Dubai Food, Glorious Food, Memories, Outdoors

Savouring Arabic sweets at Al Samadi

“Two overjoyed kids in a candy store!” that’s what we transformed into as we pushed open the glass door of Al Samadi sweet shop in Deira. Surrounded by trays full of sweet treats in all hues, oozing appetizing aromas, it was overwhelming to make an appropriate choice to begin our sugary adventure. So, we hopped from one end of the store to the other, curiously absorbing each colourful detail of the Middle eastern delicacies on display, asking the patient Filipina shop attendant for their names, toppings and ingredients. This conversation opened a window to the several unique Arabic desserts I had never heard of, let alone tasted.

Now here I have to confess that I have never been a big fan of baklava and kunafa, the most common Arabic desserts laid out in iftar meals and in Middle eastern restaurant menus. But I have enjoyed eating milk based puddings — Umm Ali and Mahalabia. That is why we started our culinary trip at Al Samadi — with the familiar bowl of Mahalabia — only this one was covered generously with sliced pistachios, slivers of almonds, topped with cream and cherry and looked more like the pastry version of Mahalabia.

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Creamy and crunchy, we savoured each spoonful of the milk dessert made by boiling corn starch mixed with flavoured milk. Interestingly the dessert gets its name from a seventh century Arab general called Al Muhallab ibn Abi Sufra . The general was served the milk pudding by his Persian cook and he liked it so much that he named it after himself. It is today a popular dessert in all the Middle Eastern countries. My first memory of eating Mahalabia was in a street shop in Cairo, a much simpler version topped only with powdered cardamom and pistachios.

The bowl of Mahalabia was accompanied by a cream filled Ghraybeh. These melt in the mouth Middle eastern butter cookies are a staple all year around, but at Al Samadi, the shortbread came with a rich filling of cream, making it a mix of crumbly and sweet squishy when eaten. Well-known in the middle east Ghraybeh has a string of variant pronunciations and diverse ingredients — in Iran it is called qurabiye and is made with almond flour, sugar, egg whites, margarine and pistachios. In Morocco it is made with semolina and goes by the name Ghoriba. It is also an equally popular tea time snack and dessert in Syria, Palestine, Turkey and Greece. This Lebanese version was filled with cream, unique to the country called kashta or ashta. Made by boiling milk with a tinge of rose or orange blossom, kashta is a local delicacy and used as a filling for many other desserts. At al Samadi most of the sweets, specially made for Ramadan, were filled with kashta.

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Here they look appetizing as toppings on kunafas and inside qatayefs (the d-shaped folded desserts in the picture). Qatayefs, I discovered, are specially made during Ramadan in many Arab countries. They can have various fillings — including unsalted cheese or an assortment of nuts, are usually fried and coated with sugar syrup or drizzled with powdered sugar.

The kunafa, of course, is more well-known and comes in several shapes and colours. A historic sweet delicacy from the Levant region it is made with  phyllo pastry dough and also with semolina. Layered with cheese, cream and nuts kunafas are soaked in sugar syrup. At Al Samadi there were trays full of kunafas, pictured above is the popular bird’s nest (also called osh al bulbul) kunafa filled with ashta and topped with nuts. For this a stringy version of the kunafa dough is used. And for that bright orange colour confectioners add food dye in the kunafas.

In this sweet paradise the most delicious of all desserts turned out to be the mafruka.

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Very similar to the kunafa the mafruka is a Lebanese dessert made with crushed pistachio dough, clotted cream and semolina. It was buttery soft, moist and heavenly.

A visit to an arabic sweet shop is incomplete without tasting the baklava. So iconic is the baklava to the Middle East that its origin and invention is widely debated and claimed by several nations in the region.

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The crunchy sweet treat is made by layering phyllo pastry dough and chopped nuts, drenched in a sticky sugar syrup. It is typically prepared in large trays and then sliced into different shapes. For the baklava lover Al Samadi has quite a wide range — one of their most popular is the bukaj baklava — it looks like a purse or a parcel (bukaj in Arabic) and is stuffed with pistachios, pine nuts or cashews. The Borma baklava is cylindrical in shape and is made with stringy kunafa dough and nuts. Cashews crushed inside phyllo dough shaped as fingers are called Asabi and chopped pistachios sandwiched between layers of kunafa dough become Basma.

