I hesitate before booking Arva’s North African Food Safari because it’s in the evening and I can’t justify disrupting 3 children’s night-time routine just so I can eat for curiosity’s sake. Luckily for me, my husband has no such qualms and books the tour for me. (That’s one of the reasons I picked him- he may not be a house husband and he’s probably only changed 30 diapers in the 4 years and three children we’ve had together but he has a knack of recognizing that critical point where I need to be given a nudge or more likely a shove).
I meet the group in the bachelor section of Deira. An odd collection of restaurants with garish signs which are interspersed at regular intervals by bustling barber shops. I feel like the only woman on earth, circling the restaurant waiting for the group to appear.
Then I see the blur of movement that are Arva’s arms as she excitedly explains something to the two women in sensible walking shoes flanking her, oblivious to their surroundings as she draws them in with countless anecdotes.
We settle down to our first tasting. Crunchy brik stuffed with tuna and an egg, its yolk oozing out brightly as we cut into it. While we eat, she hands out her iPad so we can watch a video of a woman making warka pastry.
The tour is 350 AED (€73) for 4 hours. I was expecting an informal evening, where Arva would show us her places and we would chat. Instead it’s an extremely well-organized tour. We are given a branded Frying Pan Adventures bottle cooler, wet wipes and a pamphlet of illustrated vocabulary words that we encounter during our eating adventure. It doesn’t stop there, Arva peppers all her explanations of food with relevant historical facts.
At the Egyptian restaurant Al Amoor over a plate of fava falafel and koshari one of the women in the tour turns around and asks me if I am ok because I am very quiet. I get even quieter. Normally you can’t shut me up, I interrupt frequently and rarely realize in time to apologise but around Arva there is so much to learn that I even – wait for it – take out a pen and paper to jot down some notes.
At Tajeen Alfassi she asks to smell the Ras El Hanout and the men that work there start smiling. “They will always smile when you say Ras El Hanout because it used to contain Spanish Fly.” There is a murmur of laughter from the group. I open up my notebook and jot down Spanish Fly?. (It’s an aphrodisiac)
We try Omani Halwa which is a rose scented sweet not unlike the gunge that sticks to your teeth after eating Jelly Beans. At first I think, “No.” but it’s surprisingly moreish. “They eat it for weddings and funerals.” Arva tells us. I eat it for dessert the next day with yogurt and the contrast of sweet room temperature stickiness with the cold sour yogurt – heaven – two better bedfellows never existed.
At Al Habasha, an Ethiopian restaurant, I eat injera bread for the first time. It looks like tripe, smells like rye and tastes like rubbery over-fermented ayran. I use it to chase a hard-boiled egg through the red slush of the berbere spiced doro watt stew.
Eating with Arva has made me want to move to Dubai. Now. So I can eat my way through the thousands of ethnic restaurants that are making incredible exotic food like it’s no big deal and charging pennies for it. Arva succinctly sums it up “My mother was in Iraq and I asked her to please make sure to eat Maskoof (An Iraqi dish I wrote about here). When she came back she said ‘I’m sorry it was too dangerous Arva’. While here in Dubai, I am 5 minutes away from a Maskoof restaurant!” She exclaims!
For our last stop, a stop I nearly skip because Layla is refusing to go to sleep until I get back, I eat feteer mshaltet It’s hot and chewy with crusty black bits. Our version is filled with a glistening salty cream cheese, drizzled with honey and showered with icing sugar. It’s an ambrosial mix of sweet and savoury, it embodies everything that is best about street food and junk food. I eat it over the gutter, making sure it doesn’t drip onto my sandals and think how I almost missed what has turned out the best thing I have done in Dubai.
She also writes a food column for The National newspaper.
Also on the tour was Minnah of the blog A Naked Plate, a Finnish woman who lives in Dubai.