Food is an emotion that connects everyone and everything in Dubai. The city has a vibrant dining scene that encompasses everything from your neighbourhood karak chai place and the hole-in-the-wall that serves the best chapli kabab, to the food served by the finest two Michelin-starred restaurants.
As the city becomes a hot spot for food tourism, Khaleej Times takes a trip down memory lane to map the food history of the city in a 7-part series. It will pay homage to all the significant milestones in the metamorphosis of Dubai into the culinary wonderland that it is now.
The recently concluded exhibition of menus by food writer Salma Serry showcased one of the earliest memories of food in the city. Hosted at the Jameel Art Center, the display featured Serry’s collection of food menus, official letters of correspondence between British officers planning the food rations and servings of food to army officers of the Trucial Oman.
For Serry, a 4th generation Dubai migrant, these letters were a treasure trove. “The official letters between British officers debating how Arab soldiers who served in the Trucial Oman Scouts should not be allowed to eat in separate mess hall away from their British peers is quite suggestive of the dynamics of authority and politics back then,” she said.
It was after the formation of the UAE that new restaurants started mushrooming in the city. From Indian to Lebanese to Chinese, these eateries reflected the multiculturalism of the city, just like they do currently. Some of the oldest restaurants in the country are still in business today. Here is a list and the years they opened:
One of the first cafeterias in the city, Jamarik in Bur Dubai’s Meena Bazaar area, began in 1968 and exists even today. “The restaurant was started inside the Dubai Customs building before the unification of the UAE,” said Rashid, who hails from the state of Kerala and is the current owner of the restaurant. “It was begun by a relative of mine for the employees of Dubai Customs.”
Later, the cafeteria moved to its current location in Meena Bazaar where it has been for the last 45 years. Rashid took over the restaurant from another relative who was leaving Dubai. “I still have the license that shows the date 1968,” he said.
Saheeda Yusuf, who has been a resident of Dubai since 1970, remembers the city when she first arrived. “It was a small town and there were none of these shawarma shops or cafeterias that are around now,” she said. Living in Deira near the current gold souq, she recalls one restaurant close to her house. “It was called Deluxe Hotel,” she said. “They served Kerala food. However, there was no eating out culture, so we never bought food from there."
Things changed when a few months after coming to Dubai, she became pregnant and had severe morning sickness. “I wasn’t able to cook at all,” she said. “So, my husband would order food from Deluxe Hotel for me. Unlike today, food wasn’t packed in any containers. The rice would be put on a glass plate and curries in little bowls. After eating, I would wash the plates and leave it outside the door for the bahaawala (delivery boy) to collect. It cost about 2 or 3 riyals. In those days the currency was riyals as the dirham was introduced after unification. The hotel had a very homely feel to it. If I went out into the balcony, the restaurant staff would call out and ask if I needed something. Sometimes they would send me tea and snacks.”
Saheeda also remembers the first proper restaurant that opened up. “Chicken Tikka Inn in Mankhool opened in 1972 or 1973,” she said. “I still remember being in love with the paratha and chicken that they served. It was so delicious. We would go back every week or so. I recently went to the branch and told them about my memories. The staff was pretty surprised, and they got me a special juice as well.”
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