Dubai is the new kid on the block in terms of holiday destinations. In the last 10 years, Dubai has really come to the fore as one of the leading places for a getaway, entertainment and relaxation. This emirate receives loads of visitors from Europe, Africa and Asia. It also has a lot of expat workers from South Asia, parts of Africa and Europe. This “melting pot-like” presence of diverse nationalities has created a vibrant food culture, as good as anything you can get in London or New York in terms of diversity. Whether its sampling world cuisine, eating authentic mid-eastern food or splurging big on Michelin star restaurants/celebrity chef-run restaurants, Dubai offers you a complete range of options. And the best part of all, there are some exciting eating experiences that all vegetarians can enjoy. Here are the top places to go to on a food trip to Dubai:
Modern cafes showcasing tradition
Dubai has a lot of cafes serving Arabic and other types of coffees along with some mouthwatering food. One of the most famous cafes is Cafe Bateel. It is extremely well-known for its dates. You cannot go to Dubai and not eat dates. We are not talking about just any regular dates. Bateel offers you a mind-blowing number of stuffed dates, date pudding, date pastries, date shakes and a lot more. Along with the sweet stuff, you can even order shakshouka (if you eat eggs), couscous, soups, salads, pasta, risotto, breads as well as breakfast dishes like toast and waffles. When you are done with all the eating and sampling, go for some Arabic tea and coffee. Before you leave, pack some stuffed dates of each type and flavour as gift items for family and friends.
(Various types of dates on sale at Cafe Bateel)
If you are in the mood for some high-tea in style, then head over to the tallest building in the world – The Burj Khalifa. On the 122nd floor is the Atmosphere Lounge. You can sit next to large viewing windows while enjoying a super selection of tea/coffee along with a whole rack of pastries, scones and bite-sized sandwiches. This place is really expensive, but it is all about the views and the pastries. If you have a sweet tooth and a desire for a sophisticated upscale high-tea experience, then this place is for you.
Experience the old and traditional culture of Dubai in the Al Fahidi neighbourhood. Head there to be surrounded by traditional Emirati architecture and structures made of traditional materials. The narrow streets and sand coloured homes, all built mostly by Persian merchants in early 1900’s will transport you back in time. The calm and tranquil ambience is perfect for enjoying some delicious vegetarian dishes at the vegetarian inspired XVA Cafe. The entire menu is almost completely vegetarian (with the exception of some egg-based breakfast dishes) and serves dishes as unique as quinoa Kofta and beetroot Kebab. Popular dishes which are a must try here are the roasted pepper hummus, Rosa’s cheesecake (a classic American dessert with an interesting Arabic bent), and traditional Arabic coffee.
When in Dubai, eat like the Emiratis do!
Traditional Emirati food tends to be mostly non-vegetarian and meat heavy. But that does not mean vegetarians will be deprived of experiencing the local delicacies. There are a few places which serve some of the local dishes in a vegetarian format. One of them is the Seven Sands. Located at the Dubai Marina, this restaurant is perhaps one of the rare few places which serves vegetarian Thereed. Thereed is a Bedouin stew with lots of vegetables and the one at Seven Sands is served with traditional bread called Ragag. The Ragag might have eggs in it, so always inquire before you eat. Other vegetarian items include mid-eastern starters, soups and a fairly large selection of vegetarian desserts. For desserts, the Legamat (Luqaimat) as particularly recommended. Seven Sands, in fact, holds a Luqaimat festival every year.
(Emirati dessert called Luqaimat)
Many local cafes or Gulf cafes will also serve a vegetarian version of Madrooba, Margooga and Saloonat Bamyah if you request for it to be vegetarian. This is something you could experiment if you are feeling adventurous with what you want to eat.
Expansive Friday Brunch
(Dessert section of a Friday brunch in Dubai)
Fridays are holiday in Dubai as it is the “weekend”. Friday is the equivalent of Sunday (as in most other parts of the world). Dubai is particularly well-known for its lavish, large and extensive Friday brunches. These brunches run from late morning to almost early evening/late afternoon and are a great way for people to meet up, relax, socialize and eat plenty of food. Two places in particular are highly acclaimed for their Friday brunches. First, its the Vida Downtown. They offer what is known as an “Al Fresco” brunch, which is basically an outdoor picnic-style eating experience. You literally get a picnic basket, and you can go around and fill it with all the food and dessert that you want. Once you are done loading up your basket, you go to the pool area and sit either on a grass patch, or in one of the tent-like Shamiana (Cabana) structures for an afternoon of eating. Plenty of vegetarian options – from mid-eastern to Italian, Indian, Asian, American – is available. Friday brunches aren’t cheap, and this one is expensive. But it is well worth an experience, at least once.
Another brunch option is the Palace Downtown. It is also an all-you-can-eat lavish buffet spread. You can choose tasty vegetarian foods from a wide variety of options. The buffet here at the Palace Downtown even has vegetarian sushi, which adds to an already diverse menu. Again, this brunch is also expensive, upwards of AED 300, but well worth the experience.
Taste of Africa
(Colourful and flavourful Ethiopian Food)
Dubai is home to African expats as well as African tourists and travelers. Naturally, that presence and exposure has led to presence of some high quality African restaurants. For vegetarians, it is a perfect opportunity for some change of pace, and an opportunity to try some unique African dishes. Kiza is an African restaurant located at DIFC on the main street of Dubai downtown area. It serves food from various parts of Africa. At Kiza, you can start off your meal with some Ghanian plantain called Kele Wele. If you like soup, you can go for the Lentil soup cooked in North African style. For main course, the West African bean Pottage is recommended. There are some vegetarian sides and rice (go for the Tanzanian Ugali) that you can also order along with your pottage. Finally, for dessert, there is the South African Malva pudding (has eggs in it though) or the Kenyan Mandazi. Eating at Kiza would make you feel that you just traveled across Africa!
