Skip to content

Tour the Middle East via your tastebuds

May 31, 2012

falafel food tour middle east dubaiSo, dear readers, we left our heroine teetering on the edge of the Metro platform having explored the myriad lanes and alleyways of Meena Bazaar, Cosmos Lane and the lesser known restaurants of Bur Dubai.  She’d faced salty, smokey, sour, smooth, spicy and sweet under the guidance of ethnic eats explorer extraordinaire, Arva from I Live in a Frying Pan and lived to tell the tale. She was ready for another adventure.

Actually no heroine; that eager eater was me – willing guinea pig for the prototype outing being road-tested for Frying Pan Food Tours. But I was ready for more, so piled into a Mini driven by the intrepid Foodiva, accompanied by The Hedonista and headed for one of the oldest parts of Dubai called Deira.  Using Shrek-style-Puss-in-Boots-eyes on a policeman (and it actually working) to avoid being given a traffic fine (long story) we met Arva, our dear tour leader, at our first restaurant.

Arabic restaurant at night

Of the diaspora of the Middle East, the Lebanese have travelled furthest and widest, and like many emigrants, they often used food to make their living, setting up restaurants and catering firms. This is probably why Lebanese-style dishes have become widely recognised as ‘Middle Eastern’ food, but it’s only part of the picture in this large and varied region.

Jump on my magic carpet for a taste of the Middle East…in one small part of Dubai.

Egypt - Middle East food tour Dubai

EGYPT  Say the word koshari, an assembly of rice, pasta, lentils, fried onions usually served with tomato sauce, to an Egyptian and their eyes usually light up. The faded grandeur of this restaurant combined with huge TVs showing Egyptian soap operas in black and white and the few patrons smoking sheesha took me instantly to Cairo. But the promised koshari didn’t materialize – this was a test tour after all and I could see Arva make a mental note “never trust the manager when he states categorically that they serve koshari on a Wednesday”.  There were authentic goodies to be had though;small fluffy, slightly grainy breads fresh from the oven, piquant pickles and ful medames which is another dish that Egyptians have a passion for, made of fava beans (which I call dried broad beans) cooked with onion, garlic, parsley and lemon juice. Tammiya (Egyptian falafel) made of broad (fava) beans rather than the usual chick peas were a lovely shade of green inside with a fresh taste.  A bronze pigeon resting on a bed of rice and chicken livers was delivered and looked rather grand but we all paused not sure how to deconstruct the bird for sharing. Perhaps a Frying Pan 101 to eating a pigeon should be part of the tour? Two things to note 1. there is not much meat but it’s quite rich and gamey 2. be careful when ordering hamam ma’shi or you could end up asking for a stuffed bathroom (hammam).

Deira Dubai

With the sun setting, the roads filled with cars ferrying people home at the end of the day and passing pavement cafés where sheesha-smokers were relaxing we crossed the road to:

Iran - Middle East food tour Dubai

IRAN I love the contradictory pairing of things (and there were lots on this tour).  The outside of this restaurant was ablaze with coloured lights framing a heavy wooden door, Medieval-style lighting hung from the ceiling, parchment illustrations hung on the walls, all to the backdrop of a large fish tank.  I’m new to Iranian food and the unani principles of hot and cold that are applied to ingredients, but learning fast (thanks to Ariana Bundy).  I was glad to see mast o khiar placed on the table, a cooling dip of yoghurt mint and cucumber, with some crispy bread, nan-e lavash, some aubergine dip made with tahini, garlic, fried onion and mint – kashk badmejan – plus the usual salad that graces most Middle Eastern tables.  What is it with men and meat? The look on the faces of the males at our table when an enormous chelo kabab arrived!  The mixed veg and chips were superfluous but the mound of rice and barberries – zereshk polo – (complete with butter portion resting on top) completed the feast.

Taking time to view this part of Dubai from pavement level was so rewarding and made me remember outings when my girls were small to ‘Dubai Summer Surprises’ events.  Our steps led us past a stray cat staring into a fish and chip shop and into a brightly-lit joint with a bread oven to experience just one of the foodie delights from:

Lebanon - Middle East food tour Dubai

LEBANON When I lived in Saudi Arabia, the highlight of supermarket shopping (and the fact my husband had to drive me there!) was the bread oven in the centre where fresh manakeesh was made. My favourite was spread with za’atar, a paste of herbs (usually thyme), sesame seeds, sumac and olive oil.  After trekking in the mountains of Lebanon, and returning to Beirut, our coach was forced to halt as one trekker deemed it impossible not to stop by his favourite bakery; the Lebanese love their bread.

