Iftar in Dubai
Ramadan Kareem. The start of the Holy Month was announced this evening here in Dubai, by the shot of a cannon in Safa Park as the sun went down. It’s a month of contemplation, prayer, abstinence, charity, spirituality, family gatherings and a lot of eating.
For non-Muslims, there is very little hardship – just the closure of most coffee shops and restaurants during the daytime and not being able to eat in public. The benefits for all is a city that’s more relaxed and peaceful and the chance to break the fast with people in a huge variety of places with a wide range of special dishes.
In case you didn’t know, Iftar refers to the first evening meal when Muslims break their fast before the Maghrib prayer, just after sunset. Traditionally three dates are eaten first. Suhoor is the last meal eaten before dawn and the fajr prayer. These two meals are eaten during Ramadan when Muslims fast between the daylight hours and replace the usual three meals a day.
Like last year, I’ll be away in the UK for most of Ramadan but had a sneak preview of a few Iftar events this month. If you’d like to know what’s on offer in Dubai or fancy sampling some here are a few ideas – including some unusual ones:
Under the stars
Ramadan falls during one of the hottest months of the year in 2014 (it follows the Hijri calendar) and the weather is likely to be very humid and hot even at night. Locals still love the tradition of relaxing under canvas like their ancestors although they now live in cool buildings in this modern city and The Palace offers a way to do both. In a beautiful setting, under light strewn palm trees, with a clear view of the Burj Khalifa and the top of the Dubai fountains to the right, tents fringe the gleaming aqua pool. Each tent has air-conditioning, which is quite effective (one side of the tent is gauze so it’s not icy cold) and waiters bring a variety of dishes from the a la carte Suhoor menu. It feels secretive and luxurious with a real touch of Arabian nights. Ewaan restaurant also offers an extensive Iftar buffet which can also be enjoyed in a larger communal tent attached to the hotel. The tents need to be booked and are 1600 AED per 8 people minimum spend – the menu is a la carte.
More info at The Palace Downtown Dubai
Throughout the month, Dubai hotels are laden with buffets, groaning under the weight of traditional dishes for Iftar and Suhoor. If you are going to experience one, I recommend starting with the Burj Al Arab. Drive over the bridge to this manmade island taking in the most breathtaking views of Dubai’s shoreline with the Persian Gulf either side. Valet park while enormous crucibles shoot dramatic flames up into the air and, if you are lucky, the building itself performs a multi-coloured light show. Once inside the senses are assaulted by colour, fish tanks, fountains and gold. You could dine at the Al Iwan restaurant (which I sampled last Ramadan) or you could experience the grandeur of the Burj ballroom complete with gigantic ice sculptures, Arabic musicians, Turkish-style ice-cream server and, of course, an extensive buffet. I’ll be honest, it’s all a bit theatrical, with a man serving tamarind juice from gigantic receptacle he carries on his back with causes him to bend double to pour a glass, with a jingle jangle. The food is a good range of the usual staples. My tip is to bag an area on the upper level which has curtained divans and backgammon sets. Hide yourself away until the early hours taking a peep at the goings on downstairs or the incredible view. Scrabble is also provided. Enough said.
More information about the Burj Al Arab Ramadan choices here.
A good alternative on this scale is Asateer at Atlantis. This is a beach front tent with live cooking stations and buffet, games such as backgammon and chess, Arabic oud players and a monochord artist. My friend Dima has a great post about it here.
Best Arabic food
Ok I haven’t eaten at every single Arabic restaurant in Dubai, but I’ve dined at Nawwara in the JW Marriot Marquis twice and both times the food has been utterly divine. You can spot someone who has lived in the Middle East for a long time by the respect they show hummus; they will sigh quietly and roll their eyes to heaven when someone says how easy it is to whip up a batch with a can of chickpeas and some olive oil. Everything here is prepared with such attention to detail it’s sublime including the super smooth, creamy, nutty, utterly scrumptious hummus.
I love the decor which is white, modern and airy (beautiful at lunchtime where the light streams in and enabled me to take these pics). There is a water feature through the middle which lends a cooling backdrop and remind ones of the falaj system of watering crops.
