Some of you may have got a whiff of my latest whimsical idea through this blog's facebook page, but if you haven’t, let me tell you that I’ve had MANY moments in the past year where I’ve sat down and thought, God, I wish I could make a life that revolves only around food...not just for play, but for work too. Some form of edible topic is on my mind pretty much 60% of all waking hours of my day. And the remaining 40%, I’m probably out restaurant-hunting for something I’ve pondered over, or digesting something I ingested in the previous 60%. My year-long deep and profound introspection has culminated in an outrageously massive moment of: dayaam, I need to figure out how to get seriously involved in the food industry.
I.e. Pay Me to Eat Somebody.
So I’ve been playing around with a number of ideas, and at some point or another, some poor soul has gotten slammed with a passionately detailed description of how I could possibly make a living out of being a foodie…and then said poor soul would nod sympathetically at my inane idea(s), agreeing that I could indeed make money (because clearly, in a recession, people are SO eager to part with their hard-earned money on discretionary whimsical things)...said soul would agree vehemently that, indeed! you could make a fortune!, so that I could shut up about the idea already and move on to test it with the next unsuspecting victim who hobbles across my path.
So my latest idea is: Food Tours. Food tours of old Dubai…getting people to experience some of the oldest, or most ethnically unique, food experiences that make Dubai the cultural melting pot that it is.
I don’t know whether the idea will work or whether anyone would even be interested in signing up for a three hour tasting marathon around some crazy old part of Dubai…and I'm well aware that during summer, no sane person would drag their feet from one restaurant to the next in the blithering heat, which leaves me only six months of the year to make money on an idea that'd probably not even earn enough to pay my metro fare over to the tour starting point in the first place...but heck, I’m having a BLAST doing the market research for it. It feels pretty awesome to come back home after a long day of poking my face into multiple restaurants and speaking to the owners or sampling food like I’m on a mission – and then punch the productive-sounding ‘Market Research’ stamp all over it. Job satisfaction to the max.
One of my first ‘market research’ stops has been to Rangoli in Meena Bazaar, an age-old Indian – more specifically, from the state of Gujarat – occupant of those tiny cramped alleys next to Cosmos Lane. What excites me about places like Rangoli is that it's a place with history, with culture…without sounding too over-the-top, with family love gushing out through the walls and into your food. These are typically places that have been nurtured by an expat who started off with humble ambitions – like the two farmers who left Porbandar, Gujarat in the 50’s and migrated to Dubai to start one of the first Indian restaurants in town, Maaraj. Soon, Maaraj gave way to Manoranjan, and then later, after Manoranjan shut down, Rangoli followed through in the early 90’s. These are places with family members that have grown up closely involved with the food that reaches your table, and you can sense the…near patriotism…about the dishes that are being recreated to represent their home away from home. They’ve seen Dubai tourism and trade transform over the last two decades, they understand who the regulars are and what they want…how to make an authentic dhokla or stir up a sweet Gujarati kadhi or why there would be civil unrest if they wiped paani puris off the Rangoli menu.
Dhoklas at Rangoli – a Gujarati savoury made of fermented and steamed gram flour batter
After a super-informative restaurant and Meena Bazaar history chat with the owners, I wandered off by myself to try Rangoli’s two most prized menu items – paani puri and the Gujarati buffet. Mind you, the entire menu here is totally vegetarian, reflecting the typical Gujarati diet…but honestly, I DARE you to miss meat during a meal at this restaurant.
Paani puri is one of those snacky things that totally distracts you from the fact that no chunky piece of steak or chilli chicken is going to grace your all-veggie table. It’s one of those interesting experiences that’s more fun to indulge standing up, right near the chaat (aka Indian snacks) counter, looking over the guy who uses the tip of his thumb to deftly crack open a little hole in the deep-fried hollow flour spheres (the ‘puri’), plonks in a mix of moong lentils, chickpeas and boondi (fried baby balls of chickpea flour), spoons in a spicy green watery mix of coriander, mint, tamarind, chilies and the house blend of spices, and then ladles on a final flourish of sweet-sour tamarind chutney.
All that, that entire globe of watery crunchy snack’ums, to be stuffed in your mouth all at once. We're talking about a mega feat that’s a double whammy, partly cause it’s so explosively yummy, and partly because, it’s quite the accomplishment to race the wet-unstable thing to your mouth and shove it all in at once without it splattering all over you somewhere in between.
