friend, knowing how hard it is for me to go 8 days without beer, suggested The Belgian Beer cafe. It's in a beautiful mall/hotel complex, with pretty views. I chose a wedge salad and this Kasteel tripel. The salad was a deconstructed wedge, but it was very good. This place is an international chain, but if you're looking for good beer in Dubai, this is one of very few options.

I wanted to steal that glass, but it wasn't worth the risk of going to Middle East jail.
Wedge salad wasn't really wedgy. It was scrumptious though. 
One night, my hosts had an appointment, so I was own my own for the evening. The thing about Dubai is that it's hopping at night, and very safe. I wandered around the area near Dubai Mall and Souk Al Bahar. There are tons of restaurants to choose from both at the mall and at the Souk. Most of the places at the Souks overlook Dubai fountain, so I chose one there. Dubai fountain is pretty spectacular... it's at the foot of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Every 30 minutes a "choreographed" fountain show would play... a ballet of water shooting high in the air. I got a cozy seat at the cute Lebanese restaurant Zahr El-Aymoun. The seats were all covered with shabby-chic fabrics and the decor involved lots of jars and such. I had what were sort of like Lebanese nachos... fettet zahr el-laymoun. It had all the flavors... creamy yogurt, sweet pomegranate seeds, roasty eggplant, savory onion and cumin. I could eat bowls of this! I also got some Labne... it was kind of dry, but good flavor.
fettet zahr el-laymoun ... toasted bread topped with grilled eggplant, chickpeas, onion, cumin, pomegranate molasses, garlic yogurt pomegranate seeds and crispy onion
And then I ate camel. Yep. At The Local House, the specialty is camel burgers and other camel-ized dishes. It's a lovely semi-outside place that offers free tea and Arabic coffee to weary people who have been walking around the Cultural centre all day. 
The Local House is super charming.
I got the burger, but next time I definitely need to try the Camel Wellington.
I ordered a date milkshake (camel milk, obvs) and a house burger, which was camel meat topped with egg, cheese and tomato salad. The shake was soooo good. Dates taste a lot like caramel, and caramel is one of my favorite substances on earth. Camel milk is creamier and richer than cow milk, so this shake was basically like an ├╝ber-creamy caramel shake. Whoa. The burger, while overcooked, was good, too. Camel tastes similar to beef, but a bit richer, and with an aftertaste reminiscent of lamb. 
Date camel milk shake. They say camel milk is the new health drink, so...
Overcooked camel burger... oh well, it was better than overcooked beef burger.
Speaking of camels, there was a small cafe (there are several in Dubai) called the Majilis that had camel milk lattes and ice cream. This chocolate ice cream was the best chocolate Ice cream I've had, I think. Rich and very chocolaty. We had it twice while I was there.

Chocolate camel milk ice cream and camel milk chai tea
In the end I loved Dubai more than I expected to. I encourage you to consider it as a travel destination, just be sure not to get caught up in all the shopping and materialism. I mean the shopping is great, but make sure you seek out the local culture and traditions. There is so much to learn, and eat, from this oasis of international diversity. 

Bonus shots:
Traditional Thanksgiving buffet at a Marriot hotel. They cater to every culture here, I swear.

Persimmons on the balcony. The views and the fruit here were enviable.

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