When we tried the Iftar menu as a preview we asked several times “Is this really the mount of food people will get?” We were replete after the beautiful mezze and after a brave attempt on the main courses we took doggy bags home. At 195 AED per person, from sunset until 9pm, this Iftar includes mezze, savoury pastries, fish and meat course, delicious Arabic desserts and fresh fruit, all served to the table (not a buffet).
More information about Nawwara here.
The heartbeat of the city
Regular readers will know that I’m a now a serial food tourist in my own city and have been on five Frying Pan Food Tours. There is always more to discover and Arva (tour leader extraordinaire) and the crew have devised something special for Ramadan. Incorporating many of their favourite places, they explore how Muslims of many different nationalities break their fast and spend the Holy Month. Worth doing if only to watch the sun go down over the shimmering creek but there’s so much more. More info here.
In the House of the Mosque
Imagine slipping the first date into your mouth and taking your first sip of water inside the beautiful Jumeirah Mosque. The Majlis Cafe has recently opened its doors within a building in the mosque courtyard. You can gaze at the carved minarets through an arched window as dusk falls and listen to the prayer while sampling a very elegant Iftar. The cafe is part of the camel milk group so you can sample this as is, within cheese in some of the dishes or in a variety of different types of Al Nassma chocolate.
Over Ramadan the cafe will be open in the evening and has a special Iftar menu. Afternoon tea-style, there is a savoury version including sweet potato, foul, muhamarra and chickpeas, and a sweet option including balaleet (a traditional Emirati dish containing rice and egg). Both choices include a glass of camel milk and a selection of juices and are 50 AED per person.
More information about The Majlis Cafe here.
The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding also holds events through Ramadan which are well worth booking.
*The heading for this paragraph was inspired by a book set during the time of the Revolution in Iran – highly recommended read.
I always crave comfort food after a day where food has been forgotten in the rush. Baker and Spice have put their legendary breakfast dish on the dinner menu during Ramadan. I am of course talking about their phenomenal shakshouka which comes hot and bubbling from the oven served in a cast iron dish with eggs cooked to your liking. For me the eggs have to be runny so I can dip pieces of their excellent sour dough bread into the golden yolk mixed with the spicy, tomato and pepper stew underneath. Perhaps I can squeeze a shakshouka supper in before I go…
Take away and home delivery is available throughout Ramadan from Al Manzil and shakshouka matbukha on the evening menu at 95 AED (feeds two) at all branches.
More information about Baker and Spice here.
I’m intrigued by Tom and Serg‘s Ramadan plan. They will open during the evenings (they normally close at 4pm) for roast dinners. Rule the Roast starts at 7pm each night with a choice of roast meat or fish with all the trimmings. There are three sizes of roast at 80 AED, 95 AED and a family pack for 290 AED. It looks as though the only vegetarian choice is stuffed aubergine with tomato and mozzarella (as veggie teen hates aubergine we won’t be going for the family pack!) Elder teen will be happy with the Yorkshire puddings though. For an extra 35 AED you can have pudding with things like traditional apple crumble and bread and butter pudding on the menu – but will there be custard? See the menu here
Artificial flavours and a lot of MSG spring to mind with most good value Asian restaurants, but hidden gem Wok It (near Bur Juman on the Trade Centre Road, opposite Centrepoint) make everything from scratch from fresh ingredients including their sauces. They make an addictively good street food dish called martabak telor which is worth the journey alone. Wok It will be open from sunset until 1 am every day during Ramadan. (Excuse the pics taken on iphone). More information about Wok It here.
You would have thought that fasting during the day for a month would lead to weight loss. For a lot of people it’s quite the contrary and over indulgence through the evening combined with less exercise can be a real problem.
Bestro, a small restaurant in Lafayette Gourmet specialising in a completely raw, vegan menu is offering the Freedom Iftar over the Holy Month. They will have an extended range of dishes, served buffet style to allow people to sample the full menu. They have called it The Freedom Iftar as it is free from all the usual challenging things like sugar, gluten, dairy and meat. It’s 100% vegan, locally sourced where possible (due to the weather at the moment) and organic (nearly 100% of the menu is organic). The Iftar buffer is 120 AED per person for all you can eat including water and iced tea. Hayley has also created a drink called the sunrise suhoor smoothie for takeaway only. It is designed to hydrate, nourish and give slow release energy, containing coconut water, chia, cacao, sun warrior protein powder and activated barley. The menu dishes and drinks will also be available for take away during Iftar opening hours.
