While the UAE no doubt hosts a cosmopolitan society consisting of a rich set of cultures, traditions and nationalities, you won’t find authentic Emirati cuisine in the country that easy. The fact that many people from around the world have inhabited the country avails the opportunity of finding a variety of cuisines from Italian pasta to Iranian kebabs but the authentic Emirati cuisine. The authentic cuisine of the UAE has changed over time and many people who have visited the country have confused Levantine food such as falafel, hummus as national dishes due to their popularity in the country – but they are not. However, the traditional Emirati food has its own unique flavor that pays tribute to the country’s culture, traditions, geography and climate.
Traditionally, Emirati foods were mainly made out of grains, dairy and meat. The meat of camel was also consumed but only on special occasions considering the importance of their milk and transportation. Also, the UAE has an affluent marine history so it is no surprise that the sea was also a main source for food, with fish like Hamour and Shaari Eshkeli regularly being featured in the Emirati cooking. Emirati cuisines have used locally found ingredients such as leaves from the local flora like the ghaf to season their dishes and give more flavor to it. Only after the international trade started, Emiratis started using spices, nuts and other ingredients in cooking.
The Emiratis take inspiration from the food of the many people who have colonized the area over the centuries. Conventionally, the cuisine here was determined according to the seasons, with the cooler winter months dominated by rice varieties, vegetables and wheat in abundance and the hotter summer months serving lamb, goat and fresh fish from the waters of the Gulf. Over the years, recipes began to change and the food of the Emiratis took on a unique identity characterized by the various travellers and influenced by interaction with other countries. The UAE is also the meeting point of traders from countries like Persia, India, Zanzibar and Mesopotamia so the food of the Emiratis has also been thoroughly shaped by the ingredients, especially the rice and spices, visitors have brought with them to the Arabian Peninsula. Most of the dishes are full of luxury spices like saffron, nutmeg, cardamom, which are sold in the bustling spice souks in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Since the 1970s, the population of the UAE has been rapidly globalized and millions of people from Southeast Asia and Europe migrated to the country for work. This in turn changed the food business in the country and the food developed to go with the new customer base. Some dishes changed completely and some interchanged ingredients suited for the international visitors as well. Foods which were made with a lot of spices such as kabsa, which is rice, meat and vegetables, have become a lot less spicy and lamb fat has been replaced by butter in various dishes.
There’s more to Emirati food than dates and the Arabic coffees. Some of the dishes that you must try if you’re in the UAE are Balaleet; a spiced vermicelli dish served with an omelette, Saloona; a locally made stew with a mixture of vegetables and meat served with rice and Chabab; Emirati version of pancake made with sugar, eggs, flour and spices including cardamom served with a side of sweet date syrup.
In the present UAE, many people living in the country long for a taste of more traditional foods and this is where the Emirati cuisine comes along. Local chefs are the guardians for preserving and maintaining the taste of the national Emirati dishes and they give their all to provide the cuisine greater recognition. The Emirati cuisine is presented conspicuously at the annual Dubai Food Festival which hosts a grand showcase of the best food in the Emirates. One of the main aims of this festival is to generate awareness of the Emirati cuisine among the locals and the visitors. The local chefs demonstrate their live cooking skills, offer mouth-watering tasting menus and hold competitions to attract customers. In these times of authentic culture, tradition and foods gradually fading away, these festivals and the people involved are doing their best to preserve the national cuisine which is at risk.