Here in Deira, chefs were doing an efficient job at baking breads and pizzas at speed, the long-handled peel darting in and out of the oven. With bread on the table of the last two restaurants, did we have room for more?  The gusto with which the steaming hot manakeesh was torn apart, cheese strings trailing from table to mouth, proved that no one can resist good, simple fresh bread especially stuffed with moreish fillings.  The sujuk filling was new to me, an alluring purple shade due to the use of sumac in this salty, spicy, slightly dry, beef sausage.  Arva cleared up something that had bothered me for years. ‘Why do some people call it manousheh?’  This is the singular she explained, manakeesh (pronounced man-eye-eesh) is plural.  The walking food encyclopedia does it again.

Yemen - Middle East food tour Dubai

YEMEN There are two countries in the Middle East that I regret not visiting when I had the opportunity and Yemen is one of them. All the Yemenis I’ve met outside the country have been kind, genuine and generous to a fault, from the man who comes to my door to try to sell me carpets (“you want to sell your car? I buy it. I pay you in cash and carpets.”!) to the charming PRO who told me jokes to distract me from my blood tests (extreme needle phobia).  Apart from zhoug and Yemen’s role in the discovery of coffee, I know absolutely nothing about the food. The entrance to this restaurant was intriguing, we passed by a large cushion-lined platform surrounded by discarded shoes – it reminded me of the outside of a mosque. Through twists and turns there were glimpses into curtained rooms and then we were slipping off our shoes and being guided into our own private tent (complete with air conditioning).  Our waiter knelt, flicked his wrists and suddenly the floor was covered with a thin plastic sheeting where he started to place dishes of salad and fresh herbs. We were all grinning; it was a bit like being a child playing house under a table covered with a sheet.  The mandi arrived – meat cooked to succulence in an underground oven (tandoor or tanoor) thought to have originated in the Hadhramaut province of Yemen- served with spicy tomato sauce and rice and eaten with our fingers. We also had chicken mazbi – cooked over coals rather than in the oven.  We could have stayed in that cosy tent for the rest of the evening, tearing off spicy morsels to eat and lounging on cushions.  However, we were on a food tour fact-finding mission, road-testing for the perfect culinary adventure, and had one more destination.

Jordan - Middle East food tour Dubai

JORDAN There’s a special place in my heart for Jordan as it’s the first country I visited in the Middle East when I started to explore the region. The people were welcoming, the natural landscape varied and magical, the breadth of historic sites jaw-dropping. I caught the Roman-ruins bug in Jerash.  I can’t really remember eating anything different from the usual Arabic food there (hummus, tabouleh, fattoush, mixed grill). I certainly didn’t taste goat cooked in fermented yoghurt otherwise known as mansaf. Strong-tasting and unusual and I liked it a lot especially as a few rain-drops fell while I was eating it (apologies for the confusion caused to people who live in the UK by this last statement).

The Egyptians claim falafel as their invention but they are now ubiquitous.  The fava-bean tomato-filled ones we had here were top of the falafel charts. I think some baklava was served but I was too busy sticking my lens into large dishes of it and missed the boat. Not so with the kunafa. My very English culinary upbringing means that milk puddings are part of my DNA and the Middle East yields many delights in that area.  We all dug our spoons into a portion of kunafa bil jibn, a creamy concoction of fine pasta, ground semolina and soft cheese. I took the dainty malmoul home in a napkin as there was no way I could eat another thing, not even these pretty date filled pastries.



Other foods we gave a passing nod to were the inevitable (but potentially brilliant) shawarma stands and masgouf – fish cooked Iraqi style by spicing and skewering then roasting over wood and charcoal. With road-signs in English, international brands lining the shopping malls, and the colonisation of some parts by other cultures, Dubai sometimes doesn’t feel very Middle Eastern but strolling round this part of Deira tasting our way round the region was as though the carpet had indeed been magic.

Food tour map of the Middle East

Frying Pan Food Adventures will officially commence sometime this Autumn so get yourself in line here and keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks to my fellow guinea pigs Foodiva, Sarah, Didi, Dee and wonderful tour leader, the Frying Pan herself, Arva.

Scenes in Deira Dubai

What’s your favourite dish from the Middle East (please don’t all say hummous!)?

  1. May 31, 2012 8:02 am

    Sally – I’m doing to go this tour:) Amazing, amazing, amazing… and Sally your photographs – the contrasting juxtaposition captures all. This concept is going to shoot off like a meteor for sure.

