Tikka is one of those food words that has different meanings depending where in the world you are. In England, you’ll order tikka probably expecting a mild chicken curry in an bright orange sauce. In Dubai, it refers to grilled meats in various forms, most commonly deriving from South Asia. In Bahrain, tikka is skewered meat that is marinated overnight in black preserved lemon powder. Traditionally Iranian, I grew up eating the stuff religiously!
To the most part, it’s a hole in the wall affair, you’re not gunna find no ‘gourmet’ tikka restaurant, no sir! It’s more of a rock up to a nearby village in your sandals kind of thing. You order up and watch as they grill them over an open lit flame, waiting patiently, drooling at the even thought of those hot nuggets of fatty meat sizzling away.
For the past year that I have lived in Dubai, I’ve been searching for a Bahraini-style tikka joint high and low, asking around, desperately pleading until late last weekend I finally decided to take matters into my own hands and make it myself. We made it with mutton because it’s a totally underrated meat and ya’ll are stupid if you disagree.
1. Chop up your mutton into small pieces and marinate overnight in an excessive amount of preserved black lemon powder (you can find it in older parts of Dubai such as Satwa), salt & pepper and a squeeze of two lemons.
2. Skewer them up and grill them, if you got a BBQ use it, if not, a griddle pan will do the trick fine! You want it to be moist with a healthy amount of char as well.
3. Make a small plate of pickled onions by chopping up slices of red onion and mixing in white wine vinegar, somac, red pepper flakes and salt & pepper.
4. Serve with flat bread, accompanied with some limes to add dat tang!
It may or may not surprise you to learn that I am a karaoke demon. I LOVE THAT SHIT. Especially if I’m one or two or three beers down, crank up the Limp Bizkit, I’m on it. My karaoke tunes of choice gravitate towards late 90s - early 2000s grunge and pop-rock. Fred Durst and Sk8r Boi being classic options. I’m not ashamed.
For a friend’s recent birthday, we got invited to Kung, a Korean restaurant with private karaoke rooms, in the Byblos Hotel in Tecom. We decided to return on a more sober occasion to try out the food. Needless to say it was a meal haunted by flashbacks of my foolish end-of-night rendition of Taylor Swift (not feeling 22 anymore). Luckily the food was good enough to distract from the painful memories. We sat cross-legged on floor cushions, legs going numb. A group of Korean business men in the corner cheered HEYYOHHHH! and did shots every ten minutes. I wanted to join their party.
Much as I am a bibimbap luva 4 lyf, we tried to branch out to try new things in this meal, and with a little help from our waiter, ordered the following.
Sliced pork belly with kimchi, vegetables and chilli paste, which came with the perfect sized bowl of sticky rice. This was deliciously tangy, with that garlicky-spicy kimchi flavour smothering everything. It maybe could have done with a little more pork but I’m not complaining too much, this was tasty as hell!
Ok then we got cocky. We definitely weren’t ready for this shit. This murky-looking cauldron was a hotpot of pork stomach, shrimp paste, and various other insidey bits. I’m sure the description mentioned sesame oil and other tasty things?? Well, it tasted like dank guts. Sweaty, clammy, fleshy, tripey soup. Andrew Zimmern, we’ve got a long way to go. I tried. i wanted to like it! But one spoon was all I could handle before this was pushed out of my eye-line and away from my nostril-zone.
Thank God, the third dish we ordered was the best of all. Korean sashimi, baby. It came in a mountain of shredded vegetables, almost like a slaw, and drowned in a lethal chilli sauce. A monstrous pile! The fish (hammour) was chunky, perfectly soft, and fresh. This was super tasty, with hints of nutty sesame and sweet gochujang paste, and a generous enough serving to feed me for lunch the next day. Holla at me, my packed lunch crew!
On the side of all this, lots of little bowls of tasty appetizers were provided. Hellz yeah, free food! These included sesame dressed mushrooms (which were deliciously slimey), warm vegetable pancakes, crazy tangy kimchi, pickled radish, and some weird grey egg dish. Who knows. I’m pretty sure they said it was called stink egg, but haven’t been able to find anything about that online, so the mystery continues unsolved.
The prices at Kung are a little on the high side (with two beers this came to nearly AED400). But aside from our MASSIVE ordering mistake with the hotpot, I loved the food, the atmosphere was great (HEEYYOOHHH!!), and I’m sure the karaoke will tempt me back sooner than is advisable.
You think fattoush is just a salad, do ya? Do ya??? You know nothing, Jon Snow.
