Several courses of the first Dubai Food Festival
You could be forgiven for thinking that there is a year-long food festival in Dubai so much goes on in the culinary calendar. But a new initiative was launched this year to group some of the major events together under the title Dubai Food Festival adding in some additional and quirky things to show off this city’s diverse food scene to the max. It all came about very quickly and some things worked better than others. But all in all it was a whirlwind month of food-centric fun with many highlights; it all started at the end of February with:
Dubai Food Carnival
About: Aimed at a wider family audience it had a mix of entertainment and low to mid range food stalls. I managed to say yes to being on a discussion panel and felt very exposed up on the big stage discussing the importance of service versus food in restaurants. I took a visitor from Scotland’s Inner Hebrides with me and it was great to see the event though her eyes. Unlike me, for instance, she was astonished to be greeted by a group of stilt walking dancers as we arrived.
Good things: Eating martabak telor fresh from the pan at Wok it, seeing the Weber barbecue challenge pitting teams against each other, a glimpse of John Torode, the fenced off bit where alcohol was served (much smarter than TOD – see below), My Dad can cook (father and offspring cooking together), veg growing competitions in schools, Ghaf kitchen (Dubai’s first food truck) and Silvena Rowe‘s pop up using local, organic veg.
Could do better: Could do with a few more unusual eating experiences (and less fast food style vendors); the family entertainment (apart from the sumo wrestling bizarrely) was a bit grating – but then again it wasn’t aimed at me.
About: Pop up restaurants on three beaches, with a range of foods and live music.
Good things: Kite beach location was really chilled and lovely with some nice stalls and great music. It felt like you could be anywhere in the world, a great hub frequented by a range of nationalities and would be great on this beach as a permanent fixture.
Could do better: Last minute notice and very few people seemed aware of it – especially Russian beach and sunset beach canteens. The one on sunset beach was plonked in the middle – difficult for atmosphere. The mix of stands was a bit odd. And at all places the food was too expensive.
Greg Malouf media lunch at Nawwara
Greg Malouf is famous in Australia and has been involved at getting Petersham Nurseries in Richmond back on its feet after the departure of Skye Gyngell. My only knowledge of him was as co-author with his (ex) wife on the cover of some gorgeous coffee table cookery and travel books on the Middle East. I had this impression that he was tricky by the revered whispers his name was breathed. So I was expecting something fancy for a media lunch at Nawwara in JW Marriot Marquis. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The interior of the restaurant was light-filled, elegant and modern with traditional touches such as the full length fountain trickling gently down the centre. When Greg spoke he was understated and self-effacing patently still much happier in the kitchen than in front of a crowd. His praise of Youssef Issa the head chef of Nawarra and the other staff seemed warm and genuine. And the food…. you could have knocked me down with a feather. Nothing unusual, Lebanese staples such as hummus, tabbouleh, fatoush, muhammara and mutabal graced the table served traditionally but immaculately. Anyone who says you can make good hummus by whizzing up a tin of chickpeas in a blender hasn’t lived in the Middle East – the test of a good restaurant is its hummus. This was soft like butter, creamy, smooth, balanced, elegant and this immaculate execution of a simple dish was carried throughout.
Two more salads followed, one from Greg’s grandmother’s recipe ‘Tata’s Salad’. A type of chard pie with chickpeas wooed us by its ‘hand of Fatima’ decoration and savoury leaves encased in crumbly crust. Up until now we’d eaten no meat at all but there were no complaints. Duck tagine accompanied with stuffed vegetables was the most homely but satisfyingly good and accompanied by the most delicious couscous I have ever eaten…ever. How can couscous be that note-worthy? Apparently the traditional (i.e. arduous and time-consuming) method of preparing couscous is very different to the instant packet stuff. Remembering it makes me want to eat it again right now. Greg provided the playful dessert of camel biscuits and Chef Youssef one made of frozen clotted cream, Ethiopian raw honey, berries and nuts; it was superb. An absolutely exquisite lunch and a very clever way to show that Dubai’s five stars aren’t just style over substance to the world’s media while firmly rooted in the Middle East.
Gourmet Trail Guide
Six local food experts (i.e. eminent food bloggers) were asked to create a Dubai Food Festival Gourmet Trail Guide. They picked five foodie trails, to highlight the diverse selection of cuisine and dining experiences available throughout Dubai.
- Ultimate Dining Experiences – gourmet or 5-star dining outlets
- Best Kept Secrets – little known eateries and restaurants
- Arabian Inspirations – the very best of Emirati, GCC and Levant cuisines
- Around the world – the very best of cuisine from around the globe available in Dubai
- Best Cheap Eats – the best dining or snacks for under 20 AED per person
Even though I read all these blogs and know many of the bloggers well, there were still lots of surprises among the trails. A great resource to dip into even after the festival is over.
