The salty smell of fish fills my nostrils and the hubbub from the traders and buyers invade my ears. Outside the latest catch is being auctioned. It’s so fresh that the fish are still wriggling. Your senses come alive at Dubai’s fish market, the colourful and hectic starting point on this Dubai food tour with Arva Ahmed, co-founder of Frying Pan Adventures, the food tour specialists.
There’s no end of great things to do in Dubai but top of my list was a food tour. I first heard of Arva and her food tours when I interviewed journalist, Matthew Teller, about sustainable tourism in the Middle East. He used Frying Pan Adventures as an example of just the sort of independently run tour, giving an insight into local culture, that tourists should support. I had longed to meet Arva and join her on a tour of the city’s old town ever since. So I had high expectations and was more than a little excited at the prospect of their Food Lover’s Early Morning March last month.
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From camels’ heads to coconut water
The tour started early in the morning with a look around the fish market where we are greeted with smiles and smells, although the latter really wasn’t as overwhelming as I had expected. Arva is eager to show us everything, as she explains which fish are sustainable and which are being over fished and should be avoided.
As we head from the fish mongers to the butchers, Arva warns us that the next part of the tour is not for the faint hearted. She isn’t wrong. We see things guaranteed to turn the average westerners’ sanitised supermarket-shopping stomach. In fact the sight of a skinned camel’s head, with its eyes staring and tongue lolling, as it oozed its way slowly sliding down the counter, is enough to put even me off my breakfast… well, almost.
On to the fruit and veg market, refreshment comes in the shape of a coconut, a welcome drink as we make our way past creates of colourful fruit, trays piled high with succulent, glossy dates and stacks of delicious looking honey pots crammed full of nuts.
Dubai Creek and the Textile Souk
From the markets, a short drive brings us to the creek, where we catch an abra, a motorised Middle Eastern wooden boat; a chance to see the city from a different viewpoint.
We continue on foot through the textile souk where around the next corner we’re transported to India as a hidden alley leads us behind a Hindu temple. We pass stalls selling fragrant strands of jasmine to pin in your hair and vibrant marigold garlands and other colourful offerings to the Gods. Stepping out into the full glare of the sun I find myself by an Islamic mosque. The two religions appear comfortable as neighbours.
Breakfast at Creekside Café
Back by the waterfront are tummies are eager for breakfast and we stop at what is now my favourite Dubai eatery, the Creekside Café. In a simple setting they offer a fabulous menu of fusion cuisine inspired by local ingredients and Emirati culinary traditions. I opt for French Toast, which may not sound particularly exciting but it is outstanding – the perfect mix of textures and tastes – strawberries, blackberries and pomegranate seeds, with home-made smoked date jam and whipped cream atop Arabic coffee custard french toast served with a pot of sour pomegranate syrup on the side – superb.
As well as a much-needed caffeine fix in the shape of a cappuccino, I also enjoy a cheerful looking glass of rose iced tea, made from the well-loved Middle Eastern ingredient, rose buds. It’s a deliciously refreshing drink.
The Spice Souk
Another ten minute ride in an abra brings us back to the Deira shore of the Creek where we each try a pot of Irani Faluda, frozen sugar syrup crushed and mixed with rice noodles and rosewater. While not something I’d go out of my way to try again, it certainly is refreshing and most welcome as the sun rises higher in the sky.
With Arva in the lead we wind our way through the Spice Souk as she explains the uses of numerous herbs and spices in the Middle East, both culinary and medicinal. Frankincense is being burned at some of the stalls. It mingles with the aroma of spices and envelopes us in its sweet fragrance. Arva’s enthusiasm and passion shines through as she passes on many handy hints such as how to tell real saffron from fake. Quality saffron is dark red in colour, as shown below, and when left in cold water for a few minutes does not lose any of its colour unlike the fake which will fade.
While you can visit the Spice Souk on your own easily enough, without a guide such as Arva your experience will be in shades of grey rather than the vibrant technicolour that her knowledge bestows.
The Dubai Coffee Museum
Next stop, an interesting little museum where we learn about coffee at its finest and sample the best turkish coffee I’ve ever tasted. I usually find these small cups of the black beverage too strong but this had a much smoother and delicate flavour that has transformed my view of black coffee.
A casual lunch of kababs
The last stop is in a road side eatery serving kababs (or kebabs as we know them). We all tuck into succulent pieces of chicken or lamb served either with salad greens and yogurt wrapped up in local flat bread or served with rice. A social meal follows which we were unable to finish despite our best efforts, ending with a pot of Omani halwa, a sweet dessert made with caramelised sugar, saffron, nuts and rosewater, from the shop next door. An excellent end to a wonderful morning learning about and sampling the edible delights of Dubai; a wonderful opportunity to see the city through a local’s eyes.
Getting to know a culture through its food
As regular readers will know, I’m a firm believer in getting to know a country and its people through their food. Wherever I am in the world, I love to hunt down independently run, small group food tours to gain a unique insight into the local culture. Dubai is no exception. The cuisine here is a rich mix of Middle Eastern traditions, as well as Indian, European and a myriad of other global influences reflecting the diversity of Dubai’s citizens, just 10% of which are Emirati.
To find out more about overfishing and sustainable fish sources in UAE visit ChooseWisely.ae.
Creekside Café is open daily 8am-8pm and is next to Ruler’s Court, Bur Dubai.
The Coffee Museum is open daily, except Fridays 9am-5pm and is located in the Al Fahidi historical neighbourhood.
