After more than four years of living in Dubai, I still have so much to learn about the people and culture of my host country. Since I am motivated by food more than anything else, my journey into learning about Emirati culture began in June 2008 when I started my Emirati home cooking project – I would have started by eating at a restaurant but there weren’t any bona fide Emirati restaurants in Dubai at the time.
In the last year or so, a few Emirati restaurants, and even an Emirati bakery, have opened up. I was very excited to try them all!
My first visit was to Al Fanar Restaurant and Cafe – described on their Facebook page as “the first and only restaurant to offer authentic and traditional Emirati cuisine in the Emirates.”
According to the Al Fanar website:
Al Fanar (the local term for the kerosene lamp used to light the homes in Dubai at the old times) is here to feed the curiosity of visitors; a haven for the locals: an iconic showcase of exotic culture and exquisite taste.
Steps away from the Intercontinental Festival City (I normally only schlep to Festival City because of IKEA), and right alongside the man-made waterway known as Canal Walk, lies the juxtaposition of tall buildings and modern shopping mall with traditional wooden structures and replicated scenes of Dubai in the 1960s.
The outdoor dining area of Al Fanar contains majlis-style seating where, along with members of the Girls Supper Club, I sat shoeless and cross-legged, surrounded by diorama-like scenes of olden-day Emirati life: a Bedouin with his flock of camel and goats; a donkey loaded with kerosene to light the lamps of the town.
I did not see this for myself, but there is apparently an old Land Rover that is parked, ready to unload goods from a long haul. There are also regular tables and chairs for those who prefer not to sit in the majlis.
The indoors dining area replicates the central courtyard of a traditional Emirati home. It reminded me very much of traditional Spanish courtyards.
To give a sense that the setting is meant to be outdoors, even though we were indoors, there is an enormous tree at the edge of a long wooden dining table.
I sat in this courtyard with Scotch and his parents a few weeks after my first visit to the restaurant. Wee Scotch was also there to help us eat the abundance of food that I would inevitably order.
Scotch’s dad shared with us that when he entered the restaurant and caught sight of a flash of tartan, he thought the servers were wearing kilts.
In another room adjacent to the central courtyard was the a replica of a Merchant’s Court Yard and old souk.
If anyone has been to Epcot’s World Showcase (part of Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL), don’t you think this restaurant would fit right in with the other showcase countries (of which there are currently eleven with Morocco being the only MENA country) because of all its highly authentic setting?
Well okay, if you can overlook the lack of booze. And the fact that the staff aren’t Emirati but are instead from other Arab nations (showcase countries in Epcot are staffed by citizens of their respective countries).
Scattered around the restaurant were old artifacts like a black heavy-looking charcoal iron and this “Kajoojah” that was used in the old days for making embroidery.
It really seemed like a lot of thought and effort was put into restaurant in terms of exterior, menu, and even website design.
[UPDATE: click here for the behind-the-scenes article on the design and construction of the restaurant. Thanks to the author, Devina Divecha, for sharing!)
And now on to the food!
Thanks to my Emirati cooking project, many of the items that were available on the menu looked familiar to me. I don’t think I saw the term “bezar” or “bzar” written on the menu but many items were described as “flavored with Arabic spices” which I assume refers to bezar, a spice mixture that is central to Emirati cooking.
Within minutes of sitting down to dinner, on both occasions we were presented with complimentary bowls of beans to snack on. First, were these broad beans which I stared at with apprehension because there’s just something about the texture of beans that irks me. The mush factor, maybe?
But I gave these a try. They were cold, soft, but not inedible. I don’t think they would have won favorite dish of the night but they were at least healthy.
The next time I came for dinner the complimentary item was garbanzo beans or chick peas. They were served in a bowl with ice. Again, I gave these a try and lo and behold! I actually liked them.
They weren’t overly mushy at all but had almost a slight crunch to them.
Both times I dined at Al Fanar, there were many other Emiratis there as well including the husband of one of my dinner companions. He and his friend were kind enough to let me be my usual nosy self and poke my camera at anything and everything they ordered, including this “Shorbat Dajaj,” or chicken soup, served with lime wedges.
I couldn’t bring myself to ask for a taste but K (pictured below) pronounced that taste-wise the soup was reasonable but nothing special. I have to wonder if anything from a restaurant can ever compete with his mom’s home cooking.
An interesting note about the crockery – I was informed by K’s wife that his mom has the same set of dishes with the floral rose design.
This simple mixed salad was nicely flavored – I just love the spicy flavor of arugula/rocket.
Like biryani, this dish known as Samboosa was “imported” from India and adapted into the cuisine by using Emirati spices.
The outside pastry was puffy but not oily looking (nor oil tasting) at all and gave a nice crunch upon each bit. The inside was full of flavor and I couldn’t believe that something vegetarian could taste so good. I can only imagine that adding meat like ground chicken would make it even more satisfying for carnivores (me!).
Racking my brain but I can’t remember what the dipping sauce was like.
