Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be moving to a foreign country to live, let alone a country in the Middle East. Over the 2009 Christmas and New Year’s holidays, my husband Roger and I discussed what we wanted the next part of our life to be like. He thought that before retiring, he would like to do one more airport project but only if he could find something very interesting. I half-jokingly agreed that would be fine but could he try for an exotic location? As usual, Roger came through and soon we were headed to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. This blog is a recap of our "leap-of- faith" wanderings around the Middle East and beyond. We joyfully share these expat experiences.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Culinary Voyage Through the Streets of Old Dubai with Frying Pan Adventures

Frying Pan Adventures foodie explorers 
Varshik, Donna,Kate, Bob & Arva
Many times on my explorations of old Dubai I pass by multitudes of hole-in-the-wall restaurants lining the streets.  Each cafeteria, as these small street-restaurants are called, advertise their offerings with grainy pictures of peculiar looking plates of food and strange – or maybe exotic - aromas settling over the sidewalk.

I always wonder if some really delicious foodie finds are lurking inside. I must confess that I have been tempted but never found the required courage to drop in for a bite.

But that all changed when I met Arva Ahmed. I ran into Arva online through her blog I Live in A Frying Pan. I was instantly taken by her fresh wit, funny take on life and sheer joy of exploring. I was certainly intrigued by the hidden food gems she featured. When I read she was developing ethnic food walking tours in Dubai, I jumped at the chance to try one.  I was not disappointed.

In late December I went on her Middle East Tour. I enjoyed it so much that I ranked it as one of our 2012 Top Dining Experiences.  And then in February, I gathered a few friends and we did the North African Tour. Still in the offering are Arva’s Indo-Arab and the Indo-Afghani tours.

For the tour, a driver picks you up at the Mall of the Emirates and drops you off at the first restaurant where you meet Arva. Then you follow her and stroll through old Dubai’s ethnic neighborhoods tasting foods from various countries as she explains their origin, how they are made and a little history. At each stop Arva cautions you not to eat too much because there is so much more to sample.

The Middle East Food Tour

The First Bite
On the Middle East Tour, we are in Deira one of Dubai’s original neighborhoods situated along the Dubai Creek. It was once the city’s commercial center and here you still find Dubai’s old Gold Souq and the amazing Spice souq.   

Arva offer Egyptian Falafel Mahshi
For starters we stop at the Qwaider Al Nabulsi restaurant.

Sitting at the outside tables, the steady stream of evening strollers steal only a brief glance from us as we delve into Egyptian falafel mahshi, made from chickpeas and a special tangy onion stuffing, and Palestinian musakhan, an open-faced chicken pie seasoned with sumac, a Middle East spice with a mild lemony taste.

Intrepidly, I take my first bite. The falafel are a crunchy mouthful and the sumac in the chicken pie is a bit unfamiliar and may take some time and practice to acquire a taste for.   

The Jordanian Bedouin dish mansaf gifts me with my first taste of goat. It proves rather interesting with its slightly earthy smell and almost tender texture. Cooked in jameed, a fermented buttermilk product made from goats’ milk yoghurt, it tastes a lot like lamb.  Our starters are complimented by more familiar dishes - hummus and tabbouleh.  

We end this first feast with kunafa, a Syrian/Palestinian layered pie made of cheese and semolina. This is also doubles as a favorite breakfast treat! What a grand way to start your day - a strong cup of coffee and sweet delicious kunafa.   

I am stuffed and this is only the first of five stops!

Danger Zone – Arabian Sweets
Kate McClure & Arva present the diet-defying sweets
Al Samadi Sweets brings us more sweets with a little sample of bakelava and bird’s nest, a sweet concoction of pistachios all wound together bird-nest style into a very sweet treat and some other pleasurable delicacies.

These concoctions melt in your mouth as flaky bursts of feather light pastry intertwined with sugar and honey and topped off with a random burst of nutty splendor. Eat too many of these and your diet goes into definite default.