Disclosure: I was visiting Dubai as a guest of Dubai Tourism and The Ritz-Carlton Dubai. While my place on this food tour with Frying Pan Adventures was complimentary, all opinions expressed and calories consumed, as always, remain my own.
More articles from Dubai on Travel With Kat
My Favourite Things to Eat in Dubai
Falling for the skyscrapers of Dubai
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The Auhtenitc Taste of Rome, a food tour with Walks of Italy
From pastel de nata to ginjinha liqueur, join me on an edible tour of Lisbon
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Loved the blog post, but Frying Pan doesn’t offer this tour anymore. Are there other culinary tour operators in Dubai you know of?
Frying Pan updates the tours they offer every year and I’m sure they are all excellent. I’ve not heard of any other food tours in Dubai but there may well be some.
Dubai seems to be all about the herbs and spices which I absolutely love. Cez is a big fan of sweets and he was tasting everything he found in local shops in Dubai!
There was such a variety of cuisines there but I particularly loved trying the local cuisine and learning about their use of spices.
What? No photo of the skinned camel’s head?! 😉 As usual, you’ve some great photos here, Kat… I love the close-ups of the produce with the wide aperture. What camera are you using?
I do have a craking shot of the camel head but didn’t want to turn people’s stomachs. It nearly made it in though!
My camera is a Nikon D700. Had it a while now but love it. And yes, love controlling the depth of field with the aperture. You can see I didn’t use do that in the first shot of the Coffee Museum and your eye doesn’t know where to look.
Such a wonderful tour you have taken us on. I can’t wait to get there and experience all Dubai has to offer. Jumping over to the sustainable tourism in the Middle East next. My desire to get there just jumped up a couple of notches.
I’d love to return and see more of the Dubai and the rest of the UAE one day. I’m sure you’d find it as fascinating as I did, Alison.
I must admit when I started reading about the skinned camel’s head, I wasn’t sure if there would be much of this suitable for my palate – and then I read on!! The glossy dates really remind me of my early childhood in the Middle East – if only I’d known how expensive they would turn out to be here in England in comparison! And that coffee custard French toast sounds like my idea of heaven!!
It was heavenly indeed, Shikha. I tried recreating it a couple pof days ago but just not up to scratch. I need to do some experimenting!
I am now convinced that we will have to go into Dubai rather than just go through the airport. We will do this tour definitely after seeing your magnificent account and the stunning photos. This will give us something very tangible to see, do and …taste. Arva, Gordon and I are coming to meet you and to learn more. Thanks Katherine
Dubai is well worth a visit so I do hope you check it out, Paula. And I look forward to hearing all about it.
Ah Kathryn, where do I begin? 🙂 Will I start with the delightful skinned camel’s head, or perhaps instead move on rather quickly to something more pleasant? It’s not only the images of the food that are super, but I love the Textile Souk and of course the Spice Souk. It’s great to see how you hooked up and did this wonderful tour after the initial intro of 2 years ago.
More sumptuous photos …very much part of your trademark I would say? 🙂
Glad you were able to move past the camel head (just as well I didn’t include the photo.. I nearly did!
What a visual feast Kathryn! Your photos are stunningly evocative. Bookmarking for a stopover in Dubai later this year. Thank you for sharing.
Oh do go on this or one of Arva’s other tours you’d love them and I’d love to read about them on your blog too!
What can I say – your writing and photography took me right back to those narrow alleyways packed with spices, aromas and colour. One of the best tours I think I’ve ever been on. Fabulous post Kat 🙂
It’s certainly up there among the best. I’d love to return one day primarily to go on another tour with Arva.
Markets are always such a great way to get an insight into another culture and this looks like a fascinating tour. I’d never thought much about what the food of Dubai would be like but it’s certainly made me hungry! Hoping to get out to Dubai soon so I’ll remember this when I do.
It’s a unique city. I’m sure you’d love exploring the old town and the souks – a fascinating contrast to modern Dubai. Hope you get there soon!
Kat, this write up is absolutely amazing, thank you! It means so much to me that after 2+ years (Mathew had joined us even before we launched!), we finally connected and with such a wonderful crew of foodies who were ready to taste, learn and experience. Thank you for the glowing words, I’m flattered, ecstatic and humbled all at once. Truly, it means the world to me.
And your photos are unbelievable! Especially the one with the incense burner – that might be the best spice souk shot I’ve ever seen!
Thank you for joining us with such an open heart and mind Kat, it was and will always be a pleasure to serve you. Hope our paths cross again!
Thanks Arva …and my pleasure! And thank you so much for sharing your Dubai with us. I really do hope I’ll be able to join you on another tour one day.
I’m so very pleased that your tours have been such a success – well deserved.
Hope to see you again some day.
I’m a good friend of Arva’s and a huge fan of her tours (I think I’ve been on 7 to date). “While you can visit the Spice Souk on your own easily enough, without a guide such as Arva your experience will be in shades of grey rather than the vibrant technicolour that her knowledge bestows. ” This sentence and your beautiful photographs sum up exactly why I’ve just signed up for another one!
Lovely to meet you albeit briefly – and so glad to have found your blog.
Sally, you are the sweetest lady ever! Thank you for the thoughtful words and can’t wait to show you the new Naif trail 🙂
7! My goodness, I’m very envious. I’d love to join another tour with Arva, including the new photography tours… one day I hope.
It was lovely to meet you too and I’ll keeping an keen eye on your blog for more edible delights from UAE. So pleased we’ve hooked up.