If this is your first Ramadan in Dubai, you’re probably not familiar with the concept of Iftar. After fasting through around 14 or more hours of daylight, Muslims throughout the world break their Ramadan fast at sunset, and this is called Iftar. Traditionally, Iftar is a small meal; a couple of dates, water, perhaps some laban (yoghurt drink). It’s a spiritual time, there is prayer and a joining of souls with shared experience of hardship.
But then there’s the restaurant Iftar, and this is a whole other story. I’ve experienced them many times, and each are singular in their own way, but share a common thread – quantity. This kind of Iftar is not just for those who fast – anyone can join. The gorging starts at sunset, as soon as you hear the cannons fire, and is all over in two hours, followed by Suhoor, which continues until just before dawn.
As a blogger, I do tend to get invited to a few Iftars around town, but I’m flat out with other projects, so this year, I sent my friend Jisy to some, daring her to do four in one week. She’s about 35 kilos, and would blow away in a strong breeze. At least, she used to be. Here’s her experience…
Monday: Zayna by the Cabana, The Address Downtown
Situated in a Ramadan tent with Arabesque geometric patterns and clean lines, Zeyna also takes in the glittering pool view at night. Beautiful girls in traditional outfits welcomed me into the longest dining room I think I’ve ever seen. It’s a lavish arena, with sneaky private tents with silk cushions and dim lighting for those who want their personal space. The buffet was superfluous – chicken in yoghurt salad, mandi, grilled prawns, camel kofta and some delicious salads. Turkish delight was presented skewered like a monstrous shawarma, and the baklava as a tree. A tree of baklava! There was shisha and live music, and a stack of glam media personalities lining up for photos. Lesson learned – don’t wear high heels for a buffet you need to queue for.
Wednesday: Asateer tent, Atlantis the Palm
When I turned up, I was still full from Monday so I took my time eating up the view. Lacy Arabic lanterns, water features, blooms, glitz, glamour and all things flashy. People were reclining on spacious couches, smoking shisha, watching live performances, and generally looking opulent. Just one look of the food and I knew it would be physically impossible to taste every dish offered. Traditional Arabic mezze, shawarma station, ouzi, biryani, western and Arabic desserts, fresh juices, date palms laced with date sweets, it’s absolutley nuts. I got through an alarming amount considering, food quality was excellent, and I think it’s incredible value.
Thursday: Saray Sultan, Al Reem Mall
150 Dirhams (75 for healthy vegetarian Iftar)
I drank green tea all day to boost my metabolism. Thankfully this time, Sarah sent me somewhere more humble, a second floor Turkish restaurant next to the maelstrom of Reem al Bawadi in Jumeirah 3. It’s table service as well, so cursed myself for not wearing the heels this time. Surprising to say, I missed all the pomp of the bombastic buffets. So although my stomach acids were probably appreciating the break, my mind rebelled. Iftar is becoming, for me, the non-faster, the feast to end all feasts. If there’s no shawarma station, karkade tea boys and 47 types of dates arranged into a life-size palm tree, I’m not up for it. Healthy Iftar? I laugh at you. I’d highly recommend the cacik though – yoghurt and parsley salad and also the ezme salad for those who love their spice.
Sunday: Palermo, Dubai Polo Club
Even after a weekend of rabbit food and treadmills, I struggled. Luckily, I’d been to Palermo just a couple of weeks before, and knew it would be relaxed and spacious. True to form, Palermo offers a buffet that somehow doesn’t intimidate you with its extravagant options or style quotient overload. I started slowly on juices and dates, then nibbled at fatayer, salads and mezze, preparing myself for the ouzi – a massive lamb leg with oriental rice, slow-cooked and luscious, falling off the bone. I had a couple of mouthfuls and was full. The rest of the colourful edibles remained a feast for my eyes, nothing more. I slumped on my chair, stretching to diagonal to provide respite to my cramping belly, feeling like Spurlock on about day 13 of his Supersize Me month. My plus-one for the evening nattered about the delicious kunafeh she was gobbling while I stared into space and decided if I had the energy to ask for a ginger ale.
When I had earlier discussed the issues of overeating during Ramadan, Jisy had not believed me. Ramadan is about fasting, isn’t it? But like many religious festivals in many cultures (Christmas and Easter from my own), there are increasing commercial aspects that we need to learn to keep in balance. I’m going to try not to get on my high horse here, because with my own lack of restraint and mild spiritual values, I’d just fall off. But here goes. From a non-Muslim perspective, Iftar can be an incredible experience, especially if you join the fasting even just for a day. The joining of friends, acquaintances, business associates even, after mutual personal sacrifice is a beautiful thing. But if you’re not doing it the traditional way, then I’d ask you to think carefully before doing more than one or two in the month. Not only is it bad for your body, but you support a commercialisation that might not have religion at it’s heart, something that may even go against the core beliefs of those who do practice Ramadan.
But, as I am a conflicting and contrasting person, I would also like to recommend my picks for this year.
- Atlantis Asateer remains a firm favourite. It’s a sublime setting and the food is excellent, 205AED
- I love the look of #thisisnotabuffet at Alserkal Avenue from 95AED
- Always a fan of One and Only Royal Mirage, 220AED
- Seven Sands for a lush Emirati Iftar at 145AED, or the SMCCU for the traditional kind at 135AED
- And the lovely Frying Pan Tours for a real iftar, complete with tour and knowledge (but in the heat, so you have been warned) 550AED
I’d love to hear from you who are fasting. What do you think of the extravagant Iftar displays at hotels and restaurants? Do you join friends at many? Do you think it is just a bit of good fun and I am taking it all too seriously? Feel free to set me straight (or push me off my horse).