There is quite a staggering variety of Arabic desserts at Al Samadi. There is enough to try one sweet every day of the month, spoken like a true dessert fan. Originally established in Lebanon in 1872 the store today has branches in Ukraine, UK and in the UAE. We hope to come back soon for more luscious times.

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Dubai Food, Glorious Food

Our Culinary Adventures: Emirati, Mexican & Greek

The year started with us trying out various international cuisines. On the first day of 2016 itself we found a fabulous Greek restaurant Elia in our own neighbourhood. Located in The Majestic Hotel in Bur Dubai Elia offers a tranquil Greek inspired setting with dim lights, white furniture and striped blue table-clothes. For starters we ordered Tzatziki — a dip made of garlic, dill and yogurt that was accompanied with a variety of breads. It was followed by the Greek salad, French fries, the Mousaka and the grilled chicken thigh with pasta. Each dish was delicious. We particularly enjoyed the Tzatziki dip and the Greek Salad peppered with custom made olives that we were told are available for sale at the restaurant. The Mousaka reminded me of the time we had our first Mousaka at a tavern in Cyprus.
Unfortunately I don’t have a pic of what we ate. But Elia totally lives up to the traditional authentic food genre. No wonder it has won the 2013, 2014 and 2015 Time Out Dubai Restaurant Award in the category of Best European Restaurant in the fine dining category.

A few days later to celebrate a birthday we went to Mexican joint Maria Bonita Taco Shop and Mexican Grill in Jumeirah. This kitschy colour loaded restaurant has two parrots, lots of large Mexican hats for guests to try and a shop selling Mexican goodies. A Nepali waiter we got chatty with helped us order, and we ended up with plates of enchiladas, fajitas, quesadillas, nuggets and fries for the kids. There were, of course, lots of nachos with spicy sauces that came as starters and a tangy Mexican cola as drinks. The quesadillas is like a stuffed pizza and was amazing. The fajitas came with some thin chapattis and a plate of assorted dips and guacamole. Except the enchiladas we enjoyed all the dishes. The service too was super fast.

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Last weekend we went to the vibrant Boxpark and had our dinner at Logma that offers Emirati dishes. The restaurant disappointingly has no traditional decor but has a lot of seating options. A look at the first page of the menu revealed that it would be an ideal place to try breakfast some day. They have several traditional dishes for breakfast such as Baith Tamat (scrambled eggs with tomato, cumin and herbs), Balaleet (sweet vermicelli with saffron omelette), grilled Halloumi and a traditional platter with several options. We opted for just some Khaleeji fries, a Khameer club sandwich and Machboos chicken.
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The Khaleeji fries were truly unique – crisp with lots of tasty seasoning. The Khameer sandwich was filling and yummy, the Machboos chicken, however, that we tried for the first time was a bit bland for our Indian palette.

We hope to continue exploring the wide range of mouth-watering world cuisines on offer in Dubai 🙂

Dubai Food, Dubai Restaurants, Glorious Food

Malai Ghevar

The months of July and August are monsoon months in India — Sawaan ke mahine as we say in Hindi. Besides the romantic weather that these months bring along there are a wide range of sweet and salty delicacies that one can tuck into. Various parts of India have typical rain weather food. One such monsoon dessert that I love to gorge is Ghevar. Prepared especially in this season it has its origins in Rajasthan where it is made during the Teej festival. As luck would have it we live in Karama, the desi haven for all Dubai residents. Last week this large ghevar piece from Bikanervala, Karama, was polished off in minutes by the three of us.
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Bikanervala in Karama sells three varieties of ghevar — plain, malai and kesar. The base of the ghevar is made of flour and milk, then fried in ghee, topped with cream or malai and nuts. Tastes yumm especially when eaten fresh.