[On a separate note, I believe that Tea Junction held a paani puri eating competition in town when I was away. Let the winner present him/herself in front of me for a true battle of the ultimate paani-puri face-stuffing lords. Unveil yourself, O Pani Puri Heavyweight Who Won When I Was Not In Town Who Shalt Soon Be Dethroned.]
My paani puris at Rangoli got progressively better…by the time I reached the fourth one on the plate, the paani-puri guy and I had this secret understanding that I preferred more of the tamarind chutney and less of the spicy water. For 7 minutes of my lunch time, we had become a secret team – he was my just-in-time paani puri designer, getting another one ready every time I’d scarfed one down, and I was the patron, showering my love on his work by letting my mouth be the gleeful repository of his watery balloon creations.
With Rangoli’s much loved paani puri’s done and devoured, my next stop was their buffet table.
Can you imagine getting an entire meal for 17 bucks…an entire meal with three curries of your choice and fresh hot rotis and papad and rice and some snacky thing and pickles and dips and dessert and a steel tumbler of cool chaas (similar to lassi, though more watery and with most of the butterfat taken out)…an entire meal of ALL THAT that’s ‘refillable’?! That’s insane…I have no clue how they make this work and still have money left over to pay the electricity bill. [Makes you wonder why I’d go all the way to the U.S. to study economics when Meena Bazaar was a live lesson waiting to enlighten me just steps away from home. That, with the added perks of way more awesome food than anything I could’ve ever found on my greasypizzaloving college campus.]
Those of you who fear the exacting trek over from your lunch table to the buffet line…and God who enjoys waiting behind that old crotchety lady who’s counting every carrot in the salad before she scoops some into her plate at the rate of one carrot per minute?…I hear that Rangoli is planning to switch from the buffet to a thaali system. Which means that the next time I’m here, I won’t have to trudge over to the buffet line to refill my plate. Instead, a server would walk over to my table to do the refilling for me. The ultimate in lazy refillable excesses. The thaali may cost a few more dirhams…but seriously, even a five dirham hike would really still be a pittance for a fully-served, all-you-can-eat meal.
One of the unique characteristics of Gujarati food is that they’re masterminds of how to mix sweet and salty. They've got a real knack for doing this in their fried snacks, in daals, in veggies…in the traditional Gujarati kadhi which typically features on Rangoli’s daily buffet. Kadhi is this gloriously smooth soupy mix of simmered yogurt and gram flour, kicked up a notch with a sweet-salty mix of tempered spices and jaggery swirled in.
That modest looking whitish soup is so perfect...perfect little yogurty lake to dip your rotis into, perfect little daal-like waterfall all over your rice (which incidentally, doesn’t feature on my plate, but is also very much a part of the buffet), and a perfect little river from which to slurp on endlessly all by itself, well after your tummy has objected to another carbo-loaded bite of rice or roti.
...see that deep-fried potato disc on my plate?
Said disc is no ordinary deep-fried potato fritter. Nope, here we have yet another brilliantly simple sweet-salty creation, one with a sweet golden brown deep-fried fenugreek crust, and doused with a liberal spoon of sweet tamarind chutney from the buffet by yours truly. It was like the dessert of the salty savories I chose from the buffet…and sadly, probably not one that they repeat every day. But then again, the Gujaratis are kings of deep-fried masterpieces and I’m sure that a buffet-patron would receive their crunchy due of Gujarati hospitality no matter what day they decide to drop in at Rangoli.
I saw a couple of tourists, not from India, lingering outside the door toward the end of my meal…they had this look of ‘should we try, should we not try’ on their faces. It’s exactly those sorts of helpless innocent tourist tummies that I’d love to educate when they make their way to the streets of old Dubai. Meena Bazaar is Dubai’s Little India, full of places that will max out flavor for every buck…you’ve just got to know which places to step into, and what to order when you’re there. And I’d love to play that honest-to-goodness Florence Nightingale of helplessly hungry tourists. [<- this right here is the philanthropic angle of my foodie tour idea, the one that’ll make hearts melt and sign up for the tour. Is it working?]
Cosmos Lane, Opp. ITL Bldg, Meena Bazaar, Bur Dubai
Phone: +971 (4) 351 5873 / