Hospitality and generosity are two key ingredients when it comes to cooking in the Arabian Gulf. For generations, dining has been seen as a communal celebration, with food being shared with a great deal of warmth over a dinner table or, in the early days, beneath the cover of Bedouin tents under a blanket of stars. Families, friends, groups and solo travellers can still experience old-world generosity, connection and authentic food at Abu Dhabi’s many restaurants, streetside cafes, heritage desert camps, and traditional dhows (wooden boats).
Being a key historical coastal trading post, there is always fresh produce available in the city.
While myriad supermarkets stock food from around the world, passionate foodies love to get up early and head to the Mina Fish Market, an impressive, clean market home to the many edible treasures of the sea.
When shopping for seafood, it is encouraged to choose fish wisely to assist with sustainable fishing practises in the area. For an authentic fresh fruit and vegetable shopping experience, head to Mina Fruit and Vegetable Souk, a vibrant and aromatic market that sees sellers arranging their beautiful produce outside their shops. Even if you’re not buying, Abu Dhabi’s markets present opportunities for some great photos.
Usually consisting of a platter, traditional meals often showcase meats like lamb or chicken as separate dishes, with aromatic rice accompanied by fresh, occasionally spiced seasonal vegetables served alongside. Fresh salads and a platter of mezze – a selection of four or five appetiser dishes to share – are normally served with dinner. Sweet desserts, such as Baklava, and a traditional Arabic coffee will round off the meal. You are also able to eat camel, a rich yet delicious meat, in some restaurants. For something different, Emirates Palace’s 24-karat Gold Camel Burger is a treat.
EMIRATI CUISINE AND RESTAURANTS
A reflection of the UAE’s trading heritage, Emirati food is infused with spices and ingredients from throughout Asia and the Middle East. Think cinnamon, saffron, turmeric, nuts, limes and dried fruit.
Emirati dishes are flavourful and aromatic, with some of the most popular dishes including Al Harees, showcasing meat and wheat slow-cooked in a clay oven or pot and served with ghee (clarified butter), and Al Majboos, made by boiling meat in spiced water with dried limes.
Being a coastal city, fish is the star of many local dishes, with Al Madrooba, a mix of salted fish, spices and thick sauce, being one of the most popular. Rice is ever-present and most often served with saffron, nuts and spices. Other traditional Emirati dishes include Deyay Nashef (chicken cooked in a rich, aromatic tomato sauce served with rice or fluffy flatbread), ma Khoboz Wagafi (traditional Emirati bread), Robyan Mashwi (spiced, grilled jumbo shrimp served with rice or flatbread), Saloona Deya ma Khudar (spiced vegetable and meat stew), Aysh Biryani (light rice) and Luqaimat (deep-fried dough balls lathered in date syrup).
You’ll find Emirati cuisine at:
One of the UAE’s first restaurants to serve authentic Emirati cuisine, this eatery is tucked away in the Al Dhafra Tourist Village near Al Mina Fish Market. It serves an array of salads, starters and traditional regional favourites.
Al Dhafra Dinner Cruise
A restaurant set on a traditional dhow, offering great Corniche views, this is a fantastic dinner on the move. Featuring authentic majlis-style seating on the floor of the upper deck, the lower deck seats around 50 people in air-conditioned comfort. Al Dhafra is renowned for serving a great range of local sweets.
Al Fanar Restaurant and Café
This Emirati-themed restaurant and café serves up distinctive, traditional flavours in a nostalgic space. With branches across the emirate, each restaurant boasts unique flavours, including fresh salads, seafood and meats. This is a great place to step back into the UAE’s past. Find Al Fanar at Yas Mall on Yas Island, as well as in other parts of the city.
Dine in true Emirati style at this Barasti-themed dining hall, or on the palm-thatch covered terrace that runs along the restaurant, at Arabian Nights Village, a heritage destination in the desert near Al Ain, the capital’s garden city. Offering visitors a chance to experience the enchanting and timeless beauty of the desert and the rich culture and traditions of Emirati life, here you can choose to eat from dining tables, low sofas, or traditional, cushioned floor seating.
Serving Emirati cuisine for lunch and dinner, this restaurant’s traditionally-themed interior boasts an authentic Emirati kitchen, with a variety of freshly prepared, local dishes on offer.Find Al Mrzab on Airport Road, Al Mushrif.
In the heart of the Al Muneera beachside lifestyle destination at Al Raha Beach, Meylas offers traditional Emirati hospitality, culture and food complemented by nostalgic decor that takes you back to the 1950s. Semolina cans are used as cutlery holders, with a range of gifts such as postcards and totes illustrated by Emirati artists, marbles, dates, lemon and green mango pickles and more, available to purchase. The restaurant’s beautiful sea-facing terrace is a gorgeous place to sit.
This Emirates Palace favourite is Abu Dhabi’s first fine-dining Emirati restaurant. Serving authentic Emirati food, the kitchen is run by an Emirati chef. Mezlai has two floors, a private majlis and an interior reflecting UAE traditions. Find Mezlai at Emirates Palace hotel.
Inspired by UAE heritage, Seven Spices offers authentic local dining incorporating dishes found across the country. Serving traditional Emirati cuisine with a contemporary twist, Seven Spices delivers freshly cooked fare using only the finest ingredients, with each dish being cooked in a time-honoured way. Find Seven Spices on Salam Street, Near Bridgestone Al Masaood.
Meaning ‘grandmother’s house’, this restaurant is inspired by family traditions and hospitality, with an impressive menu of dishes prepared as if they were being cooked for family, friends and neighbours. Set behind the Holiday Inn Abu Dhabi and close to Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre, this restaurant provides a good introduction to the traditional local tastes of Arabia. Find Yadoo’s House on Muroor Street.