But it’s easy to gaze at the city’s glittering skyline and miss the details of how its people move through this fast-paced metropolis. It was a desire to introduce visitors to a side of Dubai they didn’t necessarily expect that inspired Arva Ahmed several years ago to begin offering culinary tours through her company, Frying Pan Adventures.
Having tasted her way through hole-in-the-wall eateries in the United States and inspired by the multicultural culinary landscape of New York, Ahmed returned to her hometown of Dubai after having spent nearly a decade in America studying and working in finance. “New York introduced me to Vietnamese, Sri Lankan and Afghani foods, from countries closer to us here in Dubai than they are to New York. But there I was, my eyes now open to this whole new world of food culture,” Ahmed says.
Returning to Dubai, she brought with her a near obsession with food and a desire to explore the city’s sub-cultures through their culinary traditions. “I found myself walking the streets to rediscover the city I thought I knew, through food, and finding that it had grown to so much more,” she says.
At the time, Dubai was carving out its own identity as a contemporary, high-end international culinary destination, having welcomed celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver, Nobu Matsuhisa and Michelin-starred Pierre Gagnaire of Choix Patisserie and Restaurant at the InterContinental Dubai Festival City.
However, restaurants serving authentic Emirati dishes such as Al Fanar Restaurant and Café in Dubai Festival City, were still rare. “I found myself asking: Why are we forgetting about the cuisines of the Middle East?” Ahmed says. “Why should we wait for them to become fashionable elsewhere and then marketed to us?
Frying Pan Adventures, according to Ahmad, became the first company in Dubai to offer culturally immersive food tours. Every member of its six-member core is an insider — either raised in Dubai or with a deep connection to the city, including co-founder and Ahmed’s sister, Farida. They lead participants far beyond the familiar Dubai into the busy backstreets and noisy souks of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, including the old Textile Souk, Meena Bazaar, Al Rigga and Naif.
It’s through sampling succulent kebabs, Iranian pistachio-topped ice cream and crispy South Indian dosas (thin pancakes), often in humble, family-run restaurants, that visitors begin to appreciate the city’s unique socio-cultural fabric. The role of cuisine in sculpting the overall cultural identity of a nation can shed insights into understanding the overall story of a people, their heritage and history. “Dubai, now plays the role that cities like Samarkand in Uzbekistan once played in the confluence of cultures with the coming together of Chinese, Arab, Indian and Persian traders,” Ahmed says.
Her passion for the history of food requires delving into the region’s food literature dating back to the 10th century to ensure the most accurate information. “Essentially, Dubai is at a crossroads of the Middle East, Indian subcontinent and North Africa. Some of the oldest recipes in the region came out of Mesopotamia, which is modern-day Iraq, and weren’t even written on paper, but on clay tablets. That wealth of history must be preserved.”
It isn’t just outsiders who are drawn to this history — her clientele includes expats who have lived in Dubai for years but have never ventured into these parts. “Often our guests are impressed by how open and welcoming these communities are,” Ahmed says. “I tell them this is exactly how Dubai feels, at least the one I grew up in. These old, mellow neighborhoods have something unique to offer.”
Frying Pan Adventures operates with like-minded partners such as Gulf Photo Plus, a local photography education resource. Together, they offer food and photography walks under the Unseen Trails initiative.
The Old Dubai Iftar Walk, held during Ramadan, allows participants to experience Iftar traditions and join the locals as they break the fast after the evening prayer. But it takes a certain empathy to introduce travelers to such intimate experiences without it becoming intrusive or uncomfortable for those involved. “We encourage guests to approach and greet people with ‘As-Salaam Aaleikum’ (Peace Be Unto You),” Ahmed says. “To know their story, be respectful and considerate when photographing them by always seeking permission.”
Another offering, the Dubai Desert Conservation Trail takes guests out of the heart of Dubai for an early morning picnic breakfast and an introduction to falconry, an important legacy of the UAE’s heritage. “It’s a more rejuvenating way to experience the desert at 5 a.m. rather than in the night when you can’t really see the desert at all,” she explains.
With storytelling as the foundation of her business, Ahmed also shares tales of the cuisines of the region through a biweekly podcast called Frying Pan Diaries. “Through our work, we want to project this idea globally that in Dubai, you can experience the food cultures of the old world. We want to play an active role in shaping Dubai’s role as a food mecca of the region,” she says.
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