I
t is often a very surprising fact for visitors to the United Arab Emirates, that there
are very few restaurants that actually serve Emirati food. The UAE is so
cosmopolitan that you could eat specialty food hailing from a different corner of
the globe every night of the week for a month – from Italian to Chinese, Indian to
English fish & chips – there is everything you could want, except for Emirati cuisine,
which is a distinct rarity. The reasons for this are bound up with the amount of expats
in the UAE and providing this population with a wide variety of choice, together with
cultural influences and the fact that most Emirati cuisine has traditionally been served
within the home.
Another reason, according to Ali Ebdowa, or "Chef Ali" as he is respectfully known,
is that “there are no Emirati chefs”. Chef Ali works at the first and arguably the best
Emirati restaurant in the UAE – Mezlai in the Emirates Palace. Here you can enjoy
the cuisine of the UAE that dates back thousands of years. It includes lots of spices,
various uses of sheep’s meat and camel’s milk in a great variety of dishes. It’s the kind
of food Bedouin tribes ate back when the city was not yet shining out from the desert
sands.
We enter the restaurant on the ground floor of the palace, next to the Sayad restaurant,
and after a pre-sit down welcome drink we are kindly led to a table that has a
spectacular view over the palace.
The waiters and management were the epitome of warm and friendly service – formal
without being sniffy, genuinely interested and talkative but without being over familiar.
To drink we decided to stay with a very authentic experience and so ordered Laban,
or camel’s milk, that was flavoured with mint and salt for myself, and with peanut
butter for Arnie. We had to admit they were unusual at first and our Western palates
were not used to the texture and taste combination, but we soon got used to it and
enjoyed finishing them off.
For my starter I chose an eggplant salad as I wanted to taste the fire-grilled desert
mushrooms that were served with tomatoes, capsicums, mozzarella cheese and olive
oil dressing. The mushrooms were meaty and full of flavour and were very well
matched with the subtlety of the creamy mozzarella. Arnie chose homemade fresh
Emirati bread called ‘Rgag’. This is traditionally prepared in three flavours – cheese,
zaatar (thyme) or egg, but as Arnie was having trouble deciding which one to have,
the waiter kindly brought a piece of each flavour for us to sample.
For my main meal I wanted to be adventurous and so I selected the ‘Jasheed’ dish,
which is made up of boiled shark that’s braised with tomatoes, onions and spices and
served with white rice, dihn khanina and chilli tomato salsa. It was the first time I had
ever tried shark, and although it was interesting, I don’t think I need to eat it again
any time soon. The preparation and presentation was excellent though, it was just that
the meat was not to my personal preference. Arnie chose the Lamb shoulder
Medfoun’, which is UAE raised lamb marinated and roasted following old traditions.
Medfoun describes a traditional Emirati way of slow cooking meat wrapped in banana
leaves in an earthen hole. Essentially, the chef replicates the custom of having a deep
hole in the ground as an oven, recreating the process in the kitchen and leaving the
meat to tenderise for hours before serving.
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