I’ve tried a lot on the Bestro menu and can vouch that it’s extremely tasty and satisfying – my favourite is the raw pizza (and the almond milk drink made with raw cacao).
More info about Bestro here.
Another new opening is Omnia Gourmet by Silvena Rowe. Set within a souk that overlooks a fishing harbour in Jumeirah 1, this is worth seeking out for a variety of restaurants there. The painted mural walls and cane chairs of Omnia Gourmet give it an cosy, casual feel and it’s from here that ‘Slim Ramadan’ menu can be taken away. This is a healthy eating plan of salads, raw and ‘free-from’ dishes packed with texture and flavour to keep you on the straight and narrow. In fact Chef Silvena says she lost weight last year by following this diet.
The Landmark Group has launched the Beat Diabetes Ramadan Cook Book, which is available to download for free here.
A flight of fantasy
Qbara is the hottest new place in town offering modern Arabic cuisine. On the evening that I tried out the food at an Iftar ‘preview’ for media, the place was busy with at least fifty per cent of the clientele in national dress. The transformation of this circular building from Planet Hollywood (fake fur lined walls, garish decor and loud music) to its new reincarnation is quite incredible. The space is open, the walls lined with squares of carpet (it works much better than it sounds), with an elegant bar and window into an open kitchen. On the bar side there’s a carved wooden wall which at times throughout the evening starts to move – a bit like Harry Potter movies. The panels slide in and out, the shadows of flocks of birds swoop over the surface and a chandelier swings to and fro. It’s amazingly clever and all projected (this is hard to believe).
The modern take on Iftar sticks to tradition while throwing in a few unexpected notes into the mix. A carved silver platter dotted elegantly with an array of vegetables, salad leaves and herbs was a dainty version of the usual Lebanese vegetable arrangement but a truffle butter formed the surprising and really moreish dip. The hummus, mutabal and pickles were decent, the broad beans and feta really good and the harira soup (lentil and roast pumpkin are other choices) had me scooping up every last mouthful even though I knew there was much more to come. Small plates to share are next including falafel salad, a brilliant tomato,watermelon and shanklish (a sort of cottage cheese) dish and soft shell crab ‘saj’. My favourite of the mains to share was slow cooked lamb ‘ouzi’ style – all were good although the chicken tagine didn’t deliver the preserved lemon flavour its title claimed.
A slate plate of bite sized desserts ends the meal including some exquisite Turkish delight. At 180 aed per person (including a range of juices and drinks) this is a great way to enjoy Iftar in a place with its finger so firmly on the pulse of this modern city.
More about Qbara here.
And finally if you fancy getting away from it all, there are a couple of new hotels in Oman which are high up on my wish list. They’re offering some attractive deals over Ramadan too. Firstly the Alila Jabal Akhdar, a resort nestled high up (2,000 meters above sea level) above a dramatic gorge in the Al Hajar mountain range. The other is the Salalah Rotana Resort situated between frankincense lined mountains and freshwater springs along the Indian Ocean.
In the spirit of Ramadan
If you haven’t visited Mawaheb in the Fahidi Area (behind the Majlis Gallery) I urge you to do so. It’s an inspiring and very worthwhile initiative. Madinat Jumeirah offered twenty students and faculty at `Mawaheb from Beautiful People’ the opportunity to create a painting inspired by the Arabian architecture of the Resort and the famous animated Emirati cartoon, Freej. They met the characters following a private screening of the Freej movie that took place at the Madinat Theatre.
The painting they created will be on display and available for viewing throughout the month of July at Al Majlis, Madinat Jumeirah. Mawaheb is an art studio located in the historic Al Fahidi neighbourhood that offers young adults with special needs an opportunity to channel their creativity through painting, sculpture and mixed media. Well worth a look.
There’s a really useful guide for available lunch options at independent eateries (hotels all offer food through the day) by Geordie Armani and Foodiva. Well worth bookmarking for when you need a bite to eat during the day during Ramadan in Dubai.
Disclosure: I was guest at the Iftar previews for Nawwara, Qbara, The Palace, The Majlis Cafe and the Burj Al Arab (as they start at the beginning of Ramadan) – all opinions are my own.
How will you be spending Ramadan? How does it impact on your life where you live?