Beyond the cloud-piercing skyscrapers and ultra-luxe resorts, the Emirati culture within the capital of the United Arab Emirates is there to find and offers a fragrant cuisine steeped with Middle Eastern, Indian and East African influences, all served with generous hospitality.
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27 Mar 2015 - 9:40 PM  UPDATED 30 Mar 2021 - 10:31 AM

It’s an unseasonably cool day in late March and a light rain is sprinkling the dunes of the Liwa desert. The dunes – vast, almost liquid hills of pale red sand – seem alive as the wind passes over them, rippling the fine sand into ever-changing peaks and valleys. The silence is as vast as the desert – just whistling winds and the dry rustle of date palms.

The previous evening the silence was briefly and shockingly punctuated by the whine of a fighter jet making a quick and low circuit over this unlikely oasis – a luxury hotel set in the world’s largest sand desert, 200km from Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

Set at the end of a looping road, 12km off the highway, the fortress-like form of Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara rises from the dunes like a mirage (its name means ‘palace of the mirage’) – a low-set structure with hotel rooms, numerous restaurants and a separate enclave of private villas. Despite its isolation there is plenty to do – from camel treks to desert walks to 4WD dune-bashing and archery, but watching the shape-shifting dunes is utterly mesmerising.

The UAE was formed in 1971 when seven emirates came together to form a federation of Gulf states after Britain left the region. The father of the UAE was Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Nahyan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi and subsequently the leader of the UAE until his death in 2004.

This nation of 8.2 million people (only 950,000 of whom are native Emiratis) has been transformed in the past 50 years since the first barrels of crude oil were exported in 1962. Once a tiny pearl diving town and now a thriving city home to the enormous Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (with room for 40,000 worshippers), a hotel with 1 million square metres under its roof and the world’s fastest roller coaster.

The emirate of Abu Dhabi makes up 80 per cent of the UAE’s land mass and is more culturally minded than Dubai – its flashy cousin up the road. A new Presidential Palace (serving a similar function to Parliament House) is under construction, as is a Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim museum, the first international outpost of the Louvre and the Zayed National Museum.

In the midst of all this shiny newness, it can be hard to get a sense of, or taste for, Emirati culture and cuisine, but it’s there if you know where to look. Emirati cuisine is known for its simple preparation methods, delicate use of spices such as saffron and cardamom, and influences from the Middle East, East Africa and India, but its defining characteristic is the age-old tradition of Arabian hospitality.

Although international dining options at every level abound in Abu Dhabi, there are few Emirati restaurants, but one of them can be found in a most surprising location – the newly built Venetian Village, part of the extensive Ritz-Carlton complex on the Grand Canal.

Fashioned after a 1960s Emirati house, complete with a dusty Land Rover and model camels out front, Al-Fanar offers typical Emirati food in a setting that gives a sense of what life might have been like here 60 years ago. There are old photos of Abu Dhabi when it was still a one-camel town and Sheikh Zayed as he worked to pull the UAE together.

Our meal begins with local dates drizzled with tahini – dates are found at the entrance of many hotels and are, along with coffee, a traditional Arab sign of welcome. Given Abu Dhabi’s coastal location (the city is actually built on an island), seafood is a popular option and much of it is grilled, such as robyan mashwi (grilled prawns), or preserved and used in stews. The Indian influence prevalent in Emirati cuisine shows up in both entreés such as samboosa (also spelled sambousek, lightly spiced samosas) and mains such as biryani (chicken or lamb layered with saffron-spiked rice).

To drink, there’s the icy lemon and mint concoction that is practically the national beverage, along with Namlait, a soda popular in the 60s and now made especially in Japan for Al-Fanar. The bottle left our table stumped as to how to open it, but once the waitress had done the honours, a small ball drops into the bottle, adding extra carbonation to the drink that’s similar in flavour to creaming soda.

In addition to the main dining area and an outdoor area where tables are made from upturned trays designed to hold an entire roasted animal, Al-Fanar has private rooms that can be closed off to allow families to eat in privacy, and women to remove their veil. Women clad in an abaya, a full-length black cloak, and a niqab, a black veil covering all but the eyes, are a common sight in Abu Dhabi, where Islam is the state religion and society is traditionally conservative.

While dressing respectfully is always appreciated, one of the few places where it is strictly enforced is at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque – a blindingly white marble structure – one of the largest mosques in the world. The vast forecourt and 82 domes are complemented by an equally cavernous interior elaborately decorated with eye-wateringly huge chandeliers and the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet.

On a seemingly similar scale is the Ritz-Carlton, where one of the city’s best Lebanese restaurants can be found. While Emirati restaurants may be scarce, there’s no shortage of other Middle Eastern eateries, particularly Lebanese and Persian, from high-end fine dining like Mijana (at the Ritz-Carlton) and Li Beirut (at luxury hotel Jumeirah) to alcohol-free, family-style restaurants such as Lebanese Flower.

The offerings at Mijana are traditional and artfully done – each of the mezza courses is at the top of its class and it’s difficult to hold back on the house-made pita bread and silky smooth hummus. The falafel are light and fluffy and the fattoush is the perfect blend of salty and sweet. Grilled meat, seafood and vegetables are followed by rice pudding with fruit and a shot of camel’s milk and raspberries.

The flavours are similar at Li Beirut, but chef Jouni Ibrahim hits the dishes of his childhood with a modern interpretation – lamb kibbeh forms a sandwich for foie gras, grilled prawns and scallops are presented with fine dining flair, and the Umm Ali (a bread and butter pudding that translates to ‘Ali’s mother’) is paired with a cardamom and pistachio-scented shortbread. “I worked in Switzerland and learnt classic French cooking,” says Jouni. “Then I returned to the UAE and worked at the Burj Al Arab, where I asked the boss why we didn’t add French elements to Lebanese food – to make it more modern.” The pairing works, which is not always the case, and Jouni’s dishes are a mouth-watering blend of the traditional and contemporary.

