Monday, March 31, 2014

day 5: a falafel a day keeps the doctor away

We've got a few other things to get through first, but I have two words for you: food. tour.

Wednesday had been a big day so we were determined to take things easy on Thursday. We started the day at the Souk Madinat Jumeirah. The Jumeriah Resorts is a collection of several hotels on Dubai's coast. We'd already had drinks at the Beach Club, today we would be hitting up the Madinat Jumeriah, and Friday would be the piece de resistance of the Jumeriah experience - brunch.

The souks at the Madinat are completely new, replica souks. Again, very Disney, but it was fun to explore & do some shopping. I'm actually really glad we made the stop because I picked up my favorite souvenir of the trip - a camel print. I like to buy useful souvenirs on trips - things I will actually use and enjoy. We almost always come home with a Christmas ornament. Every year when we decorate the tree, we have fun reminiscing about past trips. You might also remember the bronze nativity set we bought in Barcelona. It's still one of my favorite vacation buys ever. I try to steer clear of the inauthentic trinkets that are mass-produced (usually in some other country) for tourists. We often end up bringing home food or wine, Christmas ornaments, and a wild card item like this print or the nativity scene.

After exploring the shops, we hopped on an abra for a little ride around the resort. This is where Venice, or better yet, Vegas meets Dubai. The Madinat is built around a series of manmade water canals. Abras are commonly used by the guests to get around the resort, but they also give rides for a nominal fee to non guests. It really was beautiful - authentic or not.

We lunched at a seafood restaurant at the resort. It was the second and last time we would eat seafood during the vacation. We were just so consumed with getting our fill of Middle Eastern food.

fruity drink alert! only the hotels serve alcohol in Dubai.
Jon appropriately ordered the redheaded saint
After lunch we hopped over to the beach so we could dip our toes in the Persian Gulf. I wasn't interested in spending much time on the beach. I was perfectly content to just get my feet wet. This may seem crazy, but I'm not a huge beach person. I get hot in the sun, and I think sand is mostly annoying. Give me a shady palm tree by a sand-less pool any day. We [read: Jon] also pedaled around on the bike path near the beach.

So part 1 of day 5 was a success, but part 2 of day 5 would *maybe* be our favorite experience of the entire trip. As we were doing our food research for Dubai, we stumbled across this blog - I Live in a Frying Pan. We planned on using her recommendations to find the best places to eat during our stay, but it turned out, we could do so much better - we could actually go on a food tour with said food blogger. Sign me up!

We would spend the next 5 hours traipsing around Diera (old Dubai) with an Indian-born, Dubai-raised tour guide eating dish after dish of amazing Middle Eastern food. Arva, expert foodie & tour guide extraordinaire, has lived in Dubai for most of her life. This was her neighborhood full of her favorite local eateries where she had been dining for years - what better person to introduce us to this fantastic cuisine?

Along the way, Arva gave us helpful instructions about how full we should feel (I was always at least 25% above her recommendations so by the end I was a good 200% full). She also told us about the history of the neighborhood, introduced us to the story behind the food, and showed us how everything was made. The history nerd and food lover in me enjoyed every minute.

The first stop was actually 2 stops in one. A street falafel shop and a sit-down restaurant owned by the same person. We had falafel, hummus, fava bean dip, lamb and cheese pie. Don't knock the cheese pie, I know it sounds weird, but trust me, it was amazing.

Lamb Mansaf 
kunafa (cheese pie) - yum, yum!

Then we headed to my favorite stop - the sweet shop. Baklava galore. It was so, so delicious. I've never had baklava like that. It literally melted in my mouth. And yes, I brought plenty home with me.  Keeping with the sweet theme, our next stop was for Syrian Boozah ice cream that you eat with your hands. Think about how awesome life would be if you didn't even need a bowl or spoon to eat ice cream. Yes, please.

making the ice cream
eating ice cream with our hands 
bonus henna tattoo shot
I think we're on stop #3 at this point, which was Egyptian feteer. I would describe it as their version of pizza. They had also just chopped a big batch of onions before we showed up so we were all literally crying as we downed our feteer. 
making some feteer
The next stop (are you getting full yet?) was an Emirati place where we had a traditional desert meal. We sat on carpets on the floor and learned how to eat with our hands. Jon excelled at this. I was a mess, but I powered through because the food was good and I didn't want to stop eating just because I was making a fool out of myself.

jon eating with his hands like a boss
i look more like i'm smoking something...
Finally, we checked out an Iranian spice shop before having our last meal at a Persian restaurant. Iranians are known for their rices, and the kabob we had there was so tender and flavorful. We also had the added pleasure of being serenaded by some live musicians.

making Iranian bread
eating Iranian bread


Almost all of the food was completely new to me, and I enjoyed every bite - some more than others, but nothing was unworthy of a second bite. My favorite dishes were probably the Jordanian lamb Mansaf (lamb with yogurt sauce), the kunafa (cheese pie) and everything from the sweet shop. It was so fun to learn about the different cultures and their different approaches to food - you could see how they were similar, and how they differed. My only regret is that I didn't wear stretchy pants.

The best part is that we wouldn't have found any of these places on our own. And even if we had, I'm sure we would have ordered all wrong. The restaurants were more along the lines of "hole in a wall" - places I'm sure we would have easily walked past without being tempted to stop. The Iranian restaurant, for example, was on the 2nd floor of a rundown, under-construction mall. I never would have guessed they were turning out some of the best food Persian food in the city.

Now that we're back, I'm so excited to test my newfound food knowledge and branch out to try some local Middle Eastern places. Now that I know some dishes I like (and have some general ordering guidelines), I'm excited to explore the places in my own backyard. I know they probably won't be nearly as good as the real deal, but I must figure out where I can get a slice of kunafa without flying halfway around the world.

And now, in our bravest move yet, we would follow our evening food tour, with Friday afternoon brunch. I'm not sure what we were thinking, but stay tuned for day 6, which I'm already pretty sure should be titled: it's all fun and games until somebody gets so full they can't even move.


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