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Dubai Food Adventure ~ Tastes of North Africa!

February 24th, 2013 16 comments

Frying Pan Adventures ~  Morocco Bastilla

Oh, how I had been waiting and counting the days. Finally, the day arrived: my food tour with Frying Pan Adventures.

We were eight eager participants with six North African eateries to explore. Our enthusiastic and highly knowledgeable tour guide was Arva Ahmed, who writes the ‘Food Obsession’ column in The National newspaper. Arva is also the food explorer behind the popular blog I Live in a Frying Pan, its tagline: “sizzling up hole-in-the-wall ethnic eats of Old Dubai.”

And that’s what we came to explore—the hole-in-the-wall secrets in Deira, more specifically HorAl Anz East, an old Dubai neighborhood with an enclave of North African shops & eateries. Here are the highlights from our tour:

Our First Stop: Egypt

The tour began at an Egyptian place called Al Amour, a humble restaurant brimming with hungry Egyptians and offering a brisk takeout business.

Frying Pan Adventures ~  Egyptian Felafal

Our starter was Egyptian falafel made from fava beans (broad beans)—a type of falafel I had only heard of but never tasted. Naturally, Egyptians believe their falafel is superior to the usual kind made of chickpeas. I was eager to find out.

This ancient Egyptian falafel—called ta’amiya—is larger, flatter and topped with sesame seeds. I must admit it was just as delicious as the chickpea version—even more moist and seasoned perfectly. 

Frying Pan Adventures ~  Egyptian Felafel

Next, we ate koshari, a popular street-food snack in Cairo, made of rice and macaroni, which one generously tops with lentils, chickpeas, lots of red sauce and even more fried onions.

Frying Pan Adventures ~  Egyptian Koshari

At first, the look of this “fusion” comfort carb dish didn’t appeal to me, but I ended up inhaling a plate of it. And we still had 5 more eateries to go!

Next Stop: Tunisia

Frying Pan Adventures ~  Tunisia

At the next restaurant, Taste Tunisia, we sampled brik, a crisp pastry and a Tunisian specialty. Made out of paper-thin ‘warqa,’ this pastry is stuffed with a variety of fillings.

Frying Pan Adventures ~  Tunisian Brik

We sampled brik stuffed with egg—runny egg to be precise. I ignored the mental alarm bells warning me of salmonella and dug in. It was not the time to be a fussy eater.  Frying Pan Adventures ~  Tunisian Brik pastry

My Favorite Stop: Morocco

Frying Pan Adventures ~  Morocco, Tajeen Al Fasi

Next was my favorite, a Moroccan restaurant called Tajeen Alfassi. With only three tables, it was truly a hole-in-the-wall, but it did kinda feel like Morocco. Frying Pan Adventures ~  Moroccan Tajeen

The staff was friendly and gracious as they welcomed us into the kitchen.

Frying Pan Adventures ~  Moroccan Chef

I ate one of my absolute favorite Moroccan dishes—bastilla, a Moroccan pie from the city of Fez, stuffed with chicken or pigeon, flavored with almonds and garnished with powdered sugar and cinnamon. Yes, it’s true—savory and sweet together. Fortunately for me, Arva ordered the chicken bastilla and not pigeon. (I do have limits.)

Frying Pan Adventures ~  Moroccan bastilla

I have tried this exact dish around Dubai at high-end Moroccan restaurants, and the bastilla served at this hole-in-the-wall was just as good in taste and presentation. I plan to find my way back by heading to back to Hor Al Anz East and calling their number: 04 297 8287. (Since there are no proper addresses in Dubai, we locate places by obtaining some vague directions over the phone.)

Of course, we also tried a few dishes cooked in a tajine, a half-glazed earthenware dish with a pointed, conical lid. Dishes prepared in a tajine are delightfully aromatic and flavorsome. This place had their tajines displayed up front.

Frying Pan Adventures ~  Moroccan Tajines

We tried the Lamb Tajine with Prunes, as well as the Tajine of Kofta with Egg (below).

Frying Pan Adventures ~  Moroccon Meatball Tajeen

We finished this lovely stop with some Moroccan mint tea, the most minty I’ve ever had, the tea glasses overflowing with mint leaves.

Frying Pan Adventures ~  Moroccan Mint Tea

Most Memorable: Ethiopia

This next stop was truly an adventure. The sign outside the Ethiopian Restaurant Al Habasha commanded us to “Eat today. Diet tomorrow.” 

Frying Pan Adventures ~  Al Habasha_

Inside the first thing we saw were traditional hand-woven colorful wicker things that I quickly learned were the communal dining tables. Each mesob has a conical lid that is removed before the food is served.

Frying Pan Adventures ~  Al Habasha Mesob

On our mesob, we were served injera, the flatbread of Ethiopia, topped with doro watt, an onion-based chicken stew seasoned with berere, a traditional spice mix. Arva explained that this dish is a special occasion dish and also the national dish of Ethiopia.

As we ate this bread/stew combination communally and with our hands, I was impressed by the eager willingness of my tour mates (more adventuresome that I).  

Frying Pan Adventures ~  Al Habasha Injera

Meanwhile, I glanced around at the other eaters in the restaurant, which was nearly full on that Thursday evening. I suspected we were the only non-Ethiopians in the place. I also became aware of the many, many subgroups and subcultures in Dubai, many of whom are seeking a taste of home on their weekend off.

