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What’s hot and what’s not – food and drink in the UAE in 2012

January 11, 2012
Crystal ball

Image by livingonimpulse

In the spirit of looking forward, I thought it would be fun to do a bit of crystal ball gazing about the food and drink scene in the United Arab Emirates.  There have been a few articles online about global trends but is it different in a place eager to cement its place as the trading hub of the Middle East?  Here’s the view from some movers and shakers (or should I say tipplers and tasters?) plus my own Mystic Meg contribution.

First a bit of background if you are not so familiar with this part of the world – click here to get straight to the forecasts.

View from the Burj Khalifa Dubai

View from the Burj Khalifa, Dubai

The U.A.E.’s rapid expansion has been well-documented.  Dubai has grown from a sleepy town on the edge of the creek, that I encountered when I arrived in 2000, to a buzzing metropolis complete with state of the art infrastructure, crazy off-shore developments and the tallest building in the world.   Abu Dhabi has its share of incredible projects too from the carbon-neutral city of Masdar to Saadiyat Island.

As the U.A.E. population is dominated by expatriates of all nationalities and income levels and with the economy partly fuelled by the tourist trade, the food and drink scene reflects this,  from what you find on the supermarket shelves to the huge variety of eating out venues (there are almost 900 restaurants listed on Time Out Dubai).  As a desert country with five days of rain a year, most food-stuffs are imported and ‘local’ produce can mean anywhere in the GCC (not just from the UAE).

Eating out ranges from some of the most stunning locations in the world, celebrity chef endorsements to shawarma stands and every fast food chain you care to mention (to the detriment of the health of the Emirati population).  You can drink alcohol if you are a non-muslim and hold an alcohol license and, if outside the home if it’s a licensed premises.  As licenses are given to hotels and clubs, the cheap eateries tend to be dry.  One thing’s for sure,  it’s a vibrant and changing food scene with new restaurants opening every week, food and cookery events every month of the year, new food magazines being launched and more than 90 food bloggers in the UAE.  The world recession hasn’t slowed it down – although food prices have definitely seen a hike.

Market at Souk al BaharI asked Food and Travel writer James Brennan, the force behind Lafayette Gourmet’s events Harriet Bardsley, writer and wine expert Sarah Walton, Mahiki marketeer Harry Santa-Olalla, restaurant reviewer supremo Samantha Wood (aka Foodiva), MMI’s Head of Wine Tony Dodds and cheap eats champion Arva Ahmed which food and drink trends will be ascending faster than the lift in the Burj Khalifa in the UAE in 2012 and what will be resigned to the culinary doldrums.

What’s hot in 2012?

James Brennan: Could we be moving into a new phase for homegrown restaurants in the UAE? Dubai’s Okku now has more awards than pulsating purple jellyfish. Wild Peeta is another Dubai start-up conceived and driven by locals. And Table9 is proving that you don’t need a world-famous celebrity chef’s name above the door to win plaudits.

Okku, Wild Peeta and Table 9

Okku, Wild Peeta, Scott and Nick fromTable 9

Harriet Bardsley: Getting really good value for money will continue to influence customer behaviour in 2012 but people still want to have fun and eat great food.  Simple classics from earlier eras will be a big thing, especially 80’s-style traditional dishes like lasagna, prawn cocktail and kedgeree…and large portions too.

Learning to cook is having a massive resurgence so people can eat good food at home and feed their children healthily.  Cookery classes will be the new ‘going-out’ in 2012 (Lafayette Gourmet is holding some soon) as well as staying in for a special home-cooked meal (cheaper and more romantic than a fancy restaurant).

Picnics and hampers will be big in 2012 – not only stylish and economical but healthy too – get out more and enjoy the ‘ outside’!   Healthy eating will be even more of a focus this year.  There’s also a spirit of ‘seize the moment’ as who knows what the future will bring.  Getting to know new cultures through food in this country of 147 different nationalities is on many people’s ‘bucket lists’ – and that includes experiencing traditional Emirati cuisine.

I can see technology influencing and the  way people eat and order evolving – ipad menu anyone?!  It’s only a matter of time.

