As I let on in a recent post, I spent Christmas and the start of the New Year visiting my brother in Dubai and touring around the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This isn’t a travel blog, but while I was touring around the emirates and learning some of the history of the region I made some observations that I think are worth sharing- especially since I got a great tour of a part of the world that many will never visit. Apologies if this reads like a blog version of a vacation slideshow!
Dubai is an otherworldly place. Obviously built to be “the city of the future”, the skyline is chock-o-block with architectural masterpieces, though many have been stalled or vacant since the financial collapse of 2009. Put in any other city, many Dubai buildings would be iconic, but standing next to the world’s tallest building, the world’s only 7-star hotel (self proclaimed), and other masterpieces, otherwise stunning buildings start to look commonplace.
On the surface, there seems to be little “traditional living” or “ancestral health” wisdom to glean from Dubai. It is a very modern city with immigrants, corporations, and businesses from around the world. Within a block of my brother’s home you can get Kentucky Fried Chicken, Nando’s (a chicken restaurant originally from South Africa), and Al Tazaj (a chain BBQ chicken restaurant from Saudi Arabia) and that’s just to name the chicken restaurants (Popeye’s chicken is also popular, but there isn’t one within a block of my brother)! You also see The Cheesecake Factory, Texas Roadhouse, PF Chang’s and just about any American or international chain you could name (though I don’t think I saw a Chipotle).
Of course, Dubai only recently became a modern global city. Dubai changed rapidly from a small pearling center and regional trading port to a cosmopolitan global hub fuelled largely by the discovery of oil in the region. Dubai also developed laws and practices that encouraged rapid expansion of business and real-estate on a global scale . Older Emirati have truly seen it all, from the days of very basic living to modern global excess. As someone who is deeply interested in ancestral health, I asked around and read about the traditional ways of living in this part of the county. While no one today lives an “ancestral” lifestyle, the memory of traditional days is not yet forgotten.
The easiest place to start, of course, is food. Until relatively recently, the diet of the Middle East was limited to foods that could be locally produced or transported great distances without refrigeration. While traders would bring spices and rice, which was a staple of the diet, perishable food was limited to what is locally available- which isn’t much. On the shore, seafood was a staple. I was told by a local Emirati (a good friend of my brother) that a generation ago, the main meal of the day would be rice and fish. Fish, readily available from the sea, was relatively cheap, while meat was expensive. Today this has reversed and meat (usually lamb, but sometimes goat and increasingly beef) is cheaper and more commonly eaten while fish is now more expensive and less common.
One of the highlights of my trip to the United Arab Emirates (I spent time in Abu Dhabi, Fujairah, and Sharjah in addition to my time in Dubai) was an evening walking tour around Sharjah led by my brother’s friend Khalid. Khalid is a native Emirati, with a deep knowledge of the area as well as the history and culture of the region. He kindly took us on a tour of some of the markets of Sharjah, and graciously answered my endless questions about the food, history, culture, and religion (and occasional lack thereof) in the area.
The first stop on our tour of Sharjah was the local fish market, where merchants sell fresh catch from dawn until late in the evening (they get two deliveries of fish per day). Here we saw the wide variety of fish that are caught, sold, and eaten in the area.
I recognized a number of fish and marine life on offer. There were shark, rays, and tuna, as well as small reef fish (such as angel fish, parrot fish, and grunts) that I’m familiar with as a SCUBA diver. In Dubai, I saw Tiger Prawns (shrimp) larger than I’ve ever seen: almost a foot long. It appears that this species is on the seafood “red list” as, I’m sure, are other species I spied in the market. An interesting aspect of the fish market was a large station at the end of the market where men would prepare your purchase (fish, squid, or shrimp). It cost 1 Dirham (about $0.27 US) to have a fish cleaned, 2 Dirham to have a kilo of squid cleaned, or 3 Dirham to have a kilo of shrimp cleaned (the most expensive item on the list). As someone that peels her own shrimp, I recognize that ~$0.35/lb is a cheap price for cleaning shrimp!
Traditionally, fish was also dried and used for trading, fertilizer, and animal food. Dried fish would make its way to the oases in the desert (anything fresh from the coast would spoil before it could reach any inland populations) where it could be sold or traded for products of the oases. The #1 product of the oases has traditionally been dates.
The cultivation of date palms (Phoenix dactylifera) has been the most important form of agriculture in the area now known as the UAE. Date palms not only provide their owners with high calorie fruit, but also supply leaves that can be used to make fans and baskets, branches that can be used to make walls and roofs, bark fibers that are suitable for making rope and for stuffing pillows and saddles, and dead trunks that can be used as beams. Date fruits can be eaten fresh, dried, crushed for juice, or boiled and packed in bags made of palm leaves. Fruits stored in this way could be kept for a long time and were used as staple foods for men and animals on long journeys across the desert .
Today most dates are eaten whole- usually dried, but sometimes fresh when in season. There are MANY types of dates, a number of which I sampled. I’d be lying if I said I weren’t a date enthusiast (though it is a fondness I’ve only developed in the last couple years). Varieties have different characteristics, though they are all incredibly sweet (one shop keeper tried to tell me that a certain variety was lower in sugar and therefore “good for diabetics”. I think not…).
Many types of dates are available from different shops and stands in the UAE, but I definitely didn’t see many of the varieties that are shown above. I did see some unique dates, but there were a few varieties that I saw over and over again. I imagine that the diversity of dates is much like the diversity of apples available in the US. While you can get a good selection from growers and specialty markets, a few types make up the majority of the market. (As far as dates go, in the US I’ve only seen two types for sale in stores: Medjool and Deglet Nour. To me, the Deglet Nour is the Red Delcious of the date world- not worth bothering with- but maybe I’m picky.).
The price of dates varied widely. At the street markets, I saw dates from 8-16 Dirham/kg (~ $1-$2/lb), in Waitrose (a nice supermarket) they were 22-35 Dirham/kg (~$3-$4/lb), and at fancy date stores at the Dubai Mall they were 165-240 Dirham/kg ($20-$40/lb)! I tasted dates from all sources and will say that the cheapest and the most expensive were the best- the ones from Waitrose were a disappointment. Lining them all up and having a blind taste test would be fun- I’ll put that on my list for next time!
Though there has never been enough wildlife to support a population of hunter-gatherers in this part of the Middle East, there is (or was) some game that has historically been hunted. Such sources could not be relied upon, but provided much appreciated variety and sustenance when found. Traditionally, falconry was used for hunting. Falconry remains a deeply loved sport in the Emirates, one that is seen as part of Emirati heritage and supported by the Sheikhs.
Coffee also holds a special cultural significance in the UAE. Arabic coffee, usually spiced with Cardamom, is offered to guests as a sign of hospitality. The hotel where my brother lives (a common choice of housing) has dates and Arabic coffee on offer to guests at all times in the lobby. The coffee (at least to my taste) is rather weak, though the spice is pleasant.
While I’m interested in traditional diets, I’m also interested in what people are eating now. Maybe I’m a weird tourist (or maybe I’m just easily amused), but when I’m traveling I always love to take a trip through a local supermarket to see what people are eating. The Waitrose at the Dubai Mall did not let me down…
First to the meat department:
I didn’t travel halfway around the world just to visit supermarkets. In addition to spending quality time with my brother and his family, I also got to see A LOT of sites in the surrounding emirates, but as this post is already getting rather long, maybe I’ll save that for next time!
Credit where credit due. I took most pics, but the ones marked by a * were taken by a friend Amber, and ** were taken by Khalid.
1. Heard-Bey, F., From Trucial States to United Arab Emirates. 2011, London: Motivate Publishing.