    • May 31, 2012 9:07 am

      Well I’d love to do a tour with you Ishita – your enthusiasm for learning about food matches mine. They’d be scraping us off the ceiling together!

  2. May 31, 2012 8:48 am

    OMG The judges of storytelling far and wide ^^^^^ read this, read this! Hands down this one is one of your best posts, and this is not the self-interested tour guide speaking, this is a blogger who’s followed your posts for a long time now. The descriptions, the magic carpet ride (I am going to take your permission to steal that expression for my website), the pace of feeding fury in this post was incredible. I’m so lucky to have friends like you who agreed to be teaters [= test eaters. though that sounds kindy yucky, like some sort of creepy crawly. maybe we just stick to two words: test eaters.] for me.

    My fav photos was actually a non-food one. It was the one of the buzzing street and low rise buildings and the clock tower in the background. Something about that just captures the city I knew as a child growing up here, and exactly the city I’d love to show anyone who’s up for nibbles on my side of town.

    Thanks for the lovely write-up. Point noted on Pigeon eating technique 101 [though frankly, however brutal it sounds, I just snap it open with my fingers and eat it like chicken wings. Same concept – not much meat, but flavorful tiny morsels, and lots of bones that need to be crudely licked a la caveman style if you really want to enjoy it! I’ll demo it next time :D]

    • May 31, 2012 9:08 am

      Yes I loved being caught up in the pace of that part of town as much as the food. Steal away – I’ll be a teater any day 🙂

  3. May 31, 2012 8:52 am

    Beautiful rendition of a fabulous evening. Can’t wait for the real deal Frying Pan and that damn koshari!

    • May 31, 2012 9:03 am

      You know I’m actually splitting the Arabic tour into a beginners to yummy Arabic food, and an advanced. Koshari will be in the advanced ;)…and we might hit up a totally different part of Deira to get that. Still contemplating….let’s see!

    • May 31, 2012 9:12 am

      I’m up for the advanced class in koshari! And maybe you’d like to come round to my house one day – I make a mean version myself – recipe here – Just realised there’s a picture of a pigeon house in one of the pics!

  4. May 31, 2012 8:57 am

    oh dayam. forgot to say…one of my favourite foods is hummus though! Actually it changes everyday…maybe manousheh is a fav right now [this split second of time when I’m hungry for breakfast. maybe I’ll order a cheesy one right now.] the favourite after 6pm often becomes shish kababs…no I lie, sometimes kabab khash koush or a good pomegranate sujuk…ok clearly I don’t know how to answer the question so I’m going to shush now.

    • May 31, 2012 9:14 am

      Taboulleh is the thing I crave. It’s the fresh herbs, tomatoes, lemon juice (ha ha) and salt combination. It feels like it’s doing you good. I’m fussy how it is made though – no big stalks please. Muhammara is also fabulous when done when (i.e. in Syria!)

  5. Saleem permalink
    May 31, 2012 9:19 am

    Sally you girls are driving us nuts, every time we read the write ups, we feel starved and want to go out and explore – guess need the guts and courage you girls have to try and digest and then write your findings for people like us to go and enjoy. Well written article and all the best for more

    • May 31, 2012 9:26 am

      Thank you Saleem – what a generous comment…

  6. May 31, 2012 9:31 am

    So many wonderful specialities! I’m an immense fan of Middle Eastern food.



  7. sue permalink
    May 31, 2012 12:21 pm

    Living back in the UK now but so enjoy reliving my short time in the UAE through your blogs Sally. I can still taste and smell all the wonderfull foods, thankyou.

    • May 31, 2012 2:04 pm

      I’m so glad. Let me just assure you that it’s now 38 C and the humidity is climbing so you are in the best place right now.

  8. May 31, 2012 12:27 pm

    I used to have a Lebanese supermarket at the bottom of my street where I lived previously and I really miss it. I especially liked the baba ganoush.

    • May 31, 2012 2:05 pm

      Oooh yes – it has to be freshly made to be really excellent. I use the barbecue to char-grill my aubergines so they go super-smokey.

  9. Farida Ahmed permalink
    May 31, 2012 12:54 pm

    Love, love, love this post!!! Can’t wait for Frying Pan to take me on one of these tours!

  10. Shumaila permalink
    May 31, 2012 1:08 pm

    just what I need to get my family out into that side of Dubai…! thanks for sharing this really really brilliant post:)

    • May 31, 2012 2:07 pm

      It was the brilliant tour leader who made it happen. It’s one of those places that when you go you wonder why you left it so long.