Lasagna, picnics, Emirati food

Lasagna, picnics and Emirati food

Harry Santa-Olalla: 2011 saw the start of an influx of London-based food and beverage brands into Dubai including Mahiki, Embassy, Gaucho and Siddharta Lounge and I see this trend continuing in 2012 including the launch of Mo*Vida.  Londoners have come to expect a new level of added-value service, for instance Mahiki takes the experience to a whole new level with our mad shows, highly trained theatrical bar staff and standard of service.  The juices for our cocktails are freshly squeezed that day from the best fruit e.g. whole pineapples.  It’s the exact opposite of just having an ordinary experience with a cocktail served to you on a tray.

Good ingredients and attention to detail will be under the spotlight in 2012.    The sharing concept will also continue to rise in popularity – it’s the sociable experience of sharing platters and cocktails.

Mahiki Rum Pina Colada

Pina Colada

Samantha Wood: I’m predicting an increased demand and supply of locally sourced produce mainly vegetables and fruit, and in some cases organic, fuelled by the growth in farmers markets.
Also they’ll be more and more home-based artisan producers whether cakes, chutney or chocolate.
Home-grown cafe concepts have been abundant in the UAE for a while, but we are now seeing more locally developed fine dining restaurant concepts take form with the likes of Table 9 at Hilton Dubai Creek. Having said that, the celebrity chef trend will still continue fuelled by a primarily expat population. Gary Rhodes is opening at St Regis Abu Dhabi Corniche this year (Rhodes 44) fusing Arabic influences into his cuisine, and five chefs from Michelin-star restaurants in the US and Europe (total of 12 stars) will descend on Dubai for a gala dinner at Sofitel Dubai Jumeirah in April.
They’ll be more ‘chefs for hire’ setting up businesses in the U.A.E. to meet demand for home entertainment.
And we’re going to see more technology-driven restaurant experiences from online restaurant reservations to i-pad menus.
The growth of the UAE food blogging/ social media scene is giving consumers increased access to impartial online reviews.

Artisan chutney, local vegetables, ipad menus

Artisan chutney, local vegetables, ipad menus

Sarah Walton: On one hand, this place is still too new to discover its own direction, and is still aping other markets. Saying that, I see a rise in better quality Middle-Eastern food, particularly old-fashioned U.A.E. cuisine. The world movement taking people back to their natural roots will eventually catch on here, and so food that is geographically and historically relevant will be on the rise, particularly in the home. Organic and local will continue in growth, as it should. If any other cuisine sees a distinct rise in popularity, I would expect it to be the fresh and lively (and also healthy) flavours of countries like Vietnam – seafood, aromatic herbs, citrus etc.

Drinks will follow this trend – light, traditional cocktails, simpler than previous years, and light, aromatic wines – moving towards a drier and more neutral finish.

Vietnamese food, local veg, light wine

Vietnamese food, local organic produce and lighter wines

Tony Dodds: I can’t see customers’ enthusiasm for Sauvignon Blanc slowing down in 2012 – it was the most popular varietal in 2011, but perhaps the ABC (anything but Chardonnay) trend will finally slow down with people turning more towards unoaked-styles.  In red wine, Malbec and Merlot are the grapes gaining more popularityand both Malbec and Torrontes from Argentina are ‘hot’ varieties here at the moment.  Argentina will be the place to watch in wine-making terms, there are a lot of exceptionally good wines coming from there right now.  However, don’t underestimate the appeal of France; in these times of uncertainty perhaps people are harking back to a gentler age through their wine choices.  On the other hand we expect the 2011 growth in sparkling wine and champagne to continue so someone’s celebrating!

Dom Perignon Rose

Dom Perignon Champagne

Arva Ahmed: Wholesome falafel joints that have spread their tahini all over the city. The usual Lebanese suspects like Al Mallah and Al Hallab make the list, but in addition, more yuppie quick-lunch joints, namely Just Falafel and Dukkan Falafel, are starting to attack the mainstream appetite by invading petrol pumps and other hot spots all over Dubai.

There’s there’s also a trend into Pakistani kabab fast food joints which looks set to continue in 2012.