Lebanese Pizza
Hot manousheh right out of the oven
B to B, which stands for Breakfast to Breakfast a 24-hour Lebanese restaurant, beckons us with manousheh, a leavened “pizza.” The small unadorned restaurant is anchored with the brick oven in the corner. The smell of baking “pizza” is filling the tiny room. 

Manousheh is rather like flatbread pizza we have all become accustomed to but the crust is a little chewier and it has a definite “come right from the earth” taste.

We try one with a spice combination of thyme, sumac and sesame seeds called zatar. It brings a stern bite that takes just a minute to come to its full flavor. Our second manousheh is made with sujuak, a spicy meat sausage. This is more to my liking – not exactly pepperoni but maybe a distant Arab cousin.

Eating Bedouin Style
We follow Arva winding through a darkened neighborhood only to emerge onto a major road and duck into Al Tawasol, a very traditional Yemen restaurant.

Our plucky group is quickly escorted to the rear of the restaurant, past the men eating in the front, where we are sequestered in a red, white and black Bedouin tent. In traditional restaurants, men and women eat in separate dining areas. Mixed company such as ours is tolerated so long as we stay in our tent.

It doesn’t faze me a bit as here I find the very best chicken. mandi is chicken roasted with Arabic spices while it is suspended in an underground oven.

The tandoor oven is a hole in the ground with insides covered with clay. Then a good amount of dried wood is placed at the bottom and burnt until it’s blazing hot and becomes charcoal; the chicken is suspended inside the tandoor without touching the charcoal or the sides. The tandoor is sealed so no smoke can escape. Just sit back and let the flavors roast.

Varshik eating Bedouin style
We are eating Bedouin style seated on the floor. The server ceremoniously places a sheet of plastic on the floor in the center of the tent which serves as our “tablecloth.” Our food arrives and  placed on the plastic sheeting.

Arva, with a comical smirk, states that we must take the first taste Bedouin style with our hands and then she will give us the forks she has brought. We all dive in for the first delicious bite but gratefully use the forks to finish this feast. 

The mandi is served over yellow and white rice accompanied by a spicy tomato sauce with nuts and raisins as garnish. The piquant sauce raises the heat level just enough for the spices to warmly embrace the tender fowl.  This dish is from the Hadhramaut province of Yemen and is traditionally used for special occasions like weddings.

Arva instructs us in the proper way Muslims eat. First, say "Bismillah," in the name of God, then wash your hands, for cleanliness purposes eat only using your right hand, and end the meal with a prayer of thanks to Allah. Additional Islamic table manners include, only eat from your side of the plate, take small bites, chew slowly, and don’t stare at anyone down the table. A hard one for us older westerners who are unaccustomed to sitting cross-legged on the floor – do not show the soles of your feet as it is a sign of disrespect.   

Cooking on Hot Pebbles
Sangak cooking on hot pebbles.
Our final stop is Al Abashar Restaurant, an Iranian eatery where we enjoy chelo kabab, the Iranian national dish. Ground lamb is marinated in various spices then formed into cylinder shapes, mounted on skewers and roasted over an open flame.  Served with a pyramid like mound of steamed rice, they are rich tangy bites that tease my palate as I try to identify the spices.  Definitely cumin with possibly a touch of turmeric and I think the new spice I have tasted all night, sumac. This is a good addition to any Bar-B-Q.

We also enjoy roasted eggplant and gormeh sabzi, a stew of lamb and mixed greens seasoned with fenugreek, a slightly sweet nutty flavored Asian spice, served with rice spiced with red barberries called zersht.

At this point, I cannot fathom putting another morsel in my mouth. But the final treat is coming piping hot out of the oven.  

Arva takes us over to the brick oven in the far corner of the restaurant. There the artisan chef is baking Sangak. This oblong dimpled bread is cooked on hot pebbles in a blazing hot brick oven. It is divinely soft with a little crunch. Urban legend has it that this cooking method was invented by military men when they had nothing else on which to cook their bread. 

Wedding musicians - the yellow instrument 
is an Iranian bagpipe - Ney Anban
An Unexpected Treat
Our serendipitous treat for the evening is getting caught up in the Iranian wedding reception happening at Al Abashar.