Respect for tradition is evident, but so too is the willingness to adopt the new and the desert islands 250km down the coast are testament to what can be done when modern technology is applied to the shifting sands.

Sir Bani Yas was literally an island of sand when Sheikh Zayed decided it would be the flagship of his ‘greening the desert program’ in 1971. Since then, over 2.5 million trees have been planted on the island, each with its own irrigation pipe supplying fresh water that’s created by a desalination plant. The result is an island that, while not overgrown, has plenty of trees and has become a wildlife reserve. Populating the reserve are animals native to the Gulf states and others that were gifts from other heads of state. The animals essentially run wild and include sand gazelles, the Arabian oryx (the UAE’s national animal), peacocks from India, giraffes, and five cheetahs plus some newly arrived cubs.

There are three hotels on the island and the newest and most in sync with this environment is the Anantara Al Sahel Villa Resort. Modelled on a luxury safari camp, there are just 30 individual one or two bedroom villas, each looking out over the bush and complete with tented decks – the perfect spot to watch the wildlife saunter past. Knowledgeable guides are on hand to take guests on safari drives, kayaking through the mangroves or mountain biking over the dunes. It’s a landscape that is both natural and contrived but the result is certainly worth a visit.

Chef Mahmoud, who’s busy in the Al Sahel kitchen, is Egyptian by birth but after working in high-end hotels, was trained by the UAE’s own masterchef – chef Khulood Atiq – prior to taking a role as private chef to a member of the royal family. Most of the food he prepared for the family was traditional Emirati cuisine and machbous (spiced rice) was a dish required every night without fail. “There are similar dishes all over the Middle East in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait,” says Mahmoud as he prepares the dish, which is similar to Indian biryani. “I like Arabic dishes with a European touch but most Emirati dishes are designed to be served family-style and eaten with your hands.”

Mahmoud, who returns to Egypt to visit his family each year, is unable to exactly replicate the dishes of his own home. “I can never get the flavours of my mother’s cooking,” he says. “She used to spend all day cooking for us. As a hotel chef, I need to get meals out in 20 minutes and it just never tastes quite the same.” Mahmoud’s machbous is spiced with curry powder, cardamom and cloves and is accompanied by Emirati tabbouleh. Showing the Indian influence once more, dessert is lgeimat (or luqaimat), dumplings similar to gulab juman, served in a saffron and cardamom syrup.

As we linger over the syrupy lgeimat, the peacocks’ eerie, cat-like cries pierce the day and the sun burns fierce overhead. Beyond the peacocks, the desert silence is ever-present, the shifting sands constantly in motion and beckoning visitors to share the hospitality that runs from sea to city to desert sands. The writer travelled courtesy of Visit Abu Dhabi and Etihad Airways.

“Emirati cuisine is known for its simple preparation methods, delicate use of spices such as saffron and cardamom, and influences from the Middle East, East Africa and India, but its defining characteristic is the age-old tradition of Arabian hospitality.”

 

Stay

Jumeirah at Etihad Towers
Award-winning modern luxury a short walk from the Corniche that runs the length of Abu Dhabi’s main beach. While you’re there be sure to visit Observation Deck at 300, and the ultra-luxe shopping mall downstairs. Breakfast is a buffet of Middle Eastern and international delights and considered the best in Abu Dhabi.

Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara
The ultimate desert fantasy located about a two-hour drive from Abu Dhabi. All rooms and suites have a view of the shifting dunes and the silence and stars are incredible. Don’t miss the 4WD dune-bashing experience.

Anantara Al Sahel Villa Resort
A desert getaway of a different kind with safari-style luxury accommodation on Sir Bani Yas island and the thrill of seeing animals in the (controlled) wild. Make time to sit on your deck and watch sand gazelles and peacocks approach. 

The Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi, Grand Canal
How can you not love a hotel that offers help-yourself jars of marshmallows in the foyer (if the traditional coffee and dates aren’t your thing)? This is one of the Ritz-Carlton’s largest properties with rooms, suites and villas, an enormous pool and a private beach on the Grand Canal. 

Emirates Palace
This vast hotel employs a staff member whose only task is to take care of the gold leaf that’s found on many of the ceilings. And if that’s not enough gold, help yourself to bullions from the gold ATM, which is located in the foyer that takes at least 10 minutes to traverse. Abu Dhabi luxury on a truly grand scale.

 

Eat and drink

Al-Fanar Restaurant & Cafe
Traditional Emirati cuisine in an environment that’s popular with locals. Leave room for the date cake and Emirati doughnuts at the end of your meal. 

Li Beirut
A modern interpretation of traditional Lebanese dishes and flavours by chef Jouni Ibrahim with a waterfront location. Try everything. 

Ray’s Bar
Enjoy a cocktail from their encyclopedic list while you enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the city – everything from the Presidential Palace construction site to a bridge to nowhere is on offer. 

Mijana
A stunningly romantic spot in the grand sweep of the Ritz-Carlton – an outdoor table on a balmy night is hard to beat. Incredible and fairly traditional Lebanese food, this restaurant is recommended by chef Christopher Kostow of the Restaurant at Meadowood, who was in residence at the Ritz-Carlton during the Abu Dhabi Food Festival. 

Mezlai
Another of the few Emirati restaurants, Mezlai is located within the overwhelming splendour that is the Emirates Palace hotel. Fabulous décor and service and the national dish of hariz (boiled barley, with meat and spices) is worth a try.

 

 

Photography Tom Parker and Chris Chen.

 

As seen in Feast magazine, September 2014, Issue 35.