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
Phone: +971-4-222-9900

Author: InaFryingPan

With a family legacy of ingenious cooks, a nutritionist and chef-extraordinaire mother, and a father who introduced me to steak and caviar when I could barely reach the table, I had no choice but to acquire a keen awareness of food during my childhood years in Dubai. But it was only after I found myself on a college campus in Philadelphia – far away from home, too cheap as a student to spend on anything other than pizza, and with dorm rooms that had little rat-holes of kitchens if they even had them at all – when I developed a heightened appreciation of food. An appreciation of food that I once ate every night at the dinner table in Dubai, but that was now an entire ocean away. I lusted for the culinary treasures that lay outside the stale walls of my college dining hall, hijacked friends’ kitchens to try my hand at something, anything , remotely edible, and greedily raided different websites in search of highly-rated restaurants. With my move to New York to work for a consulting firm that secretly harbored self-professed foodies, my appreciation transformed into a passion, an addicition. I felt like everyone around me in New York was talking about food: where to get the best cupcakes, pizza slices, banh mi, kati rolls, pho, fried chicken, and every other food item out there that is just a plain old dish in some part of the world, but that’s become hyped to unforeseen proportions in New York. What fuelled my addiction over time was travel to different cities, both for work and play, which gave me unfettered access to the culinary havens of not only New York, but also of DC, Virginia, Chicago, Houston, Vegas, Austin, Seattle and even a little city called Bentonville (Arkansas!). After 9 years away from home, I’ve finally taken the leap to come back to Dubai – with not just an awareness, but genuine appreciation and passionate addiction for what I’d taken for granted as a child. Mom, I’m back to reclaim my seat at your dinner table, and to rediscover this city with its ever-expanding menu of international flavors.

15 thoughts on “Hawawashawhaaat??!

  1. Kulsum says:

    ha I love Egyptian food and even though i have spend 3 yrs with my colleague at work I still can’t digest the fact that HOW much carbs he eats. Its all about carbs for Egyptians! Oh and Pigeon? My dad is big fan. He used to get pigeon quite often while we were growing up and we siblings used to be disgusted at the thought of it.

  2. Ninu says:

    That sujuk is killing me…so is that pigeon… But in a totally different way.. The moment I read you ordered pigeon I thought woohoo next in my list pigeon , then I saw the pic and thought hmmmmm that looks a lil too puny and a little too crackly… Like the bones look crunchy…or maybe it’s just in my head cause it’s pigeon and I’m thinking its puny I could crunch my way thru it… Ugh..ok anyway and then I read ur review …sigh poor pigeon. Te hawawashey made me think of that song hayeeeeyashyyyyy from badmaashncompany…fear not I am not one of those maniacs who know the tunes to ever lame Hindi movie that’s ever been made… Just happened to see the movie on tv the other day..blame it on the kid from zombie land who never ever sleeps. Anyhooooooo it looks and sounds suspiciously like arayes …. Is it so ?
    Staying tuned… : )

    1. InaFryingPan says:

      @Kulsum – Carb = Comfort. ’nuff said. ;)

      @Rona – thank you!

      @Ninu – hahaha….I don’t even know what part of your comment to respond to! Here’s an attempt…:
      Noooo, don’t die…the puny pigeon ain’t worth it…what way?…ahhhh THAT way, spot on, it was super crackly…crunchy as hell, but me want meat :(….you can absolutely crunch your way through said puny pigeon, but it’s somewhat of a tasteless anticlimactic crunch…POOR POOR PIGEON. Never heard the song (which suddenly seems like a good thing?!)…not judging you, nope, not I, there are worse crimes than being a bollywood addict…save yourself the lame music trauma and switch to Food Network, it’s the only legit channel as far as I’m concerned…gotchya, blamed it on bawling baby. done. …yep, you read my mind….does taste like arayes, though arayes tends be sandwiched between thinner, floppier bread than this baby…
      Awesome, you’re a rockstar. ;)

  3. Vineet Pabreja says:

    I am so going back for that fattaa. It was awesome.

  4. Sally says:

    Shame the pigeon was disappointing because I was jumping up and down with delight at this point when reading. Fabulous post and yet another place you have made me want to visit. Supposed to be on a meat-free month (as agreed with my vegetarian daughter who is showing food nazi tendencies in her policing) so might have to wait until December. Must have another camera lesson from you – your pics are fantastic.

  5. ginger and scotch says:

    As long as the pigeons were raised for the sole purpose of feeding legions of the hungry, I’m okay with eating it. Because the ones on the street eat god-knows-what. Wait, I have just described how they serve rat in china (bred for eating, I mean, not caught on the street).

    1. InaFryingPan says:

      @Vineet Pabreja – You know my number, CALL ME when the urge hits. Takes two to finish that bowl.

      @Sally – thanks for the photo love! I think the other pigeon variants on the menu, the Egyptian royal pigeon or pigeons with rice, might be the ones with true plump pigeon potential. Meat-free month sounds pretty brutal…the thought of it makes me shudder….poor you :(

      @ginger and scotch – WREEEETCH. I take puny pigeon over rat any day. wretch wretch wretch
      (sorry to you rat lovers out there, but no rat is ever gracing my dinner plate…)

  6. accordingtodina says:

    Pigeon meat? Hats off to u for trying it, even though its famous, i never guessed it was a delicacy wid egyptians!!! another lovely funny post!loved the background crash!!! :D

  7. Saleem says:

    Stuffed pigeons is a delicacy of egyptians food – it is stuffed and backed and is served in aluminum foil. Next time let us all go and try that. Well written article, keep it up

  8. farwin says:

    Finally got to read your post and love every word of it.Thanks for taking the bullets for us.When my hubby asks me where to dine I’m like let’s browse the frying pan.. :)

  9. chefandsteward says:

    HAHAHAHA! I think you and Lij will have a fantastic time ordering together. You both have that wild sense of adventure. He always picks the last thing I would order and blows me over everytime. But yes, sometimes it is a miss… like in almost all restaurants.. but the ride certainly makes up for it!

    1. InaFryingPan says:

      @accordingtodina – thank you! did you know that pigeon meat is also a favorite of the Telenganas in Hyderabad…I need to find me a good plate of pigeons without getting my tummy shot for it.

      @Saleem – that’s exactly what I had in mind, after I would heard you describe the first time you tried it. I need to find the Arabic word for that birdy deliciousness, not winging it russian roulette style again if I visit this resto a second time…

      @farwin – awwwwwwwwwww. See what I mean, SO WORTH it to take bullets for you guys, so totally worth it!

      @chefandsteward – really? then you must bring him to one of our dinners, always need more people who’re ready to face the firing line at the dinner table!

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