Dubai is a food lover’s paradise. The huge influx of expatriates means that one can find cuisine from every part of the globe here – spicy Indian curries, tender Iranian kebabs, rich Italian pastas and more. In the midst of all this, one might even forget the local delicacies the emirate has to offer. You’ll find plenty of Levantine dishes on offer here, including hummus, a smooth dip made of chickpeas and sesame paste, and shawarma, a sandwich made with meat that has been roasted on a spit. However, the traditional Emirati food is its own unique cuisine that pays tribute to the area’s geography, climate and culture. In this post, we will provide a guide to the country’s traditional food and help you figure out what traditional food to eat when in Dubai.
To experience the variety of cuisine Dubai has to offer, check out one of our food tours!
Introduction to the Traditional Emirati Food
Traditional Emirati meals focused on meat from animals such as camels and goats, or fish caught from the Arabian Sea. Today, you’ll see dishes prepared with chicken as well, but the local populace’s access to chicken only really occurred after the oil boom. Before that, the ancient Emiratis would cook indigenous birds such as Houbara bustards.
The ancestors of the local Dubai community, known as Bedouins, were people who travelled across the desert. Because of this, many of the meals incorporate complex carbohydrates, in order to provide the travellers with energy. Most of the dishes have delicate flavoring of spices like turmeric, saffron, cardamom, cinnamon. These are spices that hail from India, indicating the influence that trade with Indian merchants had on their cuisine.
To learn more about life in Dubai before the oil boom, check out one of our Old Dubai Walking Tours
For a main course, one-pot dishes tended to be the most popular option for those who dwelled in Old Dubai. This is because they reduced the number of dishes to wash (important in a desert climate) and simplified the food’s transportation (useful for people who were often travelling). If you want to eat a traditional, local meal in Dubai, some good menu options to try are:
Harees is one of the most popular Emirati dishes and is frequently served at weddings in addition to religious holidays. It's preparation involves cooking meat together with wheat in a pot, along with a generous dash of salt. The mixture is cooked until the meat melts into the wheat, and the combination is thickened over coals. The final result is very moreish.
Thereed is a rich and comforting stew, similar to a Moroccan tagine. The stew combines succulent meat with a selection of slow-roasted vegetables – potatoes, tomatoes, marrow and pumpkin. What makes it unique, however, is the addition of the thin Emirati flatbread known as rigag. The bread is generally placed at the bottom of the dish, with the stew layered on top of it. This allows for the flavors of the stew to really sink in.
This is a rice dish made with meat or fish, similar to an Indian biryani. What really sets it apart is the fragrant combination of spices used to flavor it – turmeric, cumin, cardamom and saffron, to name a few. The secret ingredient is the addition of a dried lemon, known as loomy. It provides a brightness and a zest that really makes the dish.
Over the years, the Emiratis have developed a great collection of desserts and sweet. Our favorite traditional Emirati desserts are:
This is probably the most popular traditional Emirati dessert. It consists of small deep-fried dumplings, that are then soaked in a sweet, sticky date syrup known as dibbs. These little things are addictive and an absolute must-try.
This is a dish made from vermicelli noodles and eggs. The mixture is cooked with sugar and spices, to create a salty-sweet dish that brilliantly combines the crunchiness of the noodles with the fluffiness of the eggs. This dish is sometimes had for breakfast as well (at least it has protein!).
Where to go
Of course, we would be remiss in telling you about what traditional food to eat in the UAE with telling you where to go to find traditional food.
Our top picks for restaurants that serve the local food of the UAE are:
This restaurant is named after the seven emirates. Located in the trendy JBR area, it boasts striking décor in a bold Arabian aesthetic – great for any selfies you want to take. It also has a great variety of non-alcoholic drinks – try the date frappé (not exactly traditional, but still delicious)
This restaurant has multiple branches in the UAE. You can find it in Festival City Mall, Town Center Mall and Jumeirah Road. Its extensive reach is a marker of just how good the food is, and furthermore the plethora of Emirati diners behind its doors just highlights it. The décor is meant to mimic the inside of a traditional Emirati house, which provides a great ambiance.
This eatery boasts a prime location in Dubai’s historic Al Fahidi district. When it comes to tradition, it’s hard to get a more authentic ambiance. The restaurant offers a combination of local Emirati fare, pan-Arabian favorites and even a few continental options such as pasta, which makes it a great option for tourists.
This is a budget-friendly option. Try coming here for some luqaimat served with karak (strong tea). You can further more find a selection of Arabic breads, which you can have plain or with fillings like cheese or potato chips. Not the most traditional, but a great way to try some modernized versions of the old favorites.
We hope you find our guide to traditional Emirati food in Dubai helpful. If you want more recommendations on what to eat when in Dubai, leave us a comment and we’ll help you out. Alternatively, why not try one of our food tours to have an experienced guide walk you through the different cuisines of the United Arab Emirates?