Sally – My Custard Pie: The organic and local produce scene has flourished in 2011 and things are only going to get better.  Ripe and the Souk al Bahar organic farmer’s market are now permanent fixtures with a loyal following.  Consumer demand will influence the choice of what’s on offer, for example kale has been grown locally for the first time this year.  Farmers will start to experiment with new varieties and a bigger range of locally grown fruit and vegetables.

New artisan food producers seem to appear every week – who could have predicted that even two years ago (when it was just Toffee Princess and LilyBakes)?  I’m loving food made with passion like the Italian Dairy Company and the proliferation of really good bakers.  Talking of bread – the choice is now enormous; I’m looking forward to new flavours and shapes from places like Baker & Spice, Crumbs and Le Succes in 2012 – and home delivery will increase…who can resist someone arriving with fresh bread?  The cheese scene is exciting too with Jones the Grocer setting the standard but Lafayette Gourmet hot on their heels and a gorgeous range of French cheese available at Finer Things (Umm Al Qwain).  Maybe someone will start making some really good local camel-milk cheese?

As far as eating out goes, breakfast is the new brunch if the throngs of diners at Baker & Spice, Lime Tree Cafe and Jones the Grocer on a Friday morning are anything to go by.  Simple food done exceptionally well is the key – try the Baker & Spice shakshuka, Jones the Grocer’s home-made yoghurt and fruit or their creamy porridge.   And unlicensed cheap eats with simple food, especially if in a quirky location will do extremely well (see Bu Qtair, Aappa Kadai and don’t forget good old Ravis of course).

I agree with Harriet that cooking classes are in – they will proliferate in 2012 but please no cheffy stuff…good home cooking is what’s in demand (Dima’s kitchen for instance).

While I think supermarket price wars in the UK are incredibly damaging due to the power the big four wield, it would be good to see a bit more competition here in the UAE.  With Carrefour’s expansion, perhaps prices of some of the basics will at least stabilise.

Bread, cheese, shakshuka

Artisan bread, shakshuka at Baker & Spice, locally made and imported cheese

What’s not in 2012?

James Brennan: So, if homegrown concepts are in, perhaps the UAE will stop trying to validate its food offering with watered-down big-name franchises from abroad in 2012?

Harriet Bardsley: Expensive, lavish and over-the-top eating out…plus the demise of the cupcake?  Hello cake pops…!

Harry Santa-Olalla: The added-value drive from Europe is having an impact and outlets won’t be able to keep giving standard service at over-the-top prices.

Samantha Wood: They’ll be a move away from traditional, rich cuisine whether that’s a roast carvery or heavy sauces to simpler food, sharing plates, tapas-style….

Sarah Walton: Heavy food…and for drink, sweet and heavy will be out!

Tony Dodds: Dessert wine and sherry – where have all the sweet tooths gone?!

Arva Ahmed: Cupcakeries that disguise subpar cupcakes with ambitious names and exotic flavours…with each monotonously iced cupcake costing you more than buying a trusty shawarma. Let this year be one where no extravagantly-named dry, red, velvet cupcake with slimy, vanilla frosting (as opposed to the cream cheese gospel) crosses our paths.

Sally – My Custard Pie: Reuseable and biodegradable bags have caught on finally.  A hope rather than a prediction for 2012 is that food providers will reduce their packaging.  Even the market traders use cling wrap onto polystyrene trays.  Retailers will no longer be able to sell tired, tasteless fruit and vegetables and charge a premium price due to the organic sticker on it (ditto unhealthy snacks and junk cereal).

Standard service by waiters, plastic bags, cupcakes, carveries and heavy food, sweet wine

Standard service, heavy food, buffets, cloying cupcakes, dessert wine and wasteful packaging - not hot in 2012


James Brennan is a food and travel writer, blogger, guzzler, renaissance man, muhammara addict, kebab king and currently eating his way round the Middle East on Never Mind the Boreks (see also The Dubai Guzzler).

Harriet Bardsley is Sales and Events Manager, Lafayette Gourmet within Galleries Lafayette, Dubai Mall, dedicated to gourmet foods with tasting bars, restaurants and deli counters plus home deliveries and outside catering.

