Dubai is home to more than 200 nationalities and imports 80 percent of its food. As such, much of the city’s cuisine is inspired by its neighbouring countries and the Middle East and Asia at large. But before we go home, Princess and I have a taste of local Emirati cuisine.
Admittedly, Emirati food is not as popular as many of its regional contemporaries, but the United Arab Emirates does have a cuisine of its own, and as is the norm, it is underpinned by factors such as climate, trade, availability of ingredients, dietary laws, food preservation and cultural traditions.
The two greatest influences on Emirati cuisine stemmed from trade with India and Iran and Al Khayma Heritage Restaurant is one of the best place for you to enjoy Emirati cuisine in the unique setting of a restored traditional house. This restaurant has also been awarded the Bib Gourmand award in the inaugural 2023 Michelin Dubai Guide.
Al Khayma Heritage Restaurant was established in 2020. Set in the middle of the old-Dubai heritage area, it adds a lot of authenticity in terms of using an actual old Dubai house and converted it to be a restaurant. Lesser known Emirati dishes like dango (chickpea soup), machboos (rice), and luqaimat (filled pastry dessert) are served here and made with the freshest of ingredients.
Fresh salads and a platter of mezze – a selection of four or five appetiser dishes to share – are normally served with dinner. Mains usually consist of a platter, traditional Emirati meals often showcase meats like lamb or chicken as separate dishes, with aromatic rice. Sweet desserts and a traditional Arabic coffee will round off the meal. You are also able to eat camel, a rich, lean yet delicious meat, in some restaurants.
Dango (Spiced Chickpeas) is prepared by boiling plain chickpeas in water with salt, red chilies, and other spices; easy to make and full of flavour. This classic Emirati snack or starter is like an un-mashed version of hummus without the tahini. This came as compliments from the kitchen.
Even veteran expatriates are guilty of enumerating hummus, tabbouleh and shawarma as Emirati staples when they are not. Hummus, one of the most loved dishes in the UAE, is, in fact, Levantine in its origin. And that’s okay because traditions and cuisines undergo many givings and takings as they evolve. But for now, we are wearing the hat of gastronomical puritans.
The things that made this beetroot salad Emirati are the used of crushed walnuts and the spices used for added flavours. Bits of pomegranate and cucumbers rounded up the salad.
Khobz is an airy and hollow bread that has its origin from the Ottoman pita bread. They are cooked on a special bread maker or oven. The bread is first cooked on the oven’s cover for a minute before being transferred inside where it quickly rises and puffs up. When cooked, the bread’s hollow center can be filled with date paste or any other filling.
Perhaps the most popular of all Emirati meals is machboos or majbous — a group of rice dishes with a variety of meat or seafood, vegetables and spices arranged in layers and slow cooked to perfection in an oven or coal hole. A spicier version of biryani, this basmati rice-based dish is slow-cooked with onion, baharat (a Middle Eastern spice blend), loomi (dried lemon), and a protein of your choice. The taste of the loomi (which is like the Teochew preserved lime) was quite pronounced in the final dish in a delightful way and not too sour.
Fluffy Lebanese garlic sauce and Middle Eastern spicy chilli sauce were served with the machboo, and they were great as dips for the khobz as well.
I should have ordered a different protein like fish, chicken or lamb. But because I ordered a lamb saloona as well and I have serious doubt about the freshness of fish, I went for the shrimps, which totally disappeared into the machboo. Although they were delicious, I felt it was like eating a lot of rice without reaching into the shrimps. Nevertheless I would recommend ordering a machboo without any hesitation – just stick to a more substantial meat like chicken or lamb.
I followed my ordering habits, picking a stew with my rice dish. While saloona looks like curry, it’s water-based, making it more like a stew. It is usually made with chicken, lamb or fish, seasonal vegetables and bezar (a spice blend of cumin, fennel and coriander seeds, dried red chilis, turmeric, black peppercorns, and cinnamon). Tonight, we picked a lamb saloona. The lamb was cooked to fork tender goodness, and the stew was just perfect for pouring on top of machboo.
Saloona is commonly paired with steamed basmati rice. But we already had the machboo, so we asked not to serve the rice, but they insisted. However they were right, it actually was a better accompaniment to the saloona, soaking up all the flavours.
Traditional Emirati cuisine is exciting, intense, unique and most certainly worth exploring. Wonderful meal and helpful staff; English was widely spoken. Following the customs of the land, portions are generous too, making this an ideal spot for an indulgent dinner after a day spent exploring Old Dubai.
Al Khayma Heritage Restaurant مطعم الخيمة التراثي
Al Fahidi Historical District Building 54 & 55, Dubai 118131 United Arab Emirates
Tel : +971 55 180 2080
Visited Nov 2022
Michelin Dubai Guide 2023 (inaugural) Bib Gourmand
#MichelinBibGourmand @AlKhayma.AE #AlKhaymaHeritageRestaurant