You’ll see fattoush on the menu at Lebanese restaurants, Egyptian, Palestinian; it’s a staple dish of the Levant. A stalwart you might say. Essentially it is just a mixed salad, but what elevates a successful fattoush to greatness is a) the fried crispy bread, and b) sumac. Sumac is a super sour spice which is added liberally to fattoush dressing, making everything turn red, tangy, and delicious.
The addition of the fried squares of bread was initially conceived as a way of using up stale leftover flatbreads. It adds that essential crunch and stop the whole affair from being too boring and healthy. It also soaks up that acidic dressing quite brilliantly, make each bite a literal burst of flavour.
To make fattoush, just chop up tomatoes, cucumber, radish, red onion, and crisp lettuce into rough chunks. Cut flatbread into squares, and quickly deep fry till crispy. Add fresh parsley or mint leaves if you have them, they’re always welcome here.
Mix everything and dress with fresh lemon juice, olive oil, salt, pepper, and looooads of sumac. If you think you can handle it, add our secret ingredient to achieve levels of ultra-tang you had only dreamed of - a drizzle of pomegranate molasses!
Serve with anything you bloody like.
Footsteps away from where we were staying in Kathmandu was Thamel House Restaurant, tucked away in a courtyard behind a tiny store selling carved wooden masks, and dusty beaded necklaces by the dozen. Of all the places to eat in Thamel - which is an area undeniably designed for backpackers and tourists - Thamel House Restaurant was one of the few to offer local food in a more legitimate restaurant setting. As such, it comes with a slightly higher price tag (not to be confused with an actually expensive price tag. We spent like max £6 each here).
It turned out to be some of the best food of the trip, so much so that we paid Thamel Housel Restaurant two visits! The cosy courtyard was a lovely, peaceful retreat from the crazy death-trap streets outside, with a great atmosphere both in the afternoon sunshine, or in the evening with a bottle of local wine.
We ordered a mixture of dishes to share - the servings are a little on the small side here considering you’re paying a little more, I will admit, but the quality of these little servings was BANG ON. Alu tareko was a traditional fried potato dish. These were salty and herby; perfectly textured, crispy on the outside and fluffy in the middle like a spicy roast potato. Completely addictive.
Mas ko bara - mashed lentils prepared in local style, like a pancake but salty. That is the description from the menu, ordered more out of curiosity than anything. It literally was a strange, salty pancake. I wasn’t really sure what to do with it. I was confused. Luckily the other dishes did not confuse me so. They delighted me!
Khasi ko chhowela - mutton cubes barbecued and marinated Nepali style - think ginger, garlic, coriander, spices, all that good stuff. This shit is so good!! And tangy as hell. To the extent that your tongue is left tingling tantalisingly for the rest of the meal.
Gundruk ko achar - fermented dried spinach, served cold in the form of a pickle, with potato. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, the Nepalese know their way around a potato alright. This unusual dish had really great umami flavour, with more of that typical Nepali tang.
Finally Paneer Sandheko, marinated cottage cheese. My eyes have been opened to the beauty of paneer since visiting Nepal. All I’ve had in the past were bland, soggy chunks of nothing from local UK Indian takeaways. It wasn’t so, here in Thamel House Restaurant! Chunks of paneer tasted creamy and rich, slathered in tons of spicy coriander, just the way I like it!
Once again we found ourselves sucked into the JLT clusterfuck. There’s a surprising amount of great food to be found in this area, but unfortunately there is zero atmosphere. Everywhere is a ghost town. There’s that vague air of disappointment coming from all the restaurant owners - this isn’t what they were told it would be. They were so hopeful in the beginning! JLT’s a cash cow for sure, they said! Only to get more desperate as the days pass, each emptier than the last. I can’t handle how grateful everyone is for a little custom round here. So once we’ve hit up a place once, we don’t tend to go back. If we love the food, we’ll order delivery. They can come to us!
Merlion’s King (try as we might, we can pronounce this no other way than “Moorlooyyyn”) is a Singaporean place that, much like the rest of JLT, looks like it opened yesterday. The menu is short and standard, but not in a boring way. In a ‘you don’t mess with success’ way.
OBVIOUSLY we were there for the crab. Singapore Chilli Crab - cooked with ginger, garlic, red chilli, and a mysterious special blend of spices. Hot diggity dawg. This was sweet, saucy and glorious. The crabs were pleasingly fat and meaty, glistening in their red shells and splashing around in the sauce, which soon found its way all over my hands and face.
After destroying these beautiful creatures with hand and tool, we mopped up the excess sauce with Merlion King’s recommended accompaniment - big, fat Mantou buns. These are large Chinese steamed or fried buns, perfect with saucy dishes. We had the slightly sweet, super-soft and crispy fried buns and bloody loved it.