Harry Santa-Olalla is Head of Marketing for Mahiki Dubai – the flamboyant, tropical cocktails and island grill.

Samantha Wood, food blogger, journalist and PR consultant – founder of restaurant review and foodie resource FooDiva  recently voted no 2 Best Blog in Dubai.

Sarah Walton – travel and food writer, wine expert and blogger as alter-ego The Hedonista.

Tony Dodds is Head of Group Agency Wine for MMI Dubai a liquor retailer with the largest wine portfolio in the Gulf.

Arva Ahmed shares her passion for street food and cheap eateries on her brilliant blog I Live In a Frying Pan – named as one of the UAE’s best food blogs by The National.

ContributorsSo have you got anything to add to this? Do you agree with these forecasts for the U.A.E. food and drink scene and what would you like to see more (or less) of? What’s the big thing in food and drink for 2012 where you live?

  1. January 11, 2012 7:11 am

    What a great post! Informative and a great view into your world. The homemade cheese near the end looks exactly like Mladi Sir – young cheese – from Serbia.

    • January 11, 2012 7:35 am

      Wow – just saw your own series of posts about 2012. Bookmarked to read and digest later. As you say, these people produce our food – take note. Mladi Sir is now on my cheese ‘to try’ list! (the one in the pic is ricotta).

  2. January 11, 2012 8:07 am

    I’ll have one of everything.. if all goes as predicted, this will be an amazing year!

    • January 11, 2012 9:40 am

      You’re right…one thing’s for sure, there’s never a dull day here.

  3. January 11, 2012 8:56 am

    A fabulous post, thank you. Quite bizarre, I have dreamed of picnic baskets three times recently 🙂

    • January 11, 2012 9:39 am

      Does that have hidden meaning?! Something about getting away from it all!

  4. January 11, 2012 9:18 am

    Fab post and thank you for the mention 🙂

  5. January 11, 2012 9:37 am

    Watch the rise of the personal chef 🙂

    • January 11, 2012 9:38 am

      Ha ha – absolutely Tom. Staying in is the new going out 🙂

  6. January 11, 2012 10:40 am

    Very informative and looking interesting! I’m not big on trends, though. ;-P



    • January 11, 2012 10:43 am

      More like a trendsetter Rosa!

  7. January 11, 2012 11:13 am

    As a relative newcomer to Dubai, one thing that struck me was the lack of independent coffee shops- I thought I was still in the UK with Costa, Caffe Nero and co! Therefore, I predict an increase in local chains and more independent coffee houses. I also think the Taiwanese Bubble Tea trend will catch on over here at long last- Bubbles and Boba will be opening in the Dubai Mall this month so hopefully it’ll start the ball (or bubble?!) rolling.

    • January 11, 2012 11:39 am

      You are so right. I know that Dubai coffee house institution Gerards is expanding into new locations. Never heard of Taiwanese Bubble Tea and can’t wait to try it.

      • January 11, 2012 5:16 pm

        taiwanese bubble tea is wonderful! The news of some tea shops opening is getting me all giddy and tingly inside 🙂 I have a few favorites but don’t know if it will be the same. As long as they have the chewy tapioca pearls, I think I’d be happy as a clam 🙂

  8. January 11, 2012 12:20 pm

    Very insightful article, makes me want to up sticks and move to Dubai just for the exciting gastronomical year ahead.

  9. January 11, 2012 2:45 pm

    Great review! You really are a fantastic blogger!

  10. January 11, 2012 5:19 pm

    I’m most interested with the Emirati food shops 🙂 There’s one Emirati bakery in Union Coop, Al Barsha (Klayya Cafe) that I want to revisit. It would be nice if an Emirati would join me on a future trip to try the Breakfast goodies and baked treats. I’d love to be properly oriented on Emirati food 🙂

  11. January 11, 2012 5:58 pm

    what an awesome article – and it will be good to revisit this in December to see what was hot! I like the fact that we can get organic produce at the same price as non organic and that our retailers are using less packaging material. Have a lovely day 🙂

  12. January 11, 2012 7:06 pm

    Wow this is an awesome article Sally. It shouldn’t be out here for free. Somebody should have paid you and the other contributors for their food/gourmet magazine. Brilliant.

