What does Dubai Taste Like?

TOD armani waiterLast weekend was my second experience with Taste of Dubai.

If the festival was an accurate representation of the taste of Dubai, the stalls would have been a mix of Lebanese grills and dips, puffy khubz direct from the flame, devilishly hot Pakistani curry, rows upon rows of crisping drippy chicken and mutton for shawarma, the occasional dhosa with sweet spicy chutney, and of course, the treats – baklava and cupcakes (what the fascination with cupcakes is here, I really can’t understand), and polystyrene cups of steaming hot sweet tea made with evaporated milk. The air would have been ripe with garlic, fat, cardamom, rosewater, coconut, coriander and cumin, all topped off in a fine mist of icing sugar.

The stalls would have been selling portions at 5AED. The queues would have been two deep and fifty wide. The entry price would have been 30AED, but many would just push through the gates and get in for free. An ’80s Philipino cover band would have been blaring out inappropriate songs. Stalls would have been haphazard, scattered like freckles on a red-head, more than half of them unlicensed. There would probably be a gas barbecue in a corner somewhere that would inevitably blow up. Then everyone would stand around watching and arguing, nibbling paratha and blaming anybody else, all the while blocking the paramedics. By the time it was finished, there would be a traffic jam in the carpark, and be fifteen thousand people stranded somewhere in the desert, with three taxis to shuttle them back to town.

TOD-buddha bar rose bowl

The next day someone would write to 7days about it, and what a cacophonous stuff-up it was, and half the expats in Dubai would tweet in agreement.

But it’s not like that at all. “Taste” festivals are franchises that operate all over the world, and so the finished product is an amalgam of the taste of the city concerned, and what the organisors deem it should taste like. In all, it’s always quite… ahem… tasteful.

TOD Siddartha offeringIt was, like last year, in a well located area, at the Media City Amphitheatre – a large grassy knoll surrounded by good four-star hotels, taxi ranks and nearby to the metro. As in 2011 the entry was well policed and organised, tickets were remarkably easy to purchase, and nobody got in for free (except me, because I write a blog about food). Inside were plenty of toilets, an ATM, and rows of marquees delivering four dishes from each of Dubai’s best restaurants at prices between 15 and 40AED. Again there was the theatre for cooking presentations that actually had enough seats for the crowd, and a cooking school with a not unbearable queue signing up for free classes. In a secluded corner, they tucked away the drunks and the screaming children in the beverage theatre and kids play zone (I’ll let you guess who went where).

So, what does “Taste of Dubai” taste like, if it doesn’t really taste like Dubai?

Pretty much exactly the same as last year. The same restaurants showed in the main. Many also had the same menus as last year. I suppose this is just as well, considering one could never try all four from each outlet in one festival and get home alive and well. So I could skip the white tomato soup from Rhodes Mezzanine, the dynamite prawns from PF Changs, or the fish and chips with mushy peas from Rivington Grill. Instead I sampled from the newer openings – crab and green papaya (lacking sweetness and tang) from the Siddhartha Lounge, Stracciatella cheese from Armani Peck (a bland mozzerella soup), from ToroToro some tasty dense and crispy yuca fries with “mojo” (whatever that is – it’s good) and a heavenly Dulce de Leche cheesecake from Gaucho

TOD-NausheenGood to see this year were some smaller producers – Spontanious Euphoria cookies, Bloomsbury cakes, Raw coffee and Yummy Tummy. Also a great surprise was the last minute appearance of Table 9, who apparently managed to wrap it all together and fill a stand-in spot with just 48 hours to blast-off. There was a string of celebrity chefs – some from last year, some not. Some with a Dubai presence, and some not so much (why they are included in a “taste of Dubai” festival, I’m not sure, but it’s nice to see the likes of Aldo Zilli and Atul Kochhar regardless). As I stumbled from marquee to lounge to other marquee and other lounge, I invariably met other fooderati. One had cooked under the watchful eye of Giorgio Locatelli, another had just interviewed Gary Rhodes, and one had got her Nobu cook book signed by the lovely man himself. The food groupie success stories were rife.

But it wasn’t all good. The MMI beverage theatre disappointed this year – it was hidden, too casual, too quiet when the serious stuff was going on, and converted to a rowdy beer garden when the seminars were over. In typical Dubai form, the ATM had a conniption at the pointy end of the day and refused to dispense any more funds, leaving those without financial foresight to go hungry. Another let-down was the VIP lounge, which seemed to have nothing in particular extra than the main arena, and a security guard on the gate who was completely uninterested in checking passes (I walked in twice without a pass). But the greatest disappointment was that there was not really anything significantly new this year as compared to 2011. Not that I could see, anyway.

TOD-siddharta crab

And that, to be honest, is actually a fairly typical taste of Dubai.

