While you can certainly study abroad in the UAE without ever tasting Emirati cuisine, it would be a shame to miss out on the chance to taste your host country's local food. Emirati cuisine draws from the culinary traditions of South Asia, Central Asia, North Africa, and the Mediterranean.
Emirati recipes, passed down through the generations, have their roots in the heritage of the Bedu tribes that traversed harsh desert environments, the settlements that set up home in the oasis villages, and the days when pearl diving and fishing were the main occupations in the cities. These traditional recipes gradually evolved under the influence of merchants from Iran, India, and North Africa who brought their own spices and flavors to local souks.
In recent years, the number of restaurants serving authentic Emirati cuisine, including dishes you’d only find in an Emirati home, has only increased, making it more accessible to tourists and expats. To taste your way around Emirati cuisine that is born of the desert, sea, and mountains, here are the dishes you must try when studying abroad in the UAE.
Gahwa & Dates
Gahwa or Arabic coffee is a light, refreshing blend of lightly roasted Arabica beans, with a bit of ground cardamom and saffron, served in tiny narrow cups. It’s generally taken without any milk and is not very strong.
Local dates accompany a pot of gahwa and are considered a staple source of daily nutrition in Emirati cuisine served at the beginning of meals. You’ll find gahwa served in all local cafés and restaurants, shisha cafés, and as a welcome drink in many hotels around the UAE.
Khameer is a soft, puffy, round flatbread sometimes flavored with saffron and fennel and topped with sesame seeds. It splits open easily and is enjoyed with a generous smearing of the local soft cheese labneh, date syrup or dibs, or creamy Kraft cheese, that can be found in most local homes and is a breakfast favorite.
In modern Emirati cafés you can also find khameer sandwiches with delicious stuffing such as spicy marinated lamb or chicken with vegetables, that make for a quick and filling meal at a price that's suited to your student budget.
The Emirati cousin of the South Asian seviyan, balaleet is a dish of sweetened fine rice vermicelli cooked with eggs. In some traditional recipes, scrambled eggs, caramelized onions, raisins, cardamom, saffron, and rose water are added to enhance the flavors.
In the versions that you’ll find commonly served in cafés and restaurants, a plain, thin omelet is added on top of the vermicelli. Balaleet is enjoyed at breakfast but also as a dessert or evening meal. Balaleet is the perfect comfort food and also keeps your energy levels going while studying for exams.
Lentil soup or shorbat adas is a common dish in the region and you’ll find it on the menus of Emirati and Lebanese restaurants, but the preparation can vary slightly depending on where the chef is from. It’s a warm, filling soup of red lentils, prepared with onions, and seasoned with garlic, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and other spices. This soup makes for a simple, healthy, and budget-friendly lunch or dinner meal when eating out as a student in the UAE.
A delicious main dish of seasoned rice with lamb, chicken, or seafood and potatoes, machboos is an Emirati favorite with every family having their own version with slight variations. The addition of aromatic spices like cloves, cardamom, cumin, dried lemon, bay leaves, the Emirati bezar mix, lentils, and raisins really brings out the flavors of the dish.
You’ll find machboos at Emirati restaurants and served at iftar dinners during Ramadan. You can also try it at a cultural meal at the Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding while exploring the old heritage district of Al Bastakiya in Dubai.
A spicy stew of vegetables with meat, chicken, or fish, saloona is served with plain white rice or a thin bread called regag. This Bedouin dish is a favorite that you can expect to find in a local home and Emirati restaurants around the city. It’s quite healthy too with vegetables such as tomatoes, carrots, potatoes and some modern versions include zucchini, beans, and eggplant as well.
Thareed is a hearty, slow-cooked stew of tender meat and vegetables such as potatoes, tomatoes, pumpkin, and marrow poured over layers of thin regag flatbread. The stew is soaked up in the bread that creates a pasta-like layer at the bottom of the dish. This is a great comfort food and is found on most iftar dinner tables.
A slow-cooked dish that is served during iftar, and on celebratory occasions such as weddings and Eid, harees is prepared by cooking ground wheat and meat together with spices in a clay oven or underground for 5-6 hours. The meat and wheat combine together in a porridge-like consistency. The dish is served with a generous dollop of ghee or clarified butter and is very rich.
Got a good grade on your assignment and want to celebrate? Indulge your sweet tooth with luqaimat, golden brown, deep-fried doughnut-like balls, served piping hot and drenched in sweet date syrup or dibs. You can find them at all Emirati restaurants such as Meylas in Abu Dhabi. In Dubai, you can watch Emirati women make them fresh at the stalls at Global Village.
Studying abroad in the UAE is a fantastic opportunity to explore a vibrant culture that is completely different from your own and one that remains largely unexplored in terms of its cuisine and traditions, even in a city that is open to people from around the world. One of the best ways to explore any country is through its food, and doing so in the Emirates will leave your belly as happy as your heart.