That feeling of accomplishment, and satisfaction, you get after ripping up and eating a bunch of crab is something I find rather pleasing. Merlion’s King have almost got me considering a - dun-dun-dun - return visit. There’s still the black pepper crab to try out after all!
We recently went on a trip to Nepal that was nothing short of mind-blowing. Check out our main post on the experience HERE.
Nepal is famous for its hiking routes. Everest is right there lurking eerily and ominously in the background at all times, the whole Annapurna Range frames the Pokhara skyline like a snowy invitation. Plenty of people in Kathmandu and Pokhara both were clearly there for such wholesome reasons as a good healthy hike. But for us, an hour’s walk up a hill to the World Peace Pagoda was as far as it went. And the views were more than worth it.
The World Peace Pagoda in Pokhara overlooks the idyllic Fewa Lake. The route we took was to row across the lake from Lakeside, park our boat at the foot of the hill, then follow the stony climb up to the monument. The Pagoda itself is a Buddhist symbol of peace, one of 80 worldwide, and 2 in Nepal. It is pristine, and silent. You take your shoes off and whisper. The air and visibility feels almost magically pure and clean.
Now being quite pathetically unfit, that hour walk through the woods just about killed me. My lungs were about to implode, my mouth was bloody parched, and oh yeah! I was starving! Luckily, perched atop the hill next to the Pagoda sits the Elite Cafe. A-listers only, you know the deal.
A cold glass of Nepal Ice was just the trick to admire the view by. We ordered chilli chicken (what else), chicken sekuwa, and vegetable momos, a perfect trifecta. Service was slow, but that’s the last thing on your mind when you’re sitting up here. They can take as long as they damn please, you’re in no hurry.
We ate little cubes of grilled chicken sekuwa skewered on toothpicks. The warm and salty marinade on this common Nepali kebab sat somewhere confusingly between Indian and Chinese. Juicy, sticky chilli chicken fiilled my belly with warm, delicious fuel ahead of the arduous stroll back down the hill.
After a wait, the vegetable momos finally appeared, and goddamnit they were the best momos of the whole trip, even my life! The casing retained a bit of bite, they weren’t floppy like previous tries, nor did they crack open under the weight of the filling. These were things of beauty, constructed with art and care. The accompanying spicy dip was made with peanuts, creating a tasty combo of chutney and satay to wash them down.
This calls for a momo gif!
We’ve remembered this meal as one of the best we had in Nepal. Top marks for both food and atmosphere! Elite Cafe is definitely one to pay a visit if you ever find yourself in Pokhara. Get the momos, my friend. You won’t regret a thing!
We made this dish inspired by a recipe in Yotam Ottolenghi’s awe-inspiring cookbook Jerusalem. Seriously, this book is like our Bible. If you don’t have it, get it now, or get off my blog.
This is a cozy, flavorsome dish that is best enjoyed, for me anyway, in a relaxed environment with some good company, if possible outdoors taking in some sun with some nice wine to go with it. Or have it with some strong black coffee over a lazy brunch. A big bowl of warmly spiced meat and oozing egg yolks is well applied to almost any situation. It’s also pretty damn simple to make.
In a large frying pan, cook onions and garlic, add lamb mince and brown. Season with salt, pepper, and lots of ground cumin. Then add harissa paste, squeeze in a lemon, and add toasted pine nuts and fresh coriander, along with a splash of water.
Make wells in the meat and crack an egg in one by one, four eggs for each corner. Cover and cook on low heat for 5-10 mins.
Now whenever we make this we use Kamal’s top-secret herby-tahina recipe. You may recall that Kamal’s in a band called Flamingods. You may also recall that Flamingods started a sauce brand a few years back called ‘Flamingoods’ (lol) which they used to sell at shows. This is one of the sauces and makes a pretty damn good accompaniment to most Middle Eastern foods.
For a simplified version, mix in tahina, labneh (or Greek yoghurt), lots of lemon, white vinegar and garlic, some fresh parsley and add in salt, pepper, somac and chili flakes. It will add a fresh and tangy, yet creamy element to the dish.
Serve with some warm flatbreads, and our favourite topping - slices of avocado.
It’s hard to know what to think of a place like Nepal. Our week spent there was a baffling mixture of exhilarating highs, in still moments surrounded by pristine natural beauty; followed by spluttering, phlegm-filled lows. But over all, the vibrant, ramshackle allure of it all is what lasts in my memory.
