“You do the duck grip,” explains Arva, my food guide for this Arabian Frying Pan Adventure. “Pinch the food between your right hand, thumb and fingers, raise to mouth, turn hand palm up and use your thumb to flick the food in.” She does it elegantly, and not a grain of rice nor any of the Emirati Chicken Machboos escapes.
My own effort is not so good – suddenly it’s easy to see why Yemeni restaurant Al Tawasol has plastic over the brightly patterned carpet we’re sitting on. This is not a theme restaurant designed to give tourists a taste of “Bedouin dining”, but a simple place for locals of the Deira district of Dubai. Men eat together in one big room with bare walls, while women and family groups eat, shoeless, in curtained off majils “tents”. Tourists are very thin on the ground.
Barely 20 minutes’ drive from the soaring towers of bling Dubai, this area is where the workers live – Filipinos, Iranians, Pakistanis and just about anyone who is not an Arab. The buildings here are rarely over five storeys high, and the nighttime streets teem with life, neon light and noise. Workers queue at money exchanges to send funds back home. Many will sleep “hot bedding” in shared rooms: adverts for “bed space” are pasted to street walls and ask what seem to Western eyes laughably small sums, but which in reality still eat into the hard-earned wages.
The residents of Deira live hard lives but they eat well. The Machboos is delicious, the meat packed with flavour and the rice cooked as only Emiratis know how. They scoff at the idea of a non-Emirati even presuming to ever get it right. The meal is cheap – but there are even cheaper options around. Arva, who has lived around here nearly all her life, knows where to find the best food.
At Sultan Dubai Falafel, the falafels are made in front of you at the counter, the chickpea mix ball stuffed with chilli paste and onions and dusted in sesame seeds before hitting the fryer. They cost around 80p for a plateful; you eat them standing up, dipped them into a hummus made with coriander, parsley, capsicum and a lemon sauce.
A few feet away from restaurant Qwaider Al Nabulsi’s scattered pavement tables, the multi-laned main road is roaring with traffic and the call to prayer so loud it drowns out even the planes taking off from Dubai airport. It’s not glamorous, but it is good. Here Arva gets us some Knafeh Na’ama: a pie with layers of cheese and ground kataifi-noodle pastry, served with a syrup to cut through the salty cheese. The overall savoury-sweet crunch is addictive.
We drop into Al Samadi Sweets on Muraqqabat Street to try bukaj, delicious little baklava shaped like knapsacks, karabij – pistachio cookies – and Arabic coffee called gahwa, a weak brew laced with cardamom and sipped from endlessly refilled small cups. When you’ve had enough, Arva explains, you simply waggle the cup any time the coffee pot approaches.
The sugar rush carries us to more places: at Asail Al Sham they freshly make Syrian pistachio boozah ice cream, a curiously elastic product made from sahlab (milk with ground orchid roots and gum from the mastic tree) and pounded to thickness with a giant pestle right there in the shop before being served sprinkled with cinnamon.
When you’ve had enough, Arva explains, you simply waggle the cup any time the coffee pot approaches
I can’t help being mesmerised at Arbel Iraqi Restaurant as I watch masgouf (wood-fired carps) being cooked around a roaring wood fire in a glass walled room. I’d have been keen to try the dish, but we had to press on: I had saffron to buy, and Arva told me the only shop she trusted was Sadaf Iranian Sweets and Spices, which sells the genuine fresh Iranian article. Iranian Saffron is sold to Spain in bulk where it’s mixed with local inferior saffron to make La Mancha: that’s still good saffron, but not as pure as this which comes in three grades – the top of the stamen (sargol), the middle and the base, the top being the finest of all. I have to buy some.
To finish our food tour, Arva leads me into a small, empty, rather tatty shopping centre. Here on the top floor and around three sides of the central well is the Iranian restaurant Abshar. They have a giant bread oven here, filled with what looks like medium-size garden gravel. The baker spreads a very wet dough on a paddle, sprinkles on sesame seeds, and slides the dough onto the hot stones. The result is sangak, a flat crisp bread full of irregular large holes.
Behind us, as we eat the sangak with white, tangy cheese and holy basil, a two-man group starts into a repertoire of heavily amplified Iranian songs, the vocals from the man so romantically impassioned you hope that he isn’t just singing the Iranian equivalent of an X Factor number. We tuck next into maahicheh (lamb shank boiled in a tomato broth), which comes served with rice with zereshk (barberries) as well as baghali polo (rice with broad beans and dill). The room is large, and this early in the evening it’s still only half-full, but it has the air of a well-used place, somewhere locals know they’ll get the best food. And as I sip a fresh mint tea I know I certainly did.
Of course there has been no alcohol – it’s not allowed by law – but I must confess that I didn’t miss it. So, feeling unusually sober and very, very full, I say goodbye to Arva and head back to my room in modern Dubai, a room in the tallest hotel in the world, the JW Marriott Marquis. It’s located in the high-class side of town, a world away from the Deira district, and one that tourists rarely leave. More should: the streets of Deira are some of the safest in the world to wander and the food something that, with an expert guide like Arva, a lot more foodies should flock to discover.