The culinary traditions of the United Arab Emirates are influenced by geography and resources, and now with worldly cities like Abu Dhabi and Dubai, cuisine is also informed by styles from all parts of the world.
Meats and dairy products feature prominently in UAE cuisine. Vegetables don’t thrive in the arid UAE climate, and so are used sparingly. Spices like thyme, turmeric, saffron and cardamom are used often in Emirati cooking, and the spicy dishes are often accompanied by cooling side dishes or garnishes of yogurt, cucumber, or mint. In many homes, meals are cooked together in one pot as a stew.
Two of the most popular and common dishes are Dejaj Murraq/Saloona, which is a chicken stew, and Laham Murraq/Saloona, which is a general term for meat stew. These dishes are cooked once or twice a day in many Emirati homes because they are versatile enough to be served along with rice, bread, or other side dishes. Laham Murraq/Saloona was originally Bedouin cuisine and is popular during the holy month of Ramadan, served with sliced limes, onion, chives, garlic, radishes, dates, and buttermilk.
Another traditional dish of the UAE is Shrimp Beryani. Beryani is a type of rice. This dish is easy to cook. Laham Mashwee, or stuffed lamb, is a popular dish that is served when visitors stop in. Simple to prepare, Laham Mashwee takes a long time to cook, but it is a very popular evening dish served with rice.
Chicken shawarma, from a spit kebab, is cut into small pieces, mixed with salad, and rolled up in bread. Falafel is made from mashed chick peas and spices, and is eaten with bread and hummus. Hummus is a dip served with pita bread. It, too, is made from chick peas, along with lemon juice, garlic, spices, and tahini, which is a mashed sesame seed paste.
Kafta is sometimes referred to as the Arabic hamburger. It is made by rolling the meat in pita bread, along with cucumbers, tomato, lettuce, and yogurt.
De-Ja Ta-Ha-Tah is chicken with rice. This is usually served with plain yogurt, limes, and sliced onion. Matharubah, or fish with rice paste, originated in Kuwait, but is also popular in the UAE. It is usually served alongside salad and sliced lemons. Iranian Leavened Bread, or Wagafree, begins as dough that is formed into balls then stretched. The bread is then baked briefly in a hot clay oven and eaten as soon as it is made.
Camels are prized more for their milk than their meat, although camel meat is sometimes eaten on special occasions. Chicken and goats are the most common meats eaten in the UAE.
Besides camel, another special occasion dish is Al Harees, which involves lengthy preparation, and is often reserved for Ramadan, Eid, and for weddings. Making Al Harees involves cooking ground wheat in a pot, then adding ground meat and cooking for several hours in the pot, followed by several more hours in either an underground hole filled with burning coal or a clay oven. It is finally spread with locally made clarified butter and served on flat plates.
Gah-wa Khaleejeiah, or coffee, is a staple of the Arab breakfast. Making coffee is often the first task done in the home after morning prayers. Breakfast in the UAE often has bread – chebab, khameer, and ragag are examples – served with cheese, eggs, or date syrup. Luqeymat is a fried piece of pancake batter rolled in sesame seeds and accented with date syrup. Dates figure heavily into the sweet dishes eaten in the UAE. Bethitha is semolina mixed with crushed dates, butter, and cardamom. Another dessert is khabeesa, also incorporating cardamom, and made with bread crumbs, sugar, and saffron. Umm ali is a form of bread pudding enjoyed by Arabs, and Mahalbiya is another type of pudding. Esh asarya is similar to cheesecake with a cream topping.
In addition to Gah-wa (coffee), red tea with mint is often served after meals to aid in digestion.
In the largest cities, particularly in Dubai, European, Indian, and Lebanese cuisines are widely available. Lebanese may be the most popular foreign cuisine in Dubai. Iranian dishes based on spicy rices are quite popular in Dubai as well. These spicy dishes are often served with lettuce or minty yogurt sauce to cool down the palate. Naan is a very popular leavened flatbread that is often spread with butter, or used to scoop up other foods. Lavash is another popular flatbread option. It is softer and lighter than Naan.
Cuisine in the UAE draws from the best of what the local area and the world offers. Sometimes spicy, sometimes cool, and sometimes both in the same dish, dining on traditional UAE cuisine is an integral part of the experience of visiting the UAE.