Owing to the harsh climatic conditions, agricultural produce was limited in the olden days. Hence, the Emiratis relied on animal products. Some Emirati dishes have a hint of Arabian, Indian, Iranian, Mediterranean and Turkish influences.
Bread and pancakes were popular before rice came in. The Arabic bread Khameer (which is the Arabic word for yeast) is made from yeast, flour and powdered milk. It is sprinkled with sesame seeds and served with cheese or honey.
The Emirati pancake, Chabab, is made with flour, eggs, sugar and spices like cardamom and saffron. It is served with date syrup.
Guests and visitors are traditionally welcomed with coffee and dates. Local coffee comes blended with cardamom and saffron. Coffee is served in small handle-less cups called finjans.
Date palms flourish in the oases. Dates are considered a boon in the desert, as they are a vital source of nutrition. Even today, fasts during the holy month of Ramadan are broken with dates. Dibs or date syrup, is used as a dip to relish both savoury and sweet dishes. More than 40 varieties of dates are grown in the UAE; each having its own distinct colour and flavour.
In the olden days, dates were fermented in the sun to act as a raising agent to prepare bread. Today, dates coated in chocolate or stuffed with almonds or candied orange peel make for luxury gifts.
Coffee (called Gahwa in Arabic) and dates (called Tamr in Arabic) are still an integral part of the Emirati culture.
Along the coasts, fish was found in abundance. The Emiratis learnt to store fish by drying it and made it accessible to those living in the deserts and oases.
In the deserts and mountainous regions, Emiratis largely relied on camel milk and meat. Meat of sheep and goat were also staple.
Foreign trade led to import of spices and later rice. The availability of rice and spice led to the invention of dishes such as Khuzi (stuffed whole roast lamb or goat on a bed of spiced rice), Machboos (casserole of lamb or chicken layered with rice seasoned with spices and some saffron) and Biryani (meat cooked with Indian-style spiced rice).
Cinnamon, saffron and turmeric, along with nuts, limes and dried fruit heighten the flavour of Emirati dishes. Spices were also used to prepare fish dishes such as Machboos, Saloona (stew), Mhammar and Al Madrooba. Mhammar is a side dish where the fish are spiced and prepared whole. It is often served with sweet caramelised onions and sugary yellow rice, which is a blend of savoury and sweet.
Emiratis also favour the other dish, Al Madrooba. It is a mix of salted fish, spices and thick sauce. It is sprinkled with saffron, nuts and spices and served with rice.
Today, the dining scene in the UAE has undergone a huge change. The UAE has many restaurants, cafés and bars. Popular cuisines served in restaurants are Afghani, African, American, Arabic, British, Chinese, Filipino, French, German, Greek, Indian, Indonesian, Iranian, Italian, Japanese, Malay, Mediterranean, Mexican, Nepali, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Thai and Vietnamese.
Food festivals Taste Abu Dhabi, Dubai Food Festival and Sharjah Food Festival bring cuisines from around the world and are popular with citizens and residents alike.
Read more about food and dining in 'dining in the UAE'.
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