Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Best falafel in Dubai -- and the woman who found it

By David Whitley, for CNN
October 15, 2013 -- Updated 1343 GMT (2143 HKT)
Arva Ahmed's culinary tours scour the less glamorous parts of Dubai in search of the most delicious and authentic dishes. Here, on her Arabian tour, cheese and spinach fatayer are being crisped up in a brick oven at a Lebanese bakery. (Ahmed keeps most restaurant names secret until the tours.) Arva Ahmed's culinary tours scour the less glamorous parts of Dubai in search of the most delicious and authentic dishes. Here, on her Arabian tour, cheese and spinach fatayer are being crisped up in a brick oven at a Lebanese bakery. (Ahmed keeps most restaurant names secret until the tours.)
HIDE CAPTION
In search of delicious Dubai
Lebanese 'pizza'
Pebble bread
Bird's nest baklava
Smoky tikka
Daily bread
Indian street snacks
Egyptian comfort food
Fava bean falafel
Moroccan treats
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Arva Ahmed's food tours seek out the most authentic dishes in Dubai
  • Locations are sometimes unglamorous -- in a city renowned for glitz -- but recipes are delicious
  • Lebanese pizza, chili felafel and fesenjoon chicken stew are among tour highlights
  • Ahmed is helping to pioneer a different kind of Dubai tourism

(CNN) -- Qwaider Al Nabulsi is an unremarkable place, at first glance.

The clue is in the glamorous Indian woman standing out front waxing lyrical to a group of hungry looking tourists.

The setting is a Palestinian-Jordanian restaurant in Dubai (Qwaider Al Nabulsi, Al Muraqabat Street; +971 4227 5559), the tourists are refugees from the city's culinary mainstream, and the woman is Arva Ahmed -- underground food guide extraordinaire.

Ahmed is talking about the history and variety of Middle Eastern cooking.

She rat-a-tat-tats to the assembled crowd about the spartan dishes of the Yemeni Bedouin and moves on to the love of vegetables in the fertile crescent through Turkey, Lebanon and Syria.

Then she pauses as waiters appear from the restaurant to satisfy the food cravings Ahmed has stirred up.

Onion and chili paste-stuffed falafel is the reward: like the restaurant it looks ordinary, but the dish is phenomenally tasty.

The gooey, cheesy, sweet kunafa pastry served up afterward is likewise delicious.

More: CNNGo in Dubai: The extravagant edition

Falafel so tasty it\'s almost become something else.
Falafel so tasty it's almost become something else.

Food-tourism pioneer

Frying Pan Adventures, Ahmed's walking tours around a series of unheralded Dubai restaurants, are partly an opportunity for her to share her love and knowledge of favorite Middle Eastern dishes, but she is also something of a pioneer for a different kind of tourism in the city.

From a culinary point of view, Dubai's known for its outpost restaurants for celebrity chef empires.

They tend to be stuck in an ostentatious tower along with strange spa treatments and a rooftop pool.

Ahmed aims to show off an older, far less extrovert part of Dubai.

Her beat is the Deira area on the north-eastern side of Dubai Creek, where her family has lived since 1989.

Breakfast stop

Breakfast to Breakfast (Al Rigga Road, +971 4222 3566) is the second stop on the tour.

Ahmed admits she avoided going here for a long time. It looked like a fast food joint -- and Dubai has no shortage of those.

And so it was, but not of the chain variety.

"It does the best manousheh -- a Lebanese take on pizza," Ahmed says (and why not have pizza for breakfast?).

It's fired briefly in front of us in the oven, then stretched out ultra-thin so it won't dominate the toppings -- which include sujuk, an Armenian sausage.

More: Six things you shouldn't find in the desert

Food market forces

Getting Frying Pan Adventures off the ground wasn't just a case of showcasing neglected, but delicious, food from everyday, working Dubai.

It was also about fighting the corner -- make that establishing a corner -- for small, entrepreneurial tour companies among the big, mass market operators.

"In Dubai, you tend to have to be recognized and to throw a lot of money at something, to make it happen," Ahmed says.

"But that's changing -- small ideas are beginning to take off."

\
"I Live in a Frying Plan" was born when Ahmed returned to Dubai as an adult.

Birth of a food blog

Thirty-year-old Ahmed was born to an Indian family living in the neighboring Emirate Sharjah, who moved to Dubai when she was six.

After living in the United States for a while as an adult, she returned to Dubai in 2010 to help with her father's non-food-related business and began writing a food blog -- "I Live in a Frying Pan."

She soon found her ideal subject: Dubai's unsung culinary centers.

She took pride in locating homely looking joints that excelled in one particular dish.

That quest led to finds such as Al Tawasol (Al Rigga Road, +971 4295 9797), a Yemeni restaurant with what resemble private indoor tents complete with Bedouin carpets, at the back.

The key dish here is mandi -- buttery chicken designed to be eaten, thoroughly messily, with the fingers.

Apparently, the practice stems from traditional water-saving techniques: no plates equals less washing up.

More: Best Dubai brunches: The good, the very good and the 'drunch'

A culinary conversation

It took a conversation with a friend to spark the idea of using Ahmed's knowledge of the Dubai food scene to set up walking tours.

She thought she would only have to do a two-week tour-guiding course before she got started but she hadn't reckoned on Dubai bureaucracy -- resembling some ancient desert defensive system.

"There are a lot of checks and balances, which is good for keeping out rogue operators, but it stifles creative ideas," she says.

"The system is designed for veterans, and makes it extremely hard for an outsider to try anything."

Or fry anything. The irony is that Frying Pan Adventures -- finally launched in January 2013 -- offers precisely the more unusual sorts of experiences Dubai tourism chiefs are trying to promote.

Unadventurous types probably won\'t queue up for Ahmed\'s tours.
Unadventurous types probably won't queue up for Ahmed's tours.

Dubai goes countercultural

That's right: Dubai is brushing out the hair gel, washing off the fake tan, putting the gold jewelry in a back drawer and going a little countercultural.

In a bid to hit a target of 20 million tourists a year, the city-state's Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing wants to pump a lot more money into what it calls cultural and heritage tourism.

AKA: things you can do in Dubai that don't have "seven-star" tacked in front of them.

So, Ahmed could soon be riding a wave.

Already she's having to turn people away to keep the small group ethos.

Pastilla, anyone? The sweet Moroccan pigeon pie marks one on Ahmed\'s food crawls.
Pastilla, anyone? The sweet Moroccan pigeon pie marks one on Ahmed's food crawls.

When tourists hate tourists

She seems to have discovered an important and potentially lucrative truth: tourists often don't like other tourists.

"They get wildly excited when they see a restaurant with no one like them in it," she says.

Like at Abshar (Al Maktoum Road, +971 4233 0555) an Iranian restaurant on the first floor of a non-descript mini-mall.

It's one of Ahmed's favorites -- for its freshly made eggplant dip, bread sliding out of a roaring oven on wooden paddles and its rich fesenjoon stew of chicken, pomegranate and walnut.

Manousheh fans, get in touch.

See Frying Pan Adventures for tour dates and to book.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 0338 GMT (1138 HKT)
Whether filled with electric blue sulfur flames or hissing lava, these mega mountains offer incredible vistas
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 0040 GMT (0840 HKT)
This once-a-year luxury cruise visits untouched islands and never-snorkeled reefs.
September 9, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
Peter J. Goutiere was just shy of 30 years old when he piloted a Douglas C-47 from Miami to Kolkata, India.
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Breathtaking scenery, championship design -- many of the courses dropped into the Canadian Rockies are among the most memorable in the world.
September 2, 2014 -- Updated 1306 GMT (2106 HKT)
A floating hippo in the Thames river designed by artist Florentijn Hofman
Why Florentijn Hofman is sending a giant beast into London's River Thames.
September 2, 2014 -- Updated 1607 GMT (0007 HKT)
Scrap all those other bucket lists you've been compiling and start saving -- these memorable-for-a-lifetime trips don't come cheap, or easy.
September 6, 2014 -- Updated 0042 GMT (0842 HKT)
A squabble over a device that limits how far a seat can recline has brought inflight etiquette into the spotlight again.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Thirst for victory competes with thirst for booze in event where competitors raise their glasses long before they cross the finish line.
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 0957 GMT (1757 HKT)
At these fun Los Angeles bars, the the drinks come with a chaser of kitsch.
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2041 GMT (0441 HKT)
From dining next to massive predators to drinking atop a rock in the middle of the ocean, Africa boasts some of the most interesting places to eat.
September 7, 2014 -- Updated 0921 GMT (1721 HKT)
Just weeks after Bill HIllman, known as a veteran, expert bull runner, was badly gored in Pamplona, he's back at other smaller bull runnings in Spain, but walking with a cane.
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1654 GMT (0054 HKT)
Don't like the country you live in? Why not create your own, as many people have done. We uncover the parallel world of "micronationalism."
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
A CNN producer experiences China's poor on-time flight record firsthand as his plane takes off eight hours late.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 0600 GMT (1400 HKT)
New Yorker Kerrin Rousset's exploration of Swiss city aims to lure cocoa fans over to the dark side.
September 3, 2014 -- Updated 0347 GMT (1147 HKT)
Some things are just better after dark. These experiences around the world prove it.
ADVERTISEMENT