We ordered a couple of grilled seafood appetizers and this prawn platter was devoured so fast this was the only photo I could get!
Both the grilled squid and prawns were amazing – nice smokey flavors and I loved that the sweetness of the seafood was brought out by the grilling method.
I think I need a lesson on what to do with the accompaniments though. I am referring to the rocket and the tomatoes. Are they just for decoration or do I eat them in the same mouthful as the squid?
At my second visit we were presented with a few specials of the day and I opted to try the “habool” or fish roe. Maybe because of the oddity of it but I was the only one who enjoyed this dish and nearly ate the whole platter by myself.
It came battered and deep-fried and had a texture like chicken breast. There was not much flavor except for the battered crust.
I saw omelet on the menu and thought, “why not?” It looked more like an egg scramble and disappeared within seconds of hitting the table. It was moist and well-flavored. A very homey, comfort food kind of dish.
I don’t know the official name of this flat bread but we were given baskets full to accompany our meal. It was crispy with a hint of sweetness.
Hint of cardamom. That would be an understatement for the chicken biryani that we ordered. I think my taste buds are slowly getting used to the liberal use of cardamom in Emirati cooking but some did find it overpowering. I thought the dish was a bit dry as I normally find most biryanis – whether Indian or Emirati.
Machboos must be my favorite Emirati dish so far. It is a traditional chicken and rice dish flavored with bezar and the chicken is cooked in the same water used to cook the rice thus flavoring it like a stock. Onions, tomatoes, and dried limes called loomi are also used. I’ve made this dish twice myself (you can read about it here) before finally tasting an authentic version at an Emirati home which was prepared with more expertise than my own amateur attempts.
Between the two rice dishes that were ordered – biryani and machboos – the machboos rice had much more flavor and was not dry at all. But I can’t say the same of the meat. Although the meat in the lamb machboos was moister than the chicken version, it was also much bonier.
But the rice I liked so much I ate it as a side dish with everything. Screw the plain white rice.
We also sampled two of the kebabs – chicken (“Tekat Dajaj Emarati”) and mutton (“Kebab Emarati” ). The chicken photo (below) is a bit blurry but you get the picture (pun intented 🙂 ).
Both kebabs were moist, tender, and nicely flavored.
For the stews (known as saloonas), we ordered again a chicken one and a mutton one.
The “Saloona Laham bel Tamoor,” mutton stew with potatoes and lentil beans cooked in tomato sauce with dry dates and tamarind, was richer and better tasting than the chicken saloona. The difficulty with stews is that chicken (especially white meat) tends to get overcooked and becomes flavorless whereas mutton can retain its flavor better.
I have a fascination with whole grilled fish but I’m often scared of ordering it on a menu because I’ve had so many bad experiences. Properly done, the spices or flavorings should enhance and not overpower the delicate taste of the fish, the fish should have smoky flavors from the grill, and there should not be more bones than flesh.
Al Fanar got it right with the hammour they served that night.
And for the last entree, which looks like a repeat of the appetizer (but this was ordered on a different night) we ordered grilled prawns. I think the prawns that were used in the entree version were larger than the appetizer one. They were slightly overcooked but still very good.
And now we arrive at dessert. If it weren’t for my girl friends, I probably would never make it to dessert but thanks to their combined sweet tooth, we all had the opportunity to try the following…
…Pumpkin pudding that was seriously laced with cardamom.
…Lgeimats, which are fried dough balls that reminded me of you tiao aka yau ja gwai (Chinese fried dough in long sticks popular as a breakfast food with congee aka rice porridge) but sweet and more chewy. Again a very pronounced cardamom flavor.
Our leqaimat expert of the evening commented that they were indeed chewier than the ones she’s had before.
…Emirati donuts that we also dipped in the date syrup from the Leqaimat.
…tapioca pudding known as “Sagoo.”
And at the end of dinner when we were stuffed to the brim and could eat no more, we shared pots of mint tea. Rose water was offered for us to rub on our hands.
We very much enjoyed the experience and the food though sometimes service was a little slow when we were sitting outdoors. The use (some may say overuse) of certain traditional spices (like cardamom and rose water) will take a little getting used to.
Price wise, we ended up paying about 60-70 dirhams ($16-$19) per person, so pretty reasonable. Many dishes were quite large and easily shared.
Setting-wise the restaurant is located in a great location along the water – perfect for the Dubai winters – and plenty of parking. It will be interesting to see how the business will be affected in the hot summer months when outdoor dining is not a comfortable option. If it starts relying on busloads of tourist for business (not a bad thing as the restaurant aims to showcase Emirati cuisine) I hope quality and authenticity of the food doesn’t suffer.
It would be nice to see some sort of guided experience as well – perhaps sessions on Emirati cooking or Emirati spice-tasting 101.
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There have been a bit of coverage on the emergence of more Emirati restaurants and Emirati chefs in Dubai – you can read about them here and here. Also, Eating the Emirates is a nice article by Geoff Pound that gives a good overview of Emirati traditions when it comes to food.