Another popular African cuisine in Dubai is Ethiopian food. There are a few Ethiopian restaurants and a highly acclaimed one if called Al Habasha. Their tag line captures their philosophy quite well…”Eat Today Diet Tomorrow”. And why not. The best option here is to get the Habasha Special Vegetarian Option. This dish is eaten by hand and shared among a group. By shared, I mean everyone in your group will eat from one humongous plate. Sounds crazy? But that is how Ethiopian food is served in authentic places. It is part of Ethiopian culture to eat together from one big plate. The Habasha Special will have 7-8 flat breads called Injera laid out all over the large eating plate. On top of all the injeras will be scoops of various curries, vegetable stews and lentils. When you are ordering your food at Al Habasha, push your luck a bit and ask for Gursha. Gursha is an Ethiopian tradition where the host lady (in this case owner of the restaurant) will feed the first bite of your meal to you with her hands. This first bite is a bit bigger than the normal morsels of food which you would normally eat. You might find this tradition exciting, interesting or weird. But, it is recommended that you try it once.
Indian Food Galore
There are plenty of expats and labourers from India who live and work in Dubai. Hence, there are plenty of Indian food places all across Dubai. Indian food joints always have abundant vegetarian options, all of them quite flavourful as well. Two of the best Indian restaurants in Dubai are Sarvana Bhavan and Govinda’s at Al Karama. Sarvana Bhavan is perhaps one of the most famous South Indian food chains of India, with branches in US, Singapore, Dubai and various parts of India. It serves extremely delicious South Indian food, and as a vegetarian you simply cannot go wrong with Sarvana Bhavan.
(South Indian food at Sarvana Bhavan)
As for Govinda’s, this restaurant has an interesting concept. It serves what is known as “satvik” food or fresh organic food that isn’t overly processed and normally does not have any onion or garlic in it. Govinda’s is a great option for Jains or anyone looking to eat simple flavourful food. The menu here is mainly focused on North-Indian and Indo-Chinese food. They have some amazing lassis and juices as well. You won’t leave Govinda’s disappointed for sure.
Lastly, a very highly acclaimed restaurant serving modern Indian food is TresInd. Located at the Nassima Royal Hotel, TresInd has made food into an art. It is one of those upscale exciting places where the presentation and innovative fusion is as important as the taste of the food. If you are looking for that unique one-of-a-kind culinary experience where every dish is about the creativity of the chef, then TresInd will delight you.
Middle Eastern and Levantine Delights
Being in the middle east and especially being in the hub of the Arab world, one cannot leave Dubai without trying various middle eastern cuisines of the surrounding countries. While a lot of the conventional mid-eastern dishes are available in many restaurants, brunches and cafes across Dubai, there are certain joints which specialize in only mid-eastern food and these specialists do it better than all the others. Make sure you pay a visit to Qwaider Al Nabulsi in Al Muraqqabat. They are well-known for Jordanian and Palestinian food and it is rumoured that Qwaider Al Nabulsi serves the best falafel in Dubai. Recommended items include Falafel Mahshi (filled with Shatta – a fermented chili paste), Chick-Pea Fattah, Hummus or one of their many sandwiches. Plenty of vegetarian options here and the unique part about this restaurant is that even the common and conventional dishes are served in an original Jordanian/Palestinian way. For example, the hummus is not just served by itself, rather it comes with a green sauce called Tatbeela. Similarly, you can also get some Thoom (a garlic mayo-like dip) to go with your Falafel sandwich. For desert, try any one of the various Kunafas (cheesy gooey Arabic pastry) on the menu.
(Palestinian style Hummus)
Another interesting food joint is Breakfast to Breakfast in Al Rigga. This place is famous for Manakish or Lebanese Pizzas. There are a few vegtarian Manakish options, and the Za’atar is a popular one, which has a herb paste lathered over freshly baked dough. While you there, try a glass of Laban Aryan (Arabic style buttermilk).
(Za’atar Manakish, Lebanese style pizza)
Other must visits
Some other interesting places worth eating at are:
Iranian Sweets, Deira – Located at Omar Bin Al Khattab St, there is an Iranian Sweets shop with the same name. This place is famous for Iranian desserts. One dish to go there for in particular is the Iranian Faloudeh. This Faloudeh comes with 3 types of ice cream, along with the faloudeh, some lime juice and rose syrup. Make sure that one of your ice cream is the Iranian Bastani. The Bastani ice cream is a softie with saffron and rose water flavouring. Eat this after your dinner and you could be forgiven for thinking that you are standing in Tehran.
(Iranian Faloudeh – get it with the Bastani ice cream)
Global Village – Every year, from November to around mid-April, Dubai organizes a cultural, shopping, entertainment and food extravaganza called Global Village. Spread out over almost 400 acres, Global Village is a festival like no other. There are country pavilions created using sets and temporary structures recreating the ambience of each country. With almost 50 countries participating, each country showcases its culture, products (shopping) and food in its pavilion. Over the course of 3-4 hours, you will literally feel like you just traveled across the world. Plenty of vegetarian food options are available as you experiment food from various countries. Global Village is also a great opportunity to interact with people from various nationalities.
(Global Village with country pavilions)
BOCA, DIFC: This restaurant serves European food, but a vegetarian should go there to eat the Veg Paella. Paella is a famous Spanish rice dish, it is is almost always sea-food based. It is very rare to find a vegetarian version of Paella. Luckily BOCA serves it.
Happy Cow – You can always look up vegetarian options near your location by using the Happy Cow website. It is an invaluable resource no matter whatever part of the world you are in.