Saturday, January 23, 2010

Where the locals eat

Behind Gucci handbags and black Range Rovers lies the Starbucks beverage as the cheapest of conspicuously consumed items. We grabbed our usual and headed for the weekend to Dubai.

We did not stay in the global citizen's designer waterfront this time. Deira is Dubai's original city center, filled with grit and commerce. Indian businessmen, and a few budget travelers hauling backpacks ambled through our hotel lobby. We unpacked, confirmed that even in this Indian and Pakistani neighborhood due north is still Mecca, and headed out to explore.

The Daniel Bouluds of the world are making delicious statements with their craft, but my lines into a culture are through experiences on the streets, where the locals eat.

Friday night, we ate at Abshar, an Iranian restaurant around the corner from our hotel. Iranian flavors are, in a word, raucous. The delicate palate-cleansing greens of arugula and watercress that customarily come to the table before ordering here were replaced with pungent lemon basil and mint leaves. Nick's lamb and spinach stew was heavily spiced with earthy flavors. Raw onion and garlic mincemeat paired off with heavily pickled cabbage. The saffron in my rice never got off the bench.

Every time we dine out we try to order a wild card item, in this case, a beverage described as "churned". Who can resist, we thought, and out came a carafe of a savory yogurt-based drink. As much we tried to dwell in the bold palate of true Iranian food, we were defeated by the drink, which had the flavors and texture of salad dressing. I now let the look on Nick's face sum up our feelings on events.

While an illuminating culinary endeavor (file away the combination of mint and lemon basil for later use), it was necessary to walk off the stomach pounding. Along the way, we passed a busy traditional Yemeni restaurant. A waiter noticed our pause and came out to hand us a menu for what became lunch on Saturday. The large pillowed front floor was for men only and dictated that we would eat in the 'family area' where Nick could dine with his woman in privacy. Curious, surprised looks escorted us back to our tent. Two different servers helped us, also curious but seemingly pleased we loved the food. In situations like these, I have no quarrel with tradition. We are guests and one encounter isn't going to change the world.

Yemeni food is based on rice, meat and fish, but the rice could stand on its own as a meal. Whole cardamom pods, cloves, cinnamon tree bark and turmeric flavored elegant long grain rice. Yes, elegant, in its simplicity especially. The rice had its own subtle nutty flavor and texture and made me consider the possiblity it had been rinsed and soaked longer than it was actually cooked. Grilled whole hammour and stewed chicken were not so much jewels of the dishes as elements building out the platters. The chicken dish added on the flavors of tomato and paprika to this already spicy-sweet dreamland of a meal. Nick and I both decided to devote some time perfecting our rice-cooking techniques at home, using Yemeni food as a model.

To put it frankly, I ate myself stupid here, and would like to return to Al Tawasol Restaurant before we leave the UAE. At the very least, the Yemeni palate and process is a new inspiration for my own cooking. Tomorrow, we are headed back to Dubai for the day, and I hope to try traditional charcoal cooked Iraqi dishes then.

And yes, you can see the Burj Khalifa from anywhere in the sprawling mass. I affectionately call it the giant hypodermic needle in the sky. I do love standing at the crossroads here. Any direction you choose is a distinct adventure into another world. More to come, it was a weekend packed full of amazing experiences in Deira.

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