In previous years I’d avoided going to this huge trade show which attracts exhibitors and visitors from all over the world. I was afraid that it would represent everything I stand against – industrialised, highly processed foods and fancy imported goods. This year I decided to go with an open mind and see if my preconceptions were right and in the main they were. It was absolutely overwhelming too – vast halls of stalls, the outside areas packed, mainly with men in suits dragging wheelie computer bags who were chain smoking. I didn’t even find the food demonstration section with the chefs (including Tom Kitchin), being totally exhausted after navigating my way round the very confusing halls of enormous stands representing different countries. It amused me to see the types of products that represented each nation. The UK was dominated by crisps and cheese, Germany drinks and coffee, Spain dulce de leche and olives. Meeting up with England Preserves and GabyMachel redeemed my visit and I wish I’d begged for a bag of some excellent Cradoc’s savoury biscuits made with fresh vegetables. The highlight was sitting at the front of the metro on the journey home with a lovely view of the sun going down over Dubai.
Good things: The country stalls give small producers the chance to reach a wider audience. Gulfood also demonstrated what an important business hub Dubai is not only in the region but worldwide. As a place to network for the food industry, there must be few rivals.
Could do better: Sad to see a country like Poland represented by a stand crammed full of highly processed foods in boxes. Is this seen as progress from a land so rich with good ingredients and delicious cuisine? The numbering of the stands was completely baffling too; even though I downloaded the app it was hard to navigate your way round.
Emirates Airline Festival of Literature
This wonderful annual event got scooped up under the Dubai Festival banner too and quite rightly so as there is always an excellent food contingent. I thought there were less demos this year (thoroughly enjoyed some in the past from Madhur Jaffrey, Ariana Bundy and Rachel Allen). I’ve met some of my absolute food heroes there in previous years too (Claudia Roden, Anissa Helou) and been entertained by stories from Ken Hom and Willie Harcourt-Cooze among others. There were so many wonderful sessions for non-foodie authors this year that I only managed to sit in on one session but it was one of the most interesting I attended. William Sitwell kept us all engaged and chuckling with his quick wit and The History of Food in 100 recipes is compelling bedside reading. My main coup this year was to interview Prue Leith. Mark your diary for 3-7 March 2015.
Taste of Dubai 2014
About: The most popular and well-known food event in Dubai’s calendar where you can eat small portions of signature dishes from a wide range of upper-end restaurants as well as food demos, cookery classes and competitions.
Good things: As always the big draw is that you can eat a range of nice food and drink (alcohol) in the lovely Media City amphitheatre and listen to live music. The cookery competition run by Crate and Barrel and BBC Good Food Magazine was exceptional. Contestants were pitched one against the other for a cook off. These local amateur keen cooks were superb and created some amazing dishes from a given basket of ingredients against the clock. The set up was good – individual kitchens almost like Masterchef, the compère professional and credible panel of judges. Nice to see some smaller set ups there too like Boon Coffee and I tasted finger limes for the first time at Lafayette Gourmet. The fun tasting at the MMI beverage theatre (a bit like call my bluff with wine) took an even funnier twist as the heavens opened and we all had to huddle in the pouring area. Good to see Le Clos there this year and to taste some wine fine too. Eric Lanlard had a few hearts fluttering this year although not when I visited.
Could do better: Perhaps I’m becoming jaded with the event or maybe it’s reached it’s peak but I was slightly underwhelmed this year. I had hoped that Gary Rhodes wouldn’t be repeating his same menu including white tomato soup yet again, but was disappointed to see that none of the Starwood group restaurants (including Toro Toro, Rhodes Mezzanine and Indego by Vineet) were not there this year. Neither were the Atlantis restaurants (so no Nobu or Ronda Locatelli) or JW Marriot Marquise or Mango Tree or Carluccio’s. Given all the new openings this year, it was a shame that nothing really exciting replaced them either; I did sample some food from La Porte des Indes, one of few new kids on the block, but the highlight was tucking into very good fish and chips from Rivington Grill – delicious but not pushing any culinary boundaries!
Fortnum and Mason Dubai opening
Not part of the Dubai Food Festival but hot on its heels chronologically – and a significant new addition to the Dubai food scene in my opinion.
Good things: The best combination of afternoon tea with a view of the Burj Khalifa, The Dubai Fountains and an outside terrace: their Welsh Rarebit is TO DIE FOR; lovely array of teas, biscuits, preserves, very posh candles and hampers; an ice cream parlour on the top floor (with mega view). They’ve made an effort to source a lot of produce locally too. Free valet parking if you visit F&M too – just enter by the Address Hotel and go straight at the roundabout.
Could do better: Nothing to add here, I think the concept has been done really well; a visit for tea and a review is firmly on the cards.
Verdict on the Dubai Food Festival
This festival is a sign of Dubai coming of age and a sign that the powers that be are waking up to the fact that people aren’t just interested in five star fine dining.
Good things: Great to have a platform for the huge diversity of cultures and their cuisines on offer in Dubai.
Could do better: Tenuous food entertainment such as dancing cutlery in malls. Forget it. More focus on the great ingredients available in Dubai and more authentic street food being given a platform (not just those who can afford to invest). It was all a bit last minute too so with a bit more planning could be something really special.
Conclusion: Great imaginative initiative can’t wait to see what they do next year.