Kathmandu itself hits you like a loud, brutal slap in the face. The traffic, the dust, the piles of rubbish, the motorbikes, the toxic fumes, the incense, the sleeping dogs, the roaming cows. Everyone’s going somewhere, got something to say, selling something. Impromptu biker gangs gather at one of the few traffic light junctions in the dirt track roads, jewel-toned flowers are left as offerings at mini street-side shrines, a holy man wearing sweet frames lets you take his photo, then charges a few rupees for the privilege.
What we did know of Nepal beforehand was the remnants of hippie culture. We read up a lot about this, how Nepal warmly welcomed the hippies for much of the 60s and 70s, and how that decision played out to bite the country in the ass when the hippies started to get hooked on heroin, and became a general nuisance.
Kathmandu was the final stop on the hippie trail, and as a leftover result of that, much of the tourist shops are aimed at, well, hippies and those interested in that culture. Marijuana memorabilia, hemp bags, those ubiquitous baggy trousers… It’s all still there but feels somewhat ingenuine, like something straight out of London’s Camden market.
On our first night, we caught a Nepali band playing Jimi Hendrix covers at a bar called Namaste and as much as I hate cover bands, this was one of the best things ever. Young travelers scoured the dance floor, shoes off, arms dangled high, the smell of hashish wafting in the air, with a slight sense of careless revelry.
We spent the next two days in Kathmandu exploring temples. Wandering around the Durbar Squares of both Kathmandu and neighbouring town Patan, taking in the worn-down, yet stunning Eastern architecture. You get the sense things aren’t what they used to be in Kathmandu, but what remains is still totally fascinating and beautiful.
On one occasion, whilst circling around the Bodhnath Stupa, we heard a percussive racket coming from afar. Guided by the sounds, we climbed up a set of stairs to a third story apartment where we found ourselves confronted with Tibetan Buddhist monks bashing drums, chanting, and blowing abrasive horns, in an endless, circular and hypnotic song. They offered us tea, the strangest, saltiest tea I’ve tasted in all my life. We were welcomed, again, with open arms and there is something very special about that.
One of my favourite excursions was climbing up the stairs to Swayambhunath, which is also known as the Monkey Temple due to the hordes of holy monkeys that are allowed to live on its grounds. That cheeky guy below was such a menace for the watermelon! Which I might add, he stole off a screaming child.
And yes, the food! The cheapest and best way to eat in Nepal was to stick to local cuisine. There’s similarities to Indian food, but the typical flavour profiles seem a little different. Street vendors deep fry samosas, pakoras, and puris on every corner; and every restaurant, whether Nepali or otherwise, will offer some kind of mixed thali of sour and spicy curries in satisfying little metal bowls. The aromas of ginger and garlic waft out of every meal, whether from the thali, or from a sticky, saucy Chinese-style dish.
My attitude to momos changed throughout the week. At the beginning, they were an old acquaintance I felt ambivalent towards at best. By the end, momos were my most comforting and reliable old pal. A hot momo was a hug. The best we had were at a mountainside cafe next to the World Peace Pagoda in Pokhara, looking over the lake with a view of Mount Everest to melt my cold stone heart. We will save that for a future post.
Chilli chicken was another favourite that we picked up again and again. This sticky, deep red Chinese-influenced dish, with big chunks of red onion and green pepper, never let us down. Even better was chilli pork, with fatty, glistening slices of spicy pork belly, gobbled up on a peaceful rooftop overlooking the madness of Durbar Square.
They knew their way around a potato in Nepal as well. Aloo sandeko, below, was soft, fluffy potatoes in a tingly marinade of fresh ginger, garlic, red onion, spices, and a sprinkling of coriander. This filled my belly happily on a number of occasions. Aloo tareko was one better, with the spicy potatoes turned into crispy nuggets of joy through frying, till they had that satisfying crunch of the perfect roast potato.
Cold, crisp beers made every great moment in Nepal better. The local brew, Everest, became a favourite. We spent one of our days driving up a long winded mountain called Nagarkot, to be welcomed by an out of control party of locals dancing on laid out rugs, whilst local cuisine is cooked on the side. The view from up here, over the Kathmandu Valley, was totally mind-blowing, and I say that hardly as a view enthusiast.
We ate bhatmas sandeko (fried soy beans in ginger, garlic, chilli and coriander, also seen above is the peanut variety) from a hut, made friends with a local dog, and got tipsy from one bottle of Everest in the thin altitude. Kamal and Charles joined in the locals’ mountaintop dance party, and snagged us samples of their spicy fried chicken (we’d been looking enviously at their vast pans of food bubbling away for the past hour). Our buddy Sam temporarily forgot his vegetarianism for the once in a lifetime opportunity of sampling locally made spicy fried chicken up a mountain in Nepal.
