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 food tour with Arva Ahmed, co-founder of Frying Pan Adventures, the food tour specialists of Dubai.
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.
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