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.
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.
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.
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
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.
My Favorite Stop: Morocco
The staff was friendly and gracious as they welcomed us into the kitchen.
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.)
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.
We tried the Lamb Tajine with Prunes, as well as the Tajine of Kofta with Egg (below).
We finished this lovely stop with some Moroccan mint tea, the most minty I’ve ever had, the tea glasses overflowing with mint leaves.
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.”
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Finally: Back to Egypt
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.
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 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?