I love walking into ethnic restaurants that transport you miles away to their homeland. Where the menu is a language totally foreign to me. Where there are no menu translations catering to the watered down touristy palate. Where the waiters are from the region and really understand…feel…the food. Those are the signs of authenticity, when you walk into a restaurant and suddenly feel like a foreigner in your own city, like the time I walked into a Chinese restaurant in International City – with the menu written in three Asian languages, none of which were English. You just know you’d be tasting undiluted local flavour there.
You’ve also got to have the balls to order off a menu that you don’t really understand. It’s like Russian Roulette. Yummy yummy yummy BANG.
Over the past few days, I went to two African places – one Egyptian, one Ethiopian – that shoved a menu in front of me that I could barely understand. I’ll talk about the Ethiopian place in my next post [Ninu – stay tuned!], but here’s what happened at the Egyptian place.
Over two years ago, Grand Abu Shakra was listed on a Dubai street food article by a publication-that-shall-not-be-named. Two years later, I’m sitting here questioning whether there was a truckload of banned sniffable substances that whizzed past the place where that article was written.…because nothing about the place looked like a little roadside stall. Nothing that would, at least by wikipedia’s definition of street foods, makes Grand Abu Shakra eligible to be a street food vendor. In fact, I almost felt underdressed in my flip flops.
Street vendor or not, what had me bounding up to the restaurant in excitement was the koshari [carby Egyptian comfort food that I’d previously fallen in love with here] and falafels that aforementioned nameless-article had so eloquently described. There would have been no need to even glance at the menu, because I was going to follow the article like an obedient little puppy…until the server dropped the bomb on me. No koshari. No falafels. Uh oh...Russian Roulette time.
The easier thing to do would have been to order all the usual kababs off the menu – shish tawook and other grills that you can get in every second restaurant in Dubai. But somehow, I sadistically enjoy going with the unknown and having the gun put to my head. I wanted the alien sounding dishes that were true to Egyptian culture. And if it meant that I had to resort to a mix of sign language and grunts with the Arabic-speaking server until we could sift out all the traditional Egyptian foods from the menu, well then, so be it.
Here’s the line-up after my sign-grunt banter with the server. Egyptian fatta. This was my compromise to not getting carb-loaded koshari on the table:
You think that’s just plain white rice with some tomato sauce lashed up top? I did too, and I almost yawned at it in boredom…until a bite later...rice…smokey sweet tomato sauce…and here's the buried treasure, a whole hidden bed of Arabic bread croutons drenched in more tomato sauce. ALL HAIL THE CARB-LOVING EGYPTIANS.
You can’t see those croutons crouching silently at the bottom, but trust me, they’re there and there freakishly good.
Sujuk with pomegranate. I ordered it because I’m nuts about pomegranate, and the waiter confirmed that there was meat in there. According to the laws of yumminess, meat + pomegranate = uber yummy. And uber yummy is exactly what these baby sausages bobbing about in sweet-sour pomegranate juices were…
Oh, before I forget, special mention to the complimentary pickles on the table. Very different from what you get at Lebanese restaurants – way more pickly pizzazz going on in this little bowl right here.
Back to the line-up. Hawawashy. Even though this one sounds like the most alien of the lot, it was a lot less of a risk to order. I had a pretty edible-looking photo of it in the menu to go by.
Minced meat, smacked between Arabic bread that seemed like it had been smeared with tons of buttery garlic sauce on the insides. Simple, but lethally addictive sandwich that you'd keep pecking at and pecking at and pecking at until…you realize you’ve eaten it all and…there’s just a sad empty sandwichless plate looking back at you [sad wistful eyes].
And finally, the only dish we could actually full well understand, but that was the most exhilaratingly adventurous of the lot: Pigeons. Somehow, while writing this out, I suddenly feel harsh beady eyes staring at me: how heartless are you? how could you eat those tiny little chirpy things that flit outside my window every morning?
I’m not getting into that argument right now. If I did, I’d have to start justifying every morsel of chicken or beef or veal or who knows whatnot I dig into. But honestly, even the offended out there, haven’t you ever fantasized about blackbirds baked in a pie since nursery? Or all those old English tales of feasts with partridges stuffed with things that I don’t quite remember but that have forever framed mouth-watering images in my mind?
So that’s what we were all imagining. Stuffed little pigeons, plump with something yummy and wrapped up in little roasted bundles, making us feel like the royalty of imperialistic England.
Instead, this is what we got.
[Hear the crack in the background...no, that's not the sound of my heart breaking at these pathetic-looking gaunt pieces of pigeon...it's the roulette rifle going off. yummy yummy super yummy...BANG.]
Parched pieces of pigeons that must have been on some sort of crazy fad diet regime before they reached my plate. My pigeon fantasies were shattered to the ground.
Look at that poor little emaciated pigeon that gave up its life for a mere meatless nibble before it had to be caste aside. WEEP. And this was the dish that we were most anticipating, the one that was meant to be the crowning glory of our attempt at ordering an authentic Egyptian dinner. Maybe we should have ordered the royal pigeons - or pigeons and rice - or who knows what because Dear Darling Server Who Seems to Have Disappeared on Us the Second the Food Reached the Table: I CAN'T UNDERSTAND A WORD YOU'RE SAYING!
For all the yummies that preceeded the pigeon, the fatal BANG was taken in good spirit. Frankly, I’ll happily take the occasional bullet for all you peeps out there who actually bother to stop by my blog. That, and more...Russian roulette ain't over yet. More yummies and more bullets in my next post on...Ethiopian food.
(Special thanks to @vineetpabreja and my little cousin foodies for taking the bullet with me at Grand Abu Shakra.)
Grand Abu Shakra
Al Maktoum Street, Next to Al Khaleej Palace