This is a lavish feast with live musicians, copious amounts of food and dancing. It is very heart-warming to see the love shared by the two families.  The queenly bride and her handsome groom enter the room to applause and dutifully make calls at each table. Older men, their sons and grandsons are all up dancing with hands raised high twirling handkerchiefs as they circle to the beat of the traditional Iranian music performed by two musicians.  

Our culinary voyage has come to an end and we are completely sated. Arva has put together a memorable evening and seen to every detail. Her commentary is witty and informative and the food is truly an adventurous culinary voyage. 

The Bonus
The tour’s bonus is encountering Deira up-close-and-personal at night. During the day old Dubai is about the intense activity of business jostling along to make the delivery, the sale, the deal. But at night, pressure subsides and Deira lets you feel her true heartbeat.  There is such a sense of village. You see old people sitting in plastic chairs outside apartments watching after the young people flocking to wherever they are going. Families gently amble along the wide sidewalks with baby strollers and toddlers in hand enjoying an evening stroll to their favorite restaurant. Everyone is peacefully savoring the cool Dubai evening.    

If you are looking for something unique that will surely entertain your out-of-town guest, or perhaps you are just looking for an adventurous night out for with friends or even by yourself, Frying Pan Adventures is just the answer.

Nothing like wamdering through old Dubai’s historic neighborhoods discovering rustic ethnic foods with an expert foodie guide!  You can book a tour with Arva at Frying Pan Adventures.

Stay tuned to Arabian Tales. Next up is the North African Tour.

Postscripts. . .

Arva, Kate, Bob, Donna and Varshik
Foodie buddies . . . what great culinary explorers joined me this tour.  Kate and Bob McClure, from Minneapolis, USA, were departing the next day on a cruise around the Arabian Peninsula. Bob is a professor of Geography at St. Olef College and Kate is a registered nurse. Donna Johanna Iisakkila, from Finland, owns a travel counselor business and Varshik Motwani, a young Indian gentleman who grew up in Dubai and now works in the oil and gas business.  

Become a Frying Pan Adventure Food Explorer Guide . . .  Looking to spice up your life? Meet interesting people from all over the world? Arva is recruiting people to lead tours for Frying Pan Adventures. Check out the qualifications and drop her line if you are interested. 


  1. Katie,
    I have taken two of Arva's frying pan tours and I can't recommend them enough! Arva is a terrific teacher & These tours are so much more than the food.

    Meanwhile, I really enjoyed your photos, descriptions & information here. Looking forward to doing my next tour.
    All the best to you & Arva. :)

    1. When the weather gets cooler, let's do the next tour together. I am thinking the Afhani one . . what do you think?

  2. Well, I'm homesick now...Wish I could have come along! It really sounds wonderful ~ Shirley

    1. Well we miss you too. You would have loved the tour. If you get to pass through Dubai anytime I recommend you book one. Let me know and I will go with you.

  3. Katie, the team and I absolutely adore this write-up! It's so incredibly detailed and thoughtful, thank you for coming on the tours, and for spreading the word both through your blog and in person. This is one of the many reasons I love food - it's such a beautiful connector of people, and I'm grateful it created an opportunity for me to meet you.

    Holly - very, very flattered after reading your comment! It means a huge deal coming from someone as knowledgeable as yourself. Thank you for coming on the tours!

    1. Arva . . looking forward to your next next visit to Abu Dhabi for some food exploring here. I almost went into a
      The People's Restaurant" that I saw a lot of Emiratis men going into but at the last minute I chickened out! I need some of your spunk!

  4. This sounds great and as a newly trained tour guide and a lover of foreign food I will surely do this. Thanks for the introduction and this interesting write up Katie. You always find the coolest things to do!

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. I want to take your tour! Congratulations on you new standing in the Dubai tourism industry. Stay tuned for my tour of heritage hotels in Dubai. They are amazing. You will love incorporating them on your tours.

  7. I found this blog rather interesting. The details and precise suggestions are precisely what I was hoping to find.

    property shop investment