Tourists can find just about any type of food they’re looking for in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Yet historically, the hardest cuisine for visitors to find has been the one many world travelers who prioritize dining on their vacation itineraries: local food.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising in a country that is truly a nation of immigrants. Nearly 90 percent of the UAE’s population was born outside of the country. People from South Asia — especially India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan — make up nearly 60 percent of the population. Food, as it does elsewhere, follows the people.
On a recent trip to Abu Dhabi, my week was filled with delicious food from cuisines originated in other parts of the world. There was the Thai food at Mekong at the Anantara Eastern Mangroves hotel, and the exceptional French-inspired dishes at Cyan Brasserie at Andaz Capital Gate. There were teas and snacks from India at the House of Tea and Lebanese shawarma at Zahrat Lebnan (which has a spicy “Mexican chicken” and “Philly cheesesteak sandwich” alongside traditional Lebanese fare) in the Al Khaldiya area.
But there was also Emirati food — when I knew where to look. Cardamom-infused fried dough, coffee, and tea greeted me at Telal Resort Al Ain, and Al Mrzab lived up to the “traditional restaurant” note on its sign. At the latter, I dove into shared plates of lamb machboos (lamb on top of a bed of biryani-like rice) and king fish machboos along with shark samboosas (similar to samosas) as an appetizer. Fish and lamb were common at traditional spots, with the occasional option for camel meat and products using camel milk, like at Le Café in Emirates Palace.
“It is so important to us that we welcome the world to Abu Dhabi through our cuisine,” says chef Khulood Atiq, who is widely considered the UAE’s first woman Emirati chef. “Our national cuisine connects visitors with our culture and inspires holidaymakers to embark on their own journey of discovery that preserves and promotes our Emirate heritage. Our national dishes and hospitality offer unmatchable dining experiences to guests, and are one of the many ways visitors can have an enjoyable and meaningful stay in Abu Dhabi.”
Chef Khulood has been instrumental in working with the government and tourism board to raise awareness of UAE cuisine. Through media, hotel partnerships, and other initiatives, she has helped make Emiratie food more accessible to all who visit Abu Dhabi, regardless of the length of their stay.
We caught up with the esteemed chef to learn more about Emirati cuisine and how visitors to the region can best get a taste.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Matador Network: How do travelers typically react to Emirati food? Has that changed at all in the past 10 years?
Chef Khulood Atiq: Over a decade ago, there was a general misconception among tourists about Emirati cuisine as almost no Emirati food was available for those visiting the UAE. The main reason for this was that Emiratis tended to serve traditional food in their homes among friends and family. This meant that when it came to dining out in restaurants, Emiratis were looking to try a variety of other cuisines instead of our authentic dishes.
As the restaurants were catering to this requirement, it meant that tourists were missing out on the delectable, traditional local cuisine that was being enjoyed in our homes. Instead, tourists were being served Arabic and Indian cuisines as the local food here in Abu Dhabi.
Thankfully, a lot has changed in the past 10 years, as Emirati food is widely available for tourists at the different hotels and restaurants in the UAE capital. It brings me great joy that visitors to the UAE can delight in and discover our authentic Emirati cuisine for themselves.
What are some of the things that people should know for when trying Emirati dishes for the first time>
The great thing about Emirati cuisine is its simplicity. The dishes we make are uncomplicated and so lend themselves well to being served in our restaurants and hotels.
Our local cuisine is full of delectable flavours and the dishes we serve are rich in fine ingredients and spices. The unique spices we use in our traditional Emirati spice mixes are probably the most difficult to serve to tourists, as the recipes differ from family to family.
Some of these spice mixes have secret ingredients that are not shared with others, so providing a mix of spices that offer a true reflection of our authentic national taste can be challenging at times. However, the personal touches to our cuisine are what make our national dishes so special.
Do you foresee a time when Emirati food is just as prevalent in hotels and tourist centers in the UAE as other types of cuisine?
Emirati cuisine is an integral part of our national heritage, so it is our aim for our dishes to be recognized and be just as prevalent as other cuisines within our hotels and tourist centers.
To raise awareness of Emirati cuisine among visitors to the UAE capital, we have introduced initiatives, such as the Emirati Cuisine Programme, one of the efforts of the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi) to encourage people to discover more about our authentic cuisine and culture.
As an Emirati working with DCT Abu Dhabi, it is crucial to me to educate chefs on the right ways to prepare and present local dishes, and consequently change Abu Dhabi’s culinary landscape by bringing Emirati cuisine to the fore.
Today, all hotels in Abu Dhabi are urged to serve Emirati food and list local dishes on their menus. Abu Dhabi also ensures that Emirati food is available at all the festivals and events held in the Emirate.
How are you helping to make sure that Emirati cuisine becomes more common in hotels and restaurants in Abu Dhabi?
Spreading awareness about Emirati cuisine and hospitality, while fulfilling my passion for cooking, is very close to my heart, which is why we launched the Emirati Cuisine Programme in 2020. Starting with four-star and five-star hotels around Abu Dhabi, we aimed to make Emirati food more accessible to visitors and residents by training hotel chefs to prepare and serve authentic dishes.
Inspired by Abu Dhabi’s diverse population of more than 200 nationalities, the second phase of the Emirati Cuisine Programme featured new fusion recipes that intertwined Emirati cuisine with classic dishes from other cultures. The culinary experiences were created by chefs from some of the emirate’s most-popular restaurants, such as Punjab Grill at the Ritz-Carlton Grand Canal and OSMO Lounge & Bar at Hilton Yas Island.
Chef Sandeep Anand from Punjab Grill fused Indian and Emirati flavours to create stand-out dishes that included fragrant Emirati-spiced Gulf shrimp, sumptuous samak machboos and Hyderabadi Oonth ka Kebab (Bani Yas Farm camel meat skewers and wheat porridge). Meanwhile, Chef Don Munasinghe from OSMO Lounge & Bar added an Emirati touch to the restaurant’s quirky drinks and desserts menu with sweet sticky Luqaimat cream puffs, light fluffy Gahwa tiramisu and a surprisingly delicate saffron milk cake.
With cuisine, we should always be searching for new ideas, inspired by the world around us and focussing on unique tastes and stunning presentation. If we want to stand out among international cuisines, it is essential to look for novelty and experiment with trends.
What is the number one thing that you want people to know about Emirati cuisine and how to try it if they have never had it before?
Our local dishes are a true reflection of the UAE’s trading heritage, with Emirati food infused with spices and ingredients from across Asia and the Middle East. It is full of delectable flavours and rich in ingredients and spices. The unique elements we use in our Emirati spice mix differs between each family’s recipe, with some having secret ingredients shared down through the generations.
I advise people to try out our seafood dishes, as they represent the history of the fishing industry in Abu Dhabi. Among my favorite seafood dishes to serve are Tahta Maleh (with preserved fish and rice), and Jasheed, a small shark meat dish served with rice.
Another favorite dish of mine to eat when I dine out is Balaleet, which consists mainly of Emirati sweet vermicelli and egg omelet.
For people who are interested in educating themselves more about our national cuisine, they can read my book, Sararid, which provides recipes and insights into Emirati dishes.