The food of the Arabian Peninsula is fast becoming the new must-try cuisine, and Emirati capital Abu Dhabi delivers ample opportunity to sample traditional dishes and time-honoured customs, along with a burgeoning international food scene worth taking note of, writes Leigh-Ann Pow.
Foodie travel is an ever-increasing motivator for choosing a destination, allowing visitors to deep dive into the customs and tastes of a country through the dishes served up there. And with a traditional cuisine worth sampling and a growing list of must-try restaurants and award-winning chefs taking up residence, Abu Dhabi is set to become the latest food hot spot on the Arabian Peninsula.
Any exploration of the Emirati food scene should begin with the traditional cuisine still beloved of the locals. Meat (predominantly chicken), fish and rice are staples, as well as flatbreads (kuboos) and grains and vegetables. Dishes were traditionally cooked by the Bedouin in a single pot, so rich, thick stews flavoured with saffron, cardamom, turmeric and thyme proliferated.
Sweets are also a part of the diet, including the hugely popular lequimat, little donut-like balls of fried pancake batter that are drenched in date honey and stacked into little piles on the plate to be picked up and popped into the mouth accompanied by coffee or sweet mint tea.
You can get a taste of traditional Emirati cuisine at the award-winning Mezlai Emirati Restaurant at the lavish Emirates Palace, meticulously designed to resemble a Bedouin tent, albeit on a much grander scale. And in the lovely oasis city of Al Ain, the wonderfully atmospheric Al Fanar, its dining room presented as a traditional Emirati residential courtyard from the 1960s, serves subtly spiced dishes of chicken and rice (machboos deyay), and slow-cooked meat (thareed laham).
For the truly adventurous, another local Emirati delicacy on offer is camel meat; camels have long played a significant role in life here, so consuming their meat (dense in texture and gamey in taste in case you were wondering) is a special occasion indulgence. Possibly the best place to try it is at the Emirates Palace, where they serve up a thick camel burger accompanied by thick-cut chips dusted in edible gold leaf (you can finish off with a gold-dusted cappuccino).
Reflecting its genesis as a cosmopolitan international travel destination, the Abu Dhabi food scene is constantly evolving, with Michelin-starred chefs of the likes of Marco Pierre White setting up shop (his Marco Pierre White Steakhouse & Grill is in the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr) and big names like Hakkasan and Asia De Cuba in residence.
Many of the headlining restaurants are located within big international hotels scattered across the city skyline. Try:
Brunch in the Clouds at the St Regis Abu Dhabi, with seven courses served, as well as a buffet selection of seafood, caviar, meats, a room full of desserts, and lots of Champagne! The experience is only available once a month to 50 people only.
The award-winning Li Beirut at Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, where traditional and modern Lebanese cuisines gets a French twist.
Quest at Jumeirah at Etihad Towers is a must-dine for its acclaimed Japanese, Malaysian, Singaporean, Chinese hybrid Asian cuisine.
Al Maqam at the luxe Arabian Nights Village desert camp, with traditional floor cushion seating and hearty Emirati and Arab dishes.
Save (room for) the date
The date has an almost regal role in the day to day life of the Emirati people, and the people of the Arabian Peninsula. The sticky dried fruit is offered as the ultimate form of welcome and hospitality when meeting someone for the first time – check-in at almost every hotel in Abu Dhabi involves nibbling on dates and drinking tiny cups of the fragrant local coffee, a refreshing mix of light coffee beans and cardamom – and when visiting friends and family to break the daytime fast during Ramadan, gift-wrapped boxes of dates are handed over as thankyou gifts. A visit to the date market at Port Zayed in Abu Dhabi is a must, providing an extensive education on the types of dates and their relative merits. Medjool dates are the gold standard, plump and fleshy and soft and eaten unadorned of accompaniments. Within each individual shop in the market, wide plates are stacked high with dates embellished with nuts and cocooned in chocolate; almond-stuffed dates are a filling snack and come individually wrapped, while chocolate-dripped dates are the ultimate indulgence for the sweet-toothed.