We were in search for some live Nepalese music and stumbled upon a lively bar in Thamel with just that. This is where the locals came to party. The music is enchanting, like no other genre or traditional sound, it is its own testament and represents the country’s diversity and openness to others around them. Indian tablas and Nepalese madals create crisp rhythms, harmoniums used to make the flowing melody and high-pitched Chinese-reminiscent vocal and dancing styles tie it all together perfectly.
What we learnt is that Nepalese people love to party, wholeheartedly, with no judgement or preconceptions. It’s okay to dance with male friends in Nepal, dancing is ritual. There’s no implications of sex and seduction here, there is no booty shaking, no motive to dance with others other than to have a good time, let loose and make friends. There’s no lads out on the lash looking to score, and that makes me happy.
The music is hypnotic and alive, it brings a swift rush of energy that makes you want to lift your limbs into an inhibition-free groove. As we continuously were encouraged to join the dance floor from the locals, the night takes an uplifting, hazy turn, ending up in one of the funnest nights we had in Nepal.
After three days in cheap, noisy Kathmandu, exploring temples, getting lost among the endless hippie shops in Thamel, and getting drunk to live Nepali music, we caught a six hour coach to Pokhara. The journey through the mountains brought us some of the greatest views of the trip, but was not without its perils. For hours on end, the coach wound precariously through dirt tracks with sheer cliff-face drops just centimetres from my window. I guess these drivers knew what they were doing, as we didn’t die, but I tell ya, I got pretty nervous when I spotted an upturned truck lying in the river below. Best to just not look out the window, clasp my sweaty hands together, and not imagine plummeting to our deaths. The coach made stops at mountainside restaurants, where we filled up on watery curries and crispy pakoras, and bought bags of fresh oranges.
Pokhara is beautiful. Emerging, spluttering, stiff and fuzzy from the coach into the fresh lakeside air, our minds were momentarily blown. Compared to Kathmandu, Pokhara seems almost like paradise. After checking into our guest house (the cute and cosy Sacred Valley Inn), we stocked up on beers and headed for the water. Out on the lake, taking turns to row, sipping on cold beer, with the warm sun glistening hazily all around us, was one of the happiest moments of my life. It was one of those hyper-real moments of complete sensory overload, that I’ll never forget.
Pokhara provides you with that instant shot in the arm hit of natural beauty, but it’s a little pricier than Kathmandu. If we had time to venture away from the tourist strip and into the old town, perhaps we would have found that perfect combination of Pokhara beauty and Kathmandu vibes. Heading back to Kathmandu for the final two days of our trip, I felt a little more wise to its ways. I knew my way around the streets, but I can’t say I understood the place.
As our week comes to an end, I’m left in somewhat of a state of disarray. What I think about Nepal has changed so consistently throughout the trip that I’m left with no better of a view then when I arrived.
We came to Nepal to experience the culture, but I still have no idea what Nepalese culture is. You see, what makes the country so fascinating and diverse is the country’s policy to welcome other cultures in with open arms. There’s a mix of Chinese and Tibetan influence, Indian ideas and philosophies, and a weird, blurred, grey area in the middle where Westerners decided to never leave. Buddhist stupas and Hindu temples are side by side on the street, noodles and thalis side by side on the menus, Nepalese locals running Tibetan art shops.
It’s all there and it all just seems to work. Nepal was fascinating, eye-opening, exciting, welcoming, and an education. A culture like no other and a sacred place which as it seems, requires much more then a week to understand.
Long ago, back at Iraqi-Jewish pop-up restaurant Dar Al Sulh, we had a salad that has since never left our hearts. A salad so sour, so tangy, so lip-pursingly acidic, that we couldn’t help but fall in love. Amba salad looks basic - it’s bulk is just chopped tomatoes, green pepper, cucumbers, and red onion - but it’s dressed in an Iraqi mango pickle known as amba, which cloaks the whole thing in sweet, spicy, sour beauty.
We always wanted to recreate it - after all, we bought the Dar Al Sulh recipe book on the night just for that reason - but one thing held us back just a little. We couldn’t find a jar of amba abso-fucking-lutely anywhere. It had to be this one brand - Aeroplane. We searched high and low, through endless jars of mango pickle imposters, never finding the elusive amba.
Then one fateful day in Satwa, a million cold stores and supermarkets later, we found it. Aeroplane amba. BAMMM!! And not just one jar - the shelf was stacked to brim with them, in messy, dusty piles, on their sides, rolling all over the place! These old jars looked like they hadn’t been touched in years. We grabbed three jars with glee, ignoring the hint of rust on the lids. It was amba salad time.
