With a young and exciting restaurant scene eager to find its feet, Dubai has looked to celebrity chefs and high-profile international restaurant chains to establish itself on the global dining map. Two Dubai restaurants - La Petite Maison and Zuma - were voted onto the World’s 50 Best Restaurants top 100 list last year, confirming Dubai’s credentials as the centre of gastronomy in the Middle East.
But beyond the glittering edifices of Dubai’s skyscrapers and seven-star hotels, there’s a thriving scene of independent and homegrown restaurants on the ground, and a diverse multi-cuisine food culture simmering away. A stroll through the backstreets will uncover a slew of small, unlicensed eateries serving a rich mix of communities, from Egyptian to Ethiopian. There are hectic markets and quiet cultural breakfasts; bountiful brunches and some of the best Indian and Pakistani restaurants outside of the subcontinent.
Dubai gets all its fresh produce flown in on gas-guzzling cargo jets, right? Wrong. There are some 38,000 farms in the UAE, some of which are certified organic. Take a tour of the city’s markets and you’ll get to see, feel and smell a rich harvest of locally-grown food, from fruit and vegetables, to meat, fresh fish and dairy produce.
A trip to Dubai Fish Market (Al Khaleej Road, near Shindagha Tunnel, Deira) can be a bewildering experience, but you’ll find stall upon stall groaning under a bumper catch of locally-caught fish, prawns and seafood. Next-door, you’ll find the government-backed Organic Produce Market (Fri and Sat 9am-4pm), while across town, you can catch Dubai Farmers’ Market at Jumeirah Emirates Towers Ballroom Gardens (Fridays, 9m-1pm).
With a large contingent of Indian and Pakistani expatriates, Dubai is home to some of the best ‘desi’ food outside of the subcontinent. Explore the streets of the Karama district, and you’ll be spoilt for choice. One of the cheapest and best is Chennai’s Simran’s Aappa Kadai (Karama Park, opposite Lulu Centre, +971 4 334 8030) which specialises in south Indian dishes, including appam pancakes with all manner of spicy fillings. For north Indian, try Manvaar (20 B street, opposite Reem Residence, Karama, +971 4 336 8332), where rich and authentic Rajasthani curries arrive in colourful surrounds. For a no-frills tandoori grill, head for Sind Punjab Restaurant (37 B Street, Karama, +971 4 337 5535), while lovers of Pakistani food should look no further than the legendary Ravi Restaurant in Satwa (Al Satwa Road, +971 4 331 5353), which offers delicious, great-value food in a bustling street setting.
It’s been called a Dubai institution, and the joke is that if you attend them often enough, you could end up in one. But whatever they say about Friday brunch, it’s certainly a varied experience. Friday is when the Dubai weekend kicks off, and almost every restaurant in town rolls out buffets and meal deals to draw the punters in. Five-star hotel brunches like the ones at Spectrum On One (Fairmont Hotel, Sheikh Zayed Road, +971 4 332 5555) and the Al Qasr Hotel (Madinat Jumeirah, +971 4 366 6730) are lavish, expensive and inclusive of alcohol. At the other end of the scale, try the altogether more modest affair (women are asked to wear a headscarf) at the Iranian Club (Oud Metha Road, +971 4 335 2002), which is excellent value for money, offers a large and wonderful selection of Persian food and is strictly alcohol-free.
As a regional hub for the Middle-East, Dubai has a diverse mix of restaurants from north Africa, the Arabian Gulf and the Levant. Whether you’re craving Egyptian koshari (Al Ammor Restaurant, Karama, +971 4 370 7060), Lebanese manakeesh (Al Reef Bakery, Karama, +971 4 396 1980) or Iraqi masqouf barbecued fish (Al Bayt Al Baghdadi, Al Muteena Street, Deira, 04 273 7064) you won’t have to look too far. For the lowdown on Dubai’s best-value Arabian food, join up with one of Arva Ahmed’s walking tours, www.fryingpanadventures.com, which explore the lively backstreets in search of Dubai’s hidden food treasures. Surprisingly, of all the Middle Eastern cuisines available in Dubai, Emirati food is the rarest of all. Discover the unique flavours of the local cuisine at one of the cultural breakfasts or lunches at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (House 26, Al Mussallah Road, Bastakiya, +971 4 353 6666, www.cultures.ae) where you can enjoy ghawa coffee, dates and kobz khameer bread while you learn about the local way of life.