  11. May 31, 2012 1:15 pm

    Did you eat all this in just one day/night? Anthony Bourdain looks like amateur compared to you and your fellow guinea pigs.

    • May 31, 2012 2:08 pm

      Yes – all in one evening – the walk back to the car was quite an effort while digesting all these dishes!

  12. May 31, 2012 2:32 pm

    Yaaaay love the account of the evening. I was just so lazy that day, I left my camera and decided to concentrate on eating. The tour was a lot of fun, even with the random weather (it started raining, remember?) … loved the chicken mazbi A LOT. Mandi was awesome, so was the trip to B2B.
    My favourite Middle Eastern dish…mmmm…arayes.

    • June 2, 2012 2:41 pm

      I loved the rain and yes the Yemeni food was probably my favourite. Sometimes it’s nice just to go with the flow.

  13. May 31, 2012 5:49 pm

    I too would have been a willing guinea pig! I love the idea of this. When growing up in ate a lot of Lebanese food and as a teenager in Israel we ate felafel every day 🙂

    • June 2, 2012 2:38 pm

      That’s interesting Tandy. Have you visited Foodbridge – it’s a site I think you might like.

  14. May 31, 2012 6:25 pm

    I felt like I was on a wonderful magic carpet ride!

  15. June 1, 2012 12:46 am

    All these descriptions not only reminded me of all the tasty food of the middle east, but the wonderful hospitality of which I have been on the receiving end …usually in Manchester and Liverpool, where total strangers have treated me like a queen at the drop of a hat, and really made me feel humbed by their generosity and good manners.
    This post was like a lovely celebration of all that, and a reminder of the middle east, to which I have become pleasantly acustomed and fond, thanks to visiting my sister Dubai over several years.
    I do like the sound of that Yemmeni tent with cushions….

    • June 2, 2012 2:36 pm

      I kept thinking of you when we were in the tent – a visit there is a must when you next come and see us.

  16. June 1, 2012 1:22 am

    So atmospheric, Sally – I was there in spirit and in my imagination because of the way you wrote it. That’s the glory of the best writing.

    • June 2, 2012 2:34 pm

      What a compliment! Thanks Charlie – it would be great fun to have you on the tour in reality.

  17. Nafeesa permalink
    June 1, 2012 5:04 pm

    Wish I was free that evening to go with you all again to the trial Frying Pan tour. Your article is so descriptive and pictures so good that I could actually feel the taste of the dishes I had in some of these places.
    Hope I can make it to the next food adventure. i.e. if Arva takes me along!

    • June 2, 2012 2:32 pm

      You are very kind. We certainly missed you on that trip.

  18. June 1, 2012 8:52 pm

    Hmmm my favorite dish? Could I say dishes? Falafels, of course. I eat them like chips. Plus kebabs and zereshk pulao with kebabs! Omnomnom 🙂 I love Umm Ali too for dessert and Kunafa!

  19. June 1, 2012 8:54 pm

    Wait, how could I have missed out my beloved Emirati dough balls, Lgeimat 🙂 addicting and perfect with tea

    • June 2, 2012 2:26 pm

      Oooh yes – I even know how to pronounce them now! Another thing that Fooderati Arabia has brought me. More date syrup please.

  20. flavorsofthesun permalink
    June 2, 2012 3:20 am

    More vicarious thrills. Great post.

  21. June 3, 2012 12:37 am

    The adventure continues. And actually, you are a heroine. 🙂

    I love the diversity that’s available on your doorstep, and so many dishes and flavours that I’ve never tried before! Thanks for sharing it all with us, Sally.. 🙂

  22. June 3, 2012 1:49 pm

    So much of good food and on a virtual magic carpet is deliciously unfair It’s not easy getting all this under one roof, and you’ve done it beautifully, Sally! I can’t believe the diversity of ME cuisine, and LOL on ‘what is it about men and meat’? How true that is! I ask myself that everyday as the lad enters his teens, and the hub keeps asking whats for grub!!

  23. June 7, 2012 9:07 am

    Oh how FUN! You have officially made me hungry, reading about all of these, and if we ever make the trek east, I would love to have Frying Pan Food Adventures. You lucky duck!


  1. A tour of North India without leaving Dubai « My Custard Pie
  2. An Authentic Emirati Food Experience (For The First Time Ever)! «
  3. Goodbye, hello « My Custard Pie
  4. Arabian Pilgrimage Food Tour With Frying Pan Adventures |
  5. A frenzy of cheese, wine, cook books and foodie friends. Farewell 2013 | My Custard Pie

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: