There’s something about walking the winding streets of Old Dubai with Arva Ahmed as its residents curiously peer back at you. The heady scent of meticulously arranged turmeric, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves seems sharper. The blinding gleam of 24-karat gold earrings and bracelets and bangles and necklaces in the display windows seems brighter. The cacophonous blend of tinkling bicycle bells, aggressive car horns, incessant streetside chatter, and yowling stray cats seems louder. But above all, it’s the freshly baked Afghan bread that seems softer, the date syrup-doused lokma that seems sweeter, the piping-hot karak chai that seems stronger.
Now, the founder of food tourism company Frying Pan Adventures – primarily known and loved for its four-hour walking feasts through the city’s oldest neighborhoods – and co-host of food podcast The Frying Pan Diaries is turning her attention to something new: Sufra. Open to members and non-members alike, this upcoming program of limited-edition experiences will run annually from September to May, going beyond the company’s signature tours to explore everything from specialty meals and uncharted culinary routes to contrasting food cultures in the UAE.
Sufra experiences will not be carried out as formal guided tours; they’re expected to be a lot more fluid in nature, promoting a focus on community by inviting discussions between participants and uncovering lesser-known cuisines. “Sufra is the Arabic reference to communal feasting, and it perfectly captures the community program we’re looking to build,” explains Ahmed. “We’ve earned a loyal resident community of serial food adventurers who deserve new experiences. When you pull up a chair or perch on a cushion at a Sufra experience, you’re not just a guest who will be guided from point A to B – you become part of the Frying Pan Adventures family.”
Besides the obvious – foodies living in Dubai – Ahmed explains who would benefit most from a Sufra membership: “Anyone interested in exploring new cultures, meeting other residents who are fantastic conversationalists at the dining table, or looking at our city through a refreshing new lens. Many of us often travel in search of unique experiences that other tourists don’t stumble upon – Sufra is for that sort of traveler, except that you can enjoy a feeling of discovery without boarding a plane.”
For its first culinary journey on October 6th, Sufra will explore the surprising connection between Korean and Uzbek food, but for something with a novelty factor, Ahmed suggests joining the October 13th experience. Frying Pan Adventures will partner up with Indian food blogger Ishita Saha to host a home-style Bengali spread, complete with cooking demonstration, in celebration of the Durga Puja festival. “I love this particular experience as it will bring together one of our favorite food friends with Bengali cuisine, which isn’t well-represented in the city’s Indian food scene,” she says.
Further down, ‘Tales of Gahwa’ comes highly recommended for long-term residents of Dubai. “The experience with Mrs. Ghaya Al Daheri aspires to be a genuine eye-opener because it’s not every day that you get to share gahwa with an Emirati storyteller whose family is one of the original ones in Al Ain. You have to hear her story on why cappuccino is a Bedouin invention!” In contrast, Ahmed says ‘Shawarma Showdown’ is the definitive experience for those who are new to Dubai. “It’s a great way of getting your bearings in the city through this staple sandwich and sampling multiple options before you settle on your go-to spot.”
And considering all that’s just the beginning, Savoir Flair absolutely had to ask this bona fide foodie for the names of five obscure eateries that she herself frequents in Dubai. She gave us four – along with one more reason to return to Sharjah.
Jumeirah 1, Dubai
“It brings back the former Abshar team in a new setting in Jumeirah, but with the same incredible hospitality and authentic Iranian flavors.”
Order this: Saffron bastani with rosewater-scented faloodeh.
“Chef Wong is not just the name of the restaurant, but he’s actually the hardworking head chef whose face you will always see poking out the kitchen door. He’s always adding new dishes to this Chinese-Filipino eatery, the wooden tables and benches of which are perfect for a family-style hot pot gathering.”
Order this: Tom Yum hot pot with lots of seafood, vegetables, and meat to dip into the broth.
“I’ve never found ambiance here, other than a blue sketch of a smiling faucet by the wash basin and a few confusing posters on healthy eating. What is on the menu is the most fantastic meat and chicken dishes that are dusted with spices, wrapped in leaves, and slow-cooked in a tanor oven. The evening is the best time to dine here; I’d strongly recommend skipping lunch before and scheduling a 14-hour nap right after.”
Order this: Tanor lahm, or the slow-cooked lamb with rice, spiced chickpeas, and crispy caramelized onions.
“It’s the perfect place for a communal birthday dinner with friends in one of the private rooms. Seoul Garden serves all the classics, from a hearty stone-pot bibimbap and glassy noodles of japchae to barbecued meat and sausages floating in a kimchi broth.”
Order this: Crispy yangnum chicken tossed in the addictive gochujang spice paste – this one’s best not shared.
Al Ashiyah Cafeteria
Bu Tina, Sharjah
“They do the best chapli kebabs in the country – no contest. Al Ashiyah Cafeteria has been open for 20 years and is nothing more than a window and a very testosterone-heavy dining room with about four tables. The experience is as much in the watching and anticipation as it is in the eating – I love watching how each kebab is made to order on a sloped grill.”
Order this: The AED 5 chapli kabab dusted with spices, roti, and a mandatory squeeze of lemon.
Sufra launches in October 2018. To learn more about the program and find details on membership, click here.
Thumbnail Image: Courtesy of Barry Kim