A fellow blogging friend asked me earlier this year if I could give her a glimpse of my crystal ball for Dubai 2012 tastes.  I sent her about a thousand words telling her why that was the wrong question to ask. In a nutshell, I think Dubai is too new, too small, too diverse  and too busy following others to have original trends. And Taste of Dubai is an example of this – the formula is staid and predictable, copied from other markets, almost entirely unoriginal. Half the restaurants featured are not unique to Dubai. I could find no primary producers from the UAE, and no Emirati restaurant represented. A great shame, as I truly believed that this year would see a rise in the awareness of the great local produce and historic cuisine. Shows how effective my crystal ball is. Dubai has, as usual, either forgotten or pushed aside its squishy innards, and instead given us a safe and easy “taste of the-rest-of-the-world”.

Mind you, I’m very glad there were no gas explosions.

TOD-Torotoro yuca fries

TOD bloomsbury cakes

13 Comments

  1. thanks for the mention! love the post – especially love your writing describing Dubai in the beginning! You're spot on about many of the dishes- I tried Armani Peck's straciatella (zero flavor) but absolutely loved both Toro Toro's yuca fries (with heavenly mojo) and Gaucho's amazing dulce de leche cheesecake! Was great seeing you there xx

  2. I agree on the point that Dubai is just too diverse to have real food trends. Back in the Philippines, we'd always have food trends mainly because we share the almost the same palates. The taiwanese milk tea craze is on its tail end, while Japanese ramen is now on the rise with ramen houses starting to spread its noodle-y goodness like wildfire. Now I'm wondering what food trend would next invade the Philippines in 2013.To be honest, the price was a big barrier for me (I found it too expensive) that's why I ended up eating elsewhere (well, had my first St Patty's Day at the IV). So I'd really love to have the ToD version with the 30AED entrance fee and 5AED dishes…without gas explosions of course 🙂

  3. Hi Sarah!You had my mouth watering in your first description and then drying up disappointed in the reality of the 'Taste.' What a shame! It does sound like any number of Taste ofs… I've experienced. There should be a section for the um 'tasteful' and a section for the 'wild side' of culinary explorations. Maybe they need a little more direction from the foodies in Dubai?Cheers,Anne

  4. I was so intrigued when I saw this post of yours – Because I tried 'Taste of Dubai' for the first time this year along with a friend of mine and *ahem* we got in free too 😉 we don't do food blogs 😛 but the location belongs to our company hence the free passes.We went there on Saturday and honestly I've never felt more disappointed it really wasn't dubai and in the entire crowd there my friend and I were the only ones in abaya. I just didn't like it and I couldn't figure out what exactly I didn't like other than the fact that it was a beer garden all around and now when I read your post I realized I didn't like it because it wasn't the actual Dubai. Great post.

  5. WELL-SAID LADY, WELL-SAID! I couldn't agree more, I was a bit blah-ed out by the round-up of restaurants this time. I agree, Taste of Dubai is a misnomer and the event does show a woeful lack of originality.Unrelated question – is the gas BBQ story true? I've never seen such chaos in the older establishments…so wondering it that's based on a true story?!

  6. Love this astute analysis of ToD. We grow accustomed to how Dubai wants to present itself, rather than what it really is, and then we start believing it. think that it's quite expensive to set up a stand there, so that's a barrier to anything but the big restaurants in hotel chains. I do think there is a space to have a real ToD. I do like that sometimes you can discover new restaurants. I loved the Sonamu (Korean) stand and just ate a fabulous dinner there this weekend.

  7. and you! xx you were right about the yuca fries – tried on your recommendation!

  8. I agree about the price. I think when you pay to get into a venue you have to get more for free than just intermittent cover band music and tables and chairs. There should be more free food!

  9. Yeah – wouldn't you love it if Dubai did a more casual food festival? Free to get in, but pay for what you eat? And to be honest, I like a drink, and I like a wine tasting in particulatr, but I'm not sure if you really need it at a festival that is supposed to be representing Dubai, as non of it is made here. (Besides of course the Muslim angle!)

  10. A ha – not suggesting that restaurants have BBQs that blow up – but referring to the spate of explosions in homes recently. Possibly in very poor taste, I must admit, but true none-the-less!

  11. Ooh thanks for the recommendation – will have to try Sonamu! I hope you don't mind the pic of you – I should have asked first! (but you do look beautiful as always!) Please let me know if I should swap it. Maybe we should work on a Fooderati Festival…

  12. Love the write-up, especially the opening paragraphs. It really conjured such a vivid picture of "real" Dubai in my mind! I was having a similar conversation with Sally that day – while I'm glad these restaurants are there at Taste because I don't try fine dining spots otherwise, it's not the real and authentic side of Dubai.Maybe an alternative street food festival should be launched along your lines of imagination…sounds perfect to me :DExcept gas explosions natch.

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