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Several courses of the first Dubai Food Festival

April 7, 2014

Dubai Food FestivalYou 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

Dubai Food Carnival

The big stage and sumo – it sort of worked

Dubai Food Carnival

Wok it

Dubai Food Carnival

John Torode

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.

Beach Canteen

Beach Canteen

Elegant female DJ

Beach Canteen

Sunset at Kite beach

Beach Canteen

Beach Canteen

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

Food experts at Beach Canteen

Some of the food experts behind the Gourmet Trails: l to r Secret Squirrel Food, The Hedonista, Dubai Food Festival and FooDiva

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.

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.

Gulfood

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

Taste of Dubai

Taste of Dubai 2014

Taste of Dubai

Cook off contestant

Taste of Dubai

The judges including Sudeshna Ghosh from BBC Good Food Magazine and Chef David Miras

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!

Read about previous years here  here and here.

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.

Useful links: Dubai Food Festival, Dubai Food Carnival, Taste of Dubai, Gulfood, Fortnum and Mason Dubai,

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23 Comments
  1. April 7, 2014 5:09 pm

    Goodness it’s great to see so much going on food-wise in Dubai , I may be there in a few weeks so will have to check out which festivals are on whilst for me and a boy in a pram. I particular like the look of the cafes at the beach x

    • April 7, 2014 5:12 pm

      Sadly the cafe on the beach was a pop up and temporary for the festival – but there is always so much going on food wise. Let me know if you’d like any recommendations.

      • April 7, 2014 5:14 pm

        Oh that’s a shame, but once my trip is confirmed I would love to know what you recommend. If you are around would be lovely to meet you too x

  2. April 7, 2014 5:10 pm

    What an excellent location for a food festival. Seems like they tried hard…maybe too hard! Loved the Greg Malouf piece.

    • April 7, 2014 5:11 pm

      Dubai always gets full marks for trying :)

  3. April 7, 2014 5:31 pm

    I didn’t even bother going to Taste of Dubai this year I was so disappointed in it last year. I thought the Dubai Food Carnival was way better. What’s happened to the one that was at Meydan that had potential to expand and be a really good event.

    • April 7, 2014 6:18 pm

      Organiser had to leave Dubai sadly.

  4. April 7, 2014 6:36 pm

    A wonderful experience! This food festival is fantastic.

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  5. April 7, 2014 9:59 pm

    Great to read what’s going on, I love all of the photos ☺️

  6. April 8, 2014 2:00 am

    Superb post. Resonates with my thoughts exactly. My highlights would be – the panel discussions and Chef Silvena Rowe’s pop up restaurant in the Food Carnival; Le Porte des Indes and a few cooking demonstrations (Chef Uwe Michael) at the Taste of Dubai; the novelty of the Beach Canteens, specially the Kite Beach (temporarily forgetting the confusion with the other locations and the high bill)… look forward to next year but with a bit more planning and announcements.

  7. April 8, 2014 3:33 am

    It looks like an exciting event. Hope they take your comments to heart to make it even better.

  8. April 8, 2014 8:47 pm

    Great photos and impressive-sounding food festival too. :-)

    • April 9, 2014 7:59 am

      Thanks :) and yes I think they did a pretty good job.

  9. April 9, 2014 8:02 am

    It’s a pity you didn’t get to see Tom Kitchin. I didn’t go to the Taste of Cape Town this year as it has been a repeat the past few times I’ve been, and very expensive :)

    • April 9, 2014 8:19 am

      Yes would have like to see Tom Kitchin in action – I think heading straight for the chefs area (and staying there) would have been the best strategy. I was too overwhelmed and exhausted after only a couple of hours and practically ran out of the place!!

  10. April 9, 2014 4:34 pm

    wow what a lot of foodie events – really interested to hear you talk about greg malouf who is quite a star in Melbourne as far as I know – I haven’t been to his restaurants or got his books but you hear his name bandied around – love hearing how well he handles the basics but it is almost frustrating as I feel I need to taste as well as look at your lovely photos

  11. April 10, 2014 10:05 am

    Wow, so much going on in Dubai Sally! We have a few food festivals coming up here as well but what I find is that as they become bigger the focus becomes more commercial and less focus on the smaller stalls with beautiful produce. Also too many people making it hard to see anything really… O well, I guess it’s an ever evolving thing,

    • April 10, 2014 10:49 am

      Yes indeed – the more successful they get the more they price the small interesting producers out.

  12. ramblingtart permalink
    April 11, 2014 4:52 am

    My word!! You would never lack for something fun and delicious to do, that’s for sure. :-) The media lunch at Nawwara sounds so delicious.

  13. April 13, 2014 5:26 am

    Loved this whirlwind virtual tour of Dubai’s new gastronomic tourism events. It seems that the world over food and drink are becoming big business, even in an artisanal way. The Food Show is in Wellington next month and at one level I’m intrigued to see what’s new but on the other hand find the scrum exhausting. Thanks for sharing what Dubai has to offer seems such a world away from the most definitely Arab world when I lived there as a child in the mid 1970’s

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