Dubai’s flourishing international status as an expat – not to mention tourist – hotspot means that healthy eating is on the rise, with vegetarian restaurants, vegan cafés, organic food stores and healthy food delivery services operating across the city. If you are thinking of moving to Dubai, here are some tips to help you maintain a healthy, balanced diet.
Popular types of food and drink
Dubai’s exciting multicultural food scene reflects the fact that the majority of the country’s population is made up of expats from India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, the UK, the US, China, Canada and more. Emirati cuisine typically consists of staples such as dates, fish, camel, “al jabab” (a type of flatbread), and rice-based dishes like “maqluba” and “shuwaa” – which offer plenty of protein, fiber and carbohydrates. However, expats might want to accompany these with fresh vegetables, salad and fruit for a more balanced diet. Fruit and veg markets, organic food stores and large supermarkets stock both regionally grown and international produce.
A classic Emirati dish that expats can try is “ryoog yerana”, which is a date omelet served with bread and “haleed kastar” (a drink made with custard and red seeds). Another delicacy is camel stuffed with eggs and spices, as well as chicken, fish or lamb.
Coffee is integral to Arab culture, and camel milk cappuccinos are popular with locals, but healthier drinks include “jellab” (made from grape molasses, rose water, pine nuts and raisins) and “tamar hindi” (which is tamarind, water, sugar and lemon). Arabic coffee is served in strong, short measures and often accompanied by sweet dates.
Arab eating customs and habits
In Dubai, as in the whole of the UAE, eating is a social event. The culture is founded on principles of hospitality and charity. As such, meals are generally long, and are fairly formal in nature. Expats may like to take their lead from locals in terms of appropriate dinner dress, which could mean choosing to adopt traditional Emirati dress or more formal Western attire. While some food is eaten using a knife and fork, some is eaten with the right hand (the left hand is never used, as it is considered unclean, and is often not even placed on the table). Expats may like to keep their feet on the floor while dining, rather than crossing their legs, as showing the soles of your feet or shoes is highly offensive in Islamic cultures.
Food and drink events and festivals
The Dubai Food Festival is an annual destination event for a lot of culinary enthusiasts, with celebrity chefs and events showcasing the best that Dubai has to offer, and celebrating the city’s gastronomic growth. Expats can try both authentic Emirati cuisine and international dishes. This can also be a good opportunity for expats to explore the local culinary scene and discover healthy new dishes.
Arab cooking styles and ingredients
Traditional Emirati cuisine consists of a lot of stews served with rice. The meat and vegetables are usually cooked in a pot (with spices like saffron, turmeric, cardamom and thyme used to flavor the food). Expats may find the food to have an underlying sweetness and fragrant aroma that they are not used to in Western food. Dessert usually consists of food that has been deep-fried and glazed with honey or syrup, and some western palates can find this overly sweet or perhaps a little greasier than western styles of dessert.
In terms of the cost of eating, Dubai is a city of two halves. Expats can dine at lavish Arab restaurants serving up expensive dishes like pink diamond oysters, or try out hidden street food vendors selling low-cost food such as Pakistani staples and Szechwan specialties.
Another practical consideration is that most Arabs are Muslim, so they do not drink alcohol: as such, expats should refrain from drinking or being intoxicated in public (as part of a healthy diet, alcohol can be consumed in moderation). Also, during Ramadan, Muslims fast during daylight hours, so it is impolite to eat or drink in front of them during these times.
Common issues expats face with food and drink in Dubai
Dubai’s economic development and international status mean that hygiene standards are generally high, so food poisoning is not usually an issue. However, a lot of expats can suffer digestive problems when they first move to Dubai, due to the change in diet.
The large population of English-speaking expats in the city means that you should not have any problem understanding the names and nutritional value of foods or ingredients, as most wrappers and menus are written in both Arabic and English.
Food and drink for expats with health conditions
A lot of dishes and drinks are served with nuts and seeds in Dubai, often without these being listed on the menu, so expats with allergies may want to make sure they take medication with them before entering the country.
Expats with asthma who are moving to Dubai, need to be aware that their condition may be exacerbated by a new diet. Reducing their intake of red meat and dairy products may help alleviate their symptoms. Expats with asthma may also like to have international health insurance in place, and carry the necessary medication, so that they can receive timely medical care. It’s also worth noting that Dubai’s dust storms can whip up sand and other fine particles into the air which may of course affect people with asthma.
Dubai is becoming an international gastronomic hotspot, with dishes from all around the world influencing its cuisine, so expats should be able to stay healthy and enjoy a balanced diet. There are a few customs and traditions to learn before visiting, although the large number of expats living in Dubai means that many native residents will likely make small allowances for newcomers. The country’s status as a global destination offers expats a lot of choice when it comes to cuisine, so there is usually plenty of choice for travelers with special dietary needs or specific tastes.
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