We finished off our stop with some very strong Ethiopian coffee.

Frying Pan Adventures ~  Al Habasha Ethiopian coffee

While I can’t say I found the Ethiopian doro watt stew tasty, I did find this stop the most memorable, a scene I won’t forget anytime soon.

For Something Sweet: Morocco

Enough with the savory! Next we headed to a roastery and sweet shop selling all sorts of Arab sweets and nuts.

Frying Pan Adventures ~  Arab sweets

Frying Pan Adventures ~  Arabic sweets

We were there for one thing: Moroccan pastry. My favorite was the corne de gazelle (gazelle hoofs), filled with almond paste, shaped into crescent “hooves” and topped with powdered sugar. Not the best I’ve tried, but they were still yummy. 

Frying Pan Adventures ~ Arab sweets,,

Finally: Back to Egypt

We ended our tour back at Al Amour, a different branch of the restaurant where we started. It was 11:00pm and the place was packed. We had to wait for plastic chairs to sit on.Frying Pan Adventures ~  Egyptian sweets

The specialty here is feteer meshaltet, an Egyptian pastry stuffed with a variety of fillings and baked in a wood-fired oven. First, the baker tosses and twirls the dough.

Frying Pan Adventures ~  Egyptian sweet fatayer

We were there to try a sweet pastry filled with Kraft processed cheese (in other words, a lowbrow fatayer “dessert”). As we waited on the sidewalk, some of us balked at the idea of processed cheese. Finally, we brought the sticky pastry to our lips, and we all agreed it was pretty good. To read a more detailed description of this Egyptian street food, see Arva’s food obsession column.

Other Stops on the Way:

In between these six stops, Arva couldn’t resist pulling us into an Omani sweet shop, an Iraqi fish restaurant, and a Moroccan dry goods shop. We also observed a tiny Iranian bakery (below).  In case you’re wondering, those large brown slabs hanging on the wall are bread. The baker sliced up some bread for us to try.

Frying Pan Adventures ~  Iranian Bread

Frying Pan Food Adventures

Arva offers multiple tours per week. Tour themes include “Arabian Foodie Pilgrimage” and “Little India on a Plate.” To find out specifics, visit Frying Pan Adventures, where you can book a tour online.  Also, read reviews of Frying Pan Food Adventures on Trip Advisor, as well as in The Telegraph.

To see Arva in action, click on the video below. In this clip from Dubai One, Arva (in orange) visits Al Habasha Ethiopian restaurant and then tries some Moroccan specialties, including my beloved bastilla.

The North African tour cost 350 dirhams ($95) and is loaded with Arva’s vast culinary knowledge and expertise. Plus, all the logistics are taken care of, including transportation to and from the Mall of the Emirates. More importantly, a tour like this gets one out of the mall and into the overlooked neighborhoods. Now I’m wondering which tour to try next: Indian or Arabian?

Question: Have you tasted these foods before? Or had your own food adventure?  

Al Bustan Palace ~ Muscat, Oman

February 6th, 2013 7 comments

Al Bustan Palace Hotel

In my last post I wrote about our trip to Muscat, Oman. What I didn’t mention was where we stayed—Al Bustan Palace.

We had stayed in this hotel once before, exactly nine years ago. Since then, the hotel was closed for several years for renovation and refurbishment. Now managed by the Ritz-Carlton, the hotel was sure to be classy. I looked forward to seeing the changes, as well as experiencing a bit of extravagance and amenity.

Al Bustan Palace was originally built as a venue for the GCC (the Gulf Cooperation Council) to hold their 1985 summit. More palace than hotel, Al Bustan has won its share of awards as the best hotel in the Middle East. Also, the fort-like hotel exemplifies Muscat’s architectural requirements of Arabesque patterns, arches, and domes.

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

If you visit Muscat, it’s worth staying at Al Bustan Palace—or at least coming for dinner to view the grand and stunning domed lobby, seven stories high.

Al Bustan Hotel ~ Lobby

When we stayed here before, the interior design was pretty, but its Arabian theme was overly colorful and ornate by today’s standards. Now the room design is subdued with neutral colors and understated patterns.

Al Bustan Hotel ~ Room

It’s also worth strolling the grounds—all newly updated and improved, along with the infinity pool and beach area.

Al Bustan Hotel ~ Garden

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

The hotel is located on a private cove with a wide open beach offering snorkeling and dolphin-watching boat rides. Yes, dolphins.

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

This Omani coffee man offered me dates and Arabic coffee every day (as was his job). Each time I had coffee with him, he asked me more about myself.

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

The coffee man asked me where I was from, where my husband was from, how many children we had, etc. When he found out I lived in Dubai, he asked which was better—Dubai or Muscat. I gave a vague answer about each city being unique. He insisted I choose the best city. Finally, I told him Muscat was better because of its traditional and natural beauty. At last, he was satisfied.

The next day, I tried to pick up our conversation where we left off. Instead, he started from the beginning: where I was from and which I like better, Dubai or Muscat… I wondered, perhaps all us Western women look the same to him?

At any rate, the coffee and dates were fitting, and the hotel was lovely, a perfect anniversary getaway.

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

Question: Have you been to Al Bustan Palace?