    • January 12, 2012 9:35 am

      Thank you Anita – and you’re right! Maybe next year 🙂

  13. January 12, 2012 12:41 am

    As someone who lived in Dubai as a child in 1970’s reading this post reading this post makes me realise how cosmopolitan Dubai has come from those days. Aside from ex-pat barbeques, fresh lime juice drinks and amazing club sandwiches my favourite goodies were from the Arab bakeries. Nice to see predictions of returning to the country’s cultural roots for food and locally grown produce. I thought it was very cutting edge to eat in the coffee shop of the Dubai Intercontinental hotel in those days – just to be able to sit in the tables shaped like Dhow’s. The things that please a 10 year old!

    • January 12, 2012 9:34 am

      I think the Intercontinental that you mention (on the edge of the creek) is called something else these days. I have no idea if the tables are like Dhows but someone should run with this idea right now – really in line with zeitgeist. People still drink Chapman’s and fresh lime sodas 🙂 A ‘cheese bread’ stop off is a ritual for us before Saturday morning netball 🙂 I’d love to see your pics of the 70s!

  14. January 12, 2012 12:47 am

    Amazing post Sally, a really great idea to gather some thoughts from lots of different people and perspectives. I can’t wait to come back to Dubai, I last visited in 2007 and I can well imagine that a great deal has changed. I’ve had someone take my order on an iPad over here, so I was interested to see the prediction of iMenus! I also love that local and seasonal food is here to stay!

    • January 12, 2012 9:31 am

      Well I hope it is here to stay Ren. As a desert country with little water, the fresh and local argument is not cut and dried. All food represents a compromise here – airmiles vs use of desalinated water for instance. But meeting the farmers who are growing the local stuff and seeing their enthusiasm for it, I’m a supporter (and then there’s the taste and the vitamins). Come back and visit and I’ll take you to the farmer’s market! In the shadow of the tallest building in the world – it’s a city of contrasts 🙂

  15. January 12, 2012 1:44 am

    An intriguing place, and such a blend of different cultures that I didn’t know existed there before. Great article Sally, thanks!

    • January 12, 2012 9:28 am

      Nowhere is perfect, but Dubai’s press coverage has been a bit skewed in recent years. There is a lot more to this place than meets the eye. Cheers Celia.

  16. Keith Prosser permalink
    January 12, 2012 7:44 am

    Out, fruit that looks wonderful but never seems to ripen and is totally tasteless – please!

    • January 12, 2012 9:27 am

      Oh yes – I agree one hundred per cent 🙂

  17. peter permalink
    January 12, 2012 12:03 pm

    thanks for the mention of finer things we are very proud of our cheese range which today has 68 different artisan cheeses and hand made butters on sale.
    we are trying to bring the best of what the world can offer to the uae at affordable prices and as the shop name says we look to sell ‘only the finer things”
    regards peter

    • January 12, 2012 2:08 pm

      Approved your comment for enthusiasm (rather than it being a big plug!)…ha ha…Now my challenge is to taste all those cheeses 🙂 Didn’t see the butters…now very interested indeed.

  18. January 14, 2012 10:07 am

    Great post Sally. It’s nice to see other points of view. Seems like green is still the new black…

  19. January 14, 2012 1:42 pm

    What a wonderful post, Sally! thanks for your view & their viewson the food scene in 2012!
    I learned a lot! Great & excellent pictures too! 🙂

  20. January 18, 2012 4:51 pm

    Great post – such an interesting insight into what’s happening in the UAE food-wise. Intrigued by the concept of locally grown UAE veg – in greenhouses, presumably??

  21. March 3, 2012 9:05 pm

    Beautiful pictures there Sally! I think UAE made gourmet cheese delis are also in order apart from the much desired fresh local produce from farms of Liwa, UAE and Oman.

  22. September 23, 2012 11:36 am

    Great Article Sally!


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