To make it, just roughly chopped tomatoes, green pepper, cucumbers, red onion, mix with lemon juice, good olive oil and quarter a bottle of amba (with all of dem juices intact). Watch out for those chunks of sour mango - they’ll hurt ya! But you’ll find yourself begging for more.
We’ve been searching for a Vietnamese place here for a while, with little success. It has more of a presence in London; we used to go to our favourite Banh Mi food truck in Dulwich (Viet Van?) or our local Vietnamese restaurant in Camberwell, we had it on a regular basis! It seems that this place, Hanoi, is just about the only Vietnamese offering in Dubai. Vietnamese immigrants, I call out to you!! Bring us your cuisine! But seriously, you can’t even get a Banh Mi over here!?? Wassup guys?
Hanoi is located in the never-ending life-sucking cluster fuck (literally) that is JLT. Endless rows of concrete - like a maze, makes it very hard to find anything here and often doesn’t make for the best atmosphere. And yet it’s weirdly home to a ton of great restaurants, including our recent Burmese fave Innlay Asia.
We ordered crispy quail to start. They were tiny, fiddly things, hard to avoid all the bones, but the little bits of meat that you could get were dark and juicy, almost like duck meat. They came with a weirdly sweet dip that didn’t gel at all, but luckily there’s plenty of other sauce options on the table. And a TON of fresh coriander!! That stuff is like crack to me, so you’ve got me there, Hanoi.
Spicy chicken wings weren’t really spicy, just topped with a yummy pile of crispy fried onions, chopped spring onions, green chillis, and a mini mountain of salt. So of course they were tasty, but still not the greatest chicken wings ever. Nicely crispy though, the skin was great! They came out whole, poking us right in the eyes, all legs akimbo.
Beef brisket pho could have done with more flavour. It was as slurpily comforting to me as any noodle soup, and we jazzed up the clear broth with some chilli sauce and fish sauce, but still it lacked oomph.
Hanoi special bun - with prawns, chicken and beef, salad, cold vermicelli noodles, roasted peanuts, peanut dipping sauce and a fishy-chilli dressing. This was probably the tastiest dish of the lot. Something lacked though, I wanted more flavour, more zing!
It’s not that Hanoi’s food wasn’t pleasant, but it just felt like they were holding back, tip-toeing around their flavours to ensure the mass approval is met. It’s frustrating sometimes when restaurants in Dubai (or anywhere) do this.
It’s only when you venture into the older parts of town that this I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude exists and restaurants are more inclined to make dishes the way they are meant to be. That said, Hanoi is a cute little place with a lot of character and great service - maybe we can just do with asking them to turn up the heat a little next time, turn it up to 11, baby!
Words by Kamal
The first I had heard about Zagol was from a man called Johnny who visited the shop I work at. He told me that he runs a music therapy program called ‘Johnny’s Magical Music Tour’ and that he has travelled the world on his magical tour, sampling different ethnic cuisines along the way. Ethnic foods you say, tell us more Johneh! We ended up talking extensively about the different cuisines one can stumble upon in Dubai, and how one place in particular had struck a chord with him - that place was Zagol.
He encouraged me to go, telling me that this Ethiopian joint is so small and cosy, you feel like you’re in someone’s living room and that the food they serve is both authentic and delicious. The closest food I’ve had to Ethiopian was back when I was living in London. A 10 minute walk from my house in Brixton was a Eritrean restaurant called Asmara that I used to visit regularly. Eritrean food is quite similar to Ethiopian, in that they both adorn their food on a sponge-like sour flatbread called injera, layering many different wet and dry samplers which you mix and match, scooping it all up with the bread. We were suddenly getting really excited to try this place out, that very weekend we go for it!
Johnny had made me a little map on a piece of tissue on how to find the place and it turned out to be much needed, this place is hard to find! We searched far and wide in the little roads tucked away behind various hotels in Burjuman until finally finding it after about a half hour search.
As you open the door you are greeted into a small room with just four woven wicker tables - known as mesabs, clusters of wooden cushioned stools, and against the wall cushioned seating. The walls decorated with various woven baskets, traditional ornaments, clothes, shoes, and even kitchen equipment. It feels more homey than tacky though, and the embroidered fabrics of all colours add a real comforting touch.
On the table opposite us sits a pimp and his two associates, one of which on occasion gets up to expose the biggest booty I have ever laid eyes on. Next to them, a group of old men drinking strong coffee and probably talking politics, and behind them three friends chatting over shared food and laughter. The whole environment is felt; it feels like we have been transported all the way to Addis Ababa and it was this very moment that I remembered the possibilities of food creating a strong cultural impact.
