From seafarers of old to deposed dictators and Bollywood superstars, Dubai and the Indian subcontinent are intimately connected through the people who’ve ventured across the Arabian Sea to make the City of Gold their home. You can’t really know Dubai without knowing something of the expat Indians who make up such a large part of the population in this land of foreigners. So, with curious minds and rumbling tummies, we set out to explore India in Old Dubai’s most colourful, bright and buzzing district, Meena Bazaar.
Born in India to Dubai-resident parents, our guide for this culinary adventure is Farida Ahmed, one of the two sisters behind Dubai’s only food tour company, Frying Pan Adventures. A natural and engaging guide who’s led the ‘Little India on a Plate’ tour a hundred times, Farida’s enthusiasm and humour make us feel like she’s exploring it with us for the first time.
We hit the ground running and start with some pani puri, delicate, deep fried balls filled with watery, spicy heaven. Farida gives us clear instructions that the puri has to be placed into the mouth whole and eaten in one go. Any attempt to nibble delicately on the crispy shell will result in disintegration of the ball and wearing, rather than eating, our puri. Almost everybody manages it but one guest is soon reaching for the tissues to mop up the chilli water on the front of her blouse and vowing to listen closely to Farida’s advice from here on in.
We move on to a street corner take away where Farida deals with the sometimes grumpy owner before producing disposable plates, forks and napkins and we stand in a bright alleyway tucking into potato bhondas and possibly the tastiest onion samosas I’ve ever eaten.
Meena Bazaar is a compact area with not far to walk from one eating spot to another but strolling along gives us time to soak up the post-Diwali atmosphere. We admire the buildings covered in twinkling fairy lights which compete with the bright, gaudy neon of the supermarkets and clothing stores. We just have to stop for photos at one particular sari shop with bejewelled outfits so dazzling – and so heavy – that they surely must come with a health warning.
Hair nets are donned and we squeeze into the kitchen in Sangeetha Restaurant to watch the chef make one of my favourite dishes, the very popular South Indian speciality, masala dosa. The batter is expertly spread onto a hot plate and cooked to crispy perfection before being stuffed with spicy potatoes and served with a variety of chutneys and fiery lentil stew with gourd, known as sambar.
One of the highlights of the walk is also the simplest snack. Down a lane busy with small restaurants we find the hole-in-the-wall Abu Sahar bakery churning out freshly backed tandoori roti. Straight from the red-hot oven to the customer, bread doesn’t get fresher than this and the Afghan men working in this tiny space move so fast it’s hard to get a photo. But, with a little patience and, I suspect, a slightly pleading look, I manage to get the main bread maestro to pause for a second and I snap a quick shot. Meanwhile, the others have been pouring ghee, the clarified butter so beloved of Indians, on our large, round roti before covering it with jaggary (unrefined sugar) and, after tearing it into pieces, we are soon tucking into surprisingly delicious sugary bread.
More than four hours pass in a blur of stories about India, the families behind the restaurants and street stalls we eat at, and amusing tales of family life in Dubai for Indians. The food was varied, generally delicious and largely vegetarian but our mostly meat-eating group certainly had no complaints and the straight-out-of-the-oven tandoori chicken was a huge hit. The next day Farida emails us and reminds us exactly where and what we ate so that we can find our way back to our favourite spots. The samosa shop and the smiling Aghan bakers are top of my list but I will miss being in the group and the fun of this evening of tasty discoveries.