Far from a barren desert, Dubai is a banquet table celebrating local foods as well as cuisines from around the world.
Burj al Arab - Alan64/iStockStepping into the lobby of the newly-opened W Hotel in Dubai's Al-Habtoor City, you see that the bold surroundings are punctuated by contemporary-lobby-meets-nightclub style: an oversized curved banquette in a sunken living room, neon lights, endless shiny surfaces and a wall of windows displaying the ever-changing skyline.
But tradition is still found here, with a white plate piled high with fresh dates, a symbol of welcome that started with the nomadic tribal people who have lived in this desert region for centuries.
Known for its eye-catching architecture and modern décor as well as a local population that has come from countries around the globe, Dubai has quickly risen to rank with London, Paris, Hong Kong and New York as a destination known for its cuisine. Middle Eastern flavors are the backbone of any meal and commonly mixed with influences from Indian, Asian and European food traditions. Dubai chefs benefit from the wide variety of fruit, vegetable, seafood and meat easily sourced in the Middle East and neighboring Asian and African countries, as well as from serving diners who are adventurous and regularly indulge in eating out.
Vibrant colors in Dubai's Spice Souk - Nikada/iStock
One of the most popular areas of Old Dubai is the Spice Souk, a crowded area of vendors that lures shoppers with its colors and scents. Sultry shades of brown reveal the heady piles of cinnamon, cumin, clove, turmeric and coriander, staples for so many dishes, interspersed with the softer shades of dried rose and lavender, the floral parts of any local chef's stash for making desserts and tea blends. Bold red saffron is the king, sequestered from the rest of the spices. Sourced from Iran, the most expensive spice on earth is worth every penny for the distinct taste these delicate strands bring to savory and sweet dishes.
Leaving behind the noisy confines of the souk, you can find a luxe afternoon escape within the eye-catching Burj Khalifa. Featuring panoramic views this - the world's tallest structure - is home to At.Mosphere Restaurant, located on the 122nd floor. The elegant lounge is a favorite for quiet conversation and afternoon high tea. The British tradition is a popular ritual for business meetings as well as for friends who come to indulge in small sandwiches, English scones with cream, exclusive tea blends (like Red of Arabia or Earl Gray D'Amour) and pastries made with sweet bursts of honey, walnut, rose and cardamom.
Kanafe is a savory and sweet cheese pastry - Pamela Joe McFarlane/iStock
Despite the commonly-held assumption that the desert is nothing but piles of sand and an occasional oasis, it can be a source of food. The growing season in the Middle East is from late autumn until May, and in Dubai an increasing number of farmers are battling the endless sun and wind to provide locally-grown produce, often located in cool houses (the opposite of green houses).
For residents, wanting to buy local has resulted in the weekly Farmers Market on the Terrace, first started by local bakery Baker and Spice in 2010. The market is not just a place for locally-grown fruit and vegetables but is also a place to meet friends and taste a wide range of palate-pleasing items like fresh baked bread and pastries from Baker and Spice, raw honey from Yemen, Ethiopian java from Boon Coffee and Palestinian olive oil and spicy sauces from passionate foodie and cookbook author Dima Sharif.
Frying Pan Adventures co-founder Arva Ahmed prepares a traditional middle eastern lunch for guests of her foodie walking tour - Courtesy Frying Pan Adventures
The different traditions of the nearby Middle East countries are everywhere in Dubai, especially in the neighborhood of Deira. Thanks to local food tour company Frying Pan Adventures, it’s possible to taste Lebanese, Palestinian, Turkish and Persian cuisine in a three-km walking tour of this laid-back area north of the glitzy downtown. Tour groups are treated to an extended lunch: fresh made falafel, hummus, tahini and pita, kanafeh, a savory and sweet cheese pastry, honey-laden baklava, Al Machboos, a slow-cooked Emirati dish of meat and rice and pistachio ice cream, Iranian-style.
From street food stall to bakery to restaurant to spice shop, each step is filled with chatter about history, tradition and the passion with Frying Pan Adventures' Arva Ahmed, confirming that even if the dish originated elsewhere it's now embedded in Dubai's food scene. The satiated group is left with a better understanding of the city's tasty places and red and white tote bags filled with fresh made pita, baklava, cookies and tempting items like pomegranate syrup, za'atar (a local spice mixture) and rose water purchased during the tour.
The Artisan - Courtesy The Artisan
Gathering for the evening meal, diners in Dubai dress to impress, eat after 8pm and love to experience the glamorous side of the city. At recently opened The Artisan, A-list patrons are happy to indulge in fine dining, Italian style. Enoteca Pinchiorri, a Michelin 3-star restaurant from Florence, opened this intimate dining space in Fall 2016, quietly bringing their inventive style of Italian cuisine to the emirate.
The restaurant's pretty interior is a mix of gray and blue velvet seating, white marble and wood floors and a delicate Murano glass installation that sparkles above diners. The menu is quintessentially northern Italian: zucchini flowers stuffed with buffalo mozzarella and veal with tuna, capers and watercress; house-made spaghetti with seafood or agnolotti stuffed with pumpkin, sage, and almonds; or secondi favorites such as branzino: baked salt-crusted sea bass, or Florentine T-bone steak.
But hints of Dubai exist within this Italian oasis. Arabic coffee can be ordered – cups filled with dark roast and cardamom. Like any other city that has benefitted from a wide range of people from around the planet, Dubai's dining scene embraces and celebrates variety – from the simplicity of old school Arabic street food to the elegant traditions of European cuisine.
Originally published in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles Fall/Winter 2017 issue.