We picked up the menu only to be confronted by an ancient language completely foreign to us. We did the logical and took the waitress’ suggestions to get the ‘Zagol Special’ platter, with a dry fried beef dish on the side. We kind of had no idea what was going to come out to us but we liked the anticipation and had full trust that it would be amazing.
While we wait for the food, our ears are being delighted to the grand sounds of Ethiopian music being played quietly from the small TV above the counter, switched on is a music channel. Now I’m a big fan of Ethiopian music, particularly the jazz; legendary masters like Malatu Ashtake and Girma Bèyènè were a gateway into the music for me and it’s a journey I have continued since.
While rummaging through the overwhelmingly brilliant website Awesome Tapes from Africa I’ve stumbled upon countless numbers of rare Ethiopian music depicting repetitive beats, hypnotic melodies dragging you back and forth and the beautiful, strong, wailing voices of singers carrying on the spirit of their ancestors. Though the music is being played quietly in the background, it’s function is certain, as a homage to the restaurant’s identity - no Ke$ha here fella’s, just good old fashioned Ethio-jazz.
The food comes out in a large tray placed onto our perfectly sized table, the tray covered in a huge pile of injera, and with various dishes dolloped on top around the platter, with rolled up injera interspersed between to rip up and scoop the goop with. What a beauty!
The various stews piled onto the injera platter include doro wat – chicken in a buttery, spicy sauce with a whole boiled egg; lamb tibs – a similarly comforting pile of warm, saucy meat, heavy on the ginger and peanut oil; minchat – homey stewed beef in a thick gravy of cardamom, turmeric, peppers and garlic. A sour dollop of iab, a close relative of cottage cheese, sits in the middle, bringing a welcome element of sharp acidity. The dried beef dish, served in a clay bowl with onions, tomatoes, and peppers, turns out to be the best of the lot. We soon found ourselves scavenging for those juicy little nuggets of hot, salty fat still attached.
The natural way to eat Ethiopian food is communally, in fact there is no other way. There is no concept of ordering a meal all to yourself. You order for the table, for your friends. You share everything. And when you eat like this, you realise what a sad thing it really is, that western tradition of the lone plate of food, fiercely protected from invaders. That tradition of sitting so formally opposite and separate from your fellow diners, alone with your meal, rather than sharing the food experience all together.
Now something I have to mention is that the team here is tiny, theres like 5 people who work here in total and only one host/server/phone hotline who many refer to as the ‘mother’. This all means that service is going to take a long time. Not that it matters though. Time goes by gently and slowly here; the atmosphere drags you down into a strong sense of calm. You watch everyone around you, take in the incense from afar, and patiently wait for your meal.
The meal is finished with an ordering of Ethiopian coffee, an experience that I would suggest going to Zagol solely for. Coffee plays a fundamental role in Ethiopia, a staple to everyday life. Green coffee beans are roasted upon coal lit flames where they are then to be ground labour-intensively through a wooden pestle and mortar. The way it is served is the same as how it has been through the ages.
In what is called the coffee ceremony, thick black coffee is served along a tray containing burning incense called dabqaad. As the scents waft through the air, deep into your nostrils, you get two sensations as you drink your coffee: smell and taste. It’s an overwhelming experience, but an enjoyable one – conjuring up all kinds of images while you drink. The coffee, of course, tastes incredible.
It is often said that life on earth started in Ethiopia, the very idea bringing a great deal of ancestral and sacred imagery to mind. Finding a place like Zagol is as refreshing as it is enlightening. It’s the whole package - the full experience of senses; from taste and sound to vision and scent. Through the genuine environment they have created, I have been submerged into an education of foreign customs and explorative knowledge. I learned more about Ethiopia in this one outing then I have in my whole life, and I think that justifies what an eatery should strive for.
We often come across places like this. A restaurant on the inside, with a counter opening out onto the street where you can order chaat. Puranmal is in Bur Dubai, just around the corner from the ridiculous Arabian Courtyard Hotel. I always wonder - who are the sort of people who come to Dubai and stay in a hotel like this?? Time travelers from the 70s when a place like this would have been the peak of glamour? It is a mystery.
There’s just a small chaat menu here, and a little confusion as you have to go inside to order, then take the receipt outside to the counter to collect your dish. The guy inside quickly piles it all on a little metal bowl for you, and pushes it across the counter towards you. You shovel it quickly in your mouth, then move on into the night.
We had their speciality, mirchi wada chaat, which was basically a whole green chilli pepper, covered in a potato based batter of sorts, and deep fried (I think). These are chopped up into bitesize chunks, and covered in the usual chaat accompaniments. And much like Radio Mirchi… “It’s Hot!!!” That was when the revelation dawned on us - mirchi translates to chilli. It’s all so clear now!
I recently took my first steps towards old age, by taking up gardening. Not that we have an actual garden - this is balcony gardening I’m talking about! One of the things I’ve planted is thyme. Let’s hope it survives, because I bloody love the stuff, and can’t stop going outside to nestle my face in its citrussy scent.
This Spanish-inspired stew was one of the first recipes I grabbed a snip of thyme for. It’s beautifully simple really, in that brilliant typically Spanish way of combining just a few fresh ingredients in the right way, and bringing them to life. I’m imagining a hundred seaside fishing villages, all with their own version of this squid stew, rarely changed over the generations.
To start with, we just made a basic tomato sauce, by frying diced onions and garlic, then adding a combination of fresh tomatoes (peeled and de-seeded, I’m learning that this extra step is well worth the effort for a silky sauce), and a carton of tomato sauce. Lots of fresh thyme and lemon juice is a must. There’s just a little chilli for heat, some smoked paprika for sweet depth, and capers, pounded into a semi-paste before adding, give the sauce extra salty-sour tang, complimenting that seafood kick. Once the sauce was on a gentle simmer, we dropped in the chopped fresh squid, covered, and ran away.
After simmering everything together for nearly two hours, the taste of this stew is something else. The squid itself is buttery soft, yet meaty, and the fishy flavour has oozed out into the very essence of the warm tomato sauce.
Thick, crusty toasted bread is the best accompaniment for such a rustic stew. Dunk it, pile up some tentacles, and sop up all that subtly spicy sauce.
Partway down 2nd December Street, opposite a pastel pink-hued hospital, lies Firas Sweets. It’s a street with such wide, palm tree-dotted pavements, and such retro architecture, that despite the grey, rainy day, parts of it feel more like 1970’s Miami than Dubai.
That is, until you spot shops like Firas Sweets. Does it get any more Arabic than a place like this? Behind the counter, vast pans hold squidgy, sugary pastries being gently warmed, ready and waiting for greedy hands and mouths. Knafeh is what we came for. A puzzlingly bright orange confection, knafeh is a Levantine dish that comes in a thousand varieties, all fiercely contested as the original and the best.
Well, whether you’re eating Jordanian, Israeli, or Lebanese knafeh, certain things remain the same. There’s the ultra-gooey, super-stretchy creamy cheese base, the crisp orange (food dyed) pastry, and oodles of sugar syrup binding it all together in one big happy marriage of sweet, savoury, crunch, and chew. Crushed green pistachios were an optional topping that we couldn’t refuse.
At the time of eating though, that neon orange topping was still a mystery to us. We argued over what it could be made of - carrots, thought Kamal, optimistically deluding himself a vegetable could be involved. Spun sugar, I suggested. It tastes like Weetabix! Said our friend Amy. None of us were right. The pastry topping is made by crumbling a type of thin, crispy noodle, similar to phyllo.
You need to eat knafeh while it’s hot, so the cheese is fully gooey, with maximum stretching capabilities. Once it’s solidified, the fun’s gone. So get in there fast. The knafeh here at Firas Sweets did the trick, but it wasn’t the best we’ve had. It probably could have done with a bit more sugar syrup, and with being served a bit hotter. If anyone has any Dubai knafeh tips, let us know!
This is our go-to breakfast on a Saturday morning when we’re feeling less than fresh. Once you’ve got this juicy bap in your belly, everything feels like it might just be alright after all. Sure, you look a little greasy, you’ve got last night’s mascara crumbling down your cheek, your head might just explode any second… but this saucy, cheesy, toasty, eggy roll gives you the fuel to think, yeah, I can take on the day! I can do this!
To make this, just get a ton of butter, and melt it in a frying pan on medium heat. Put the baps in face down, to get them crispy and golden. Fry your egg, dropping a load of grated cheese (extra mature vintage cheddar, baby) on it halfway through cooking. By the end, it will be melty and gorgeous. But make sure you keep the yolk runny, this is bloody essential.
Spread bulgogi on both sides of your bap - don’t use ketchup unless you are an absolutely boring loser. Sweet and spicy bulgogi (a fruity Korean barbecue sauce) is what you want here, what you NEED here. Put in your egg, and top it with salt, pepper, and sliced spring onions. Stuff it in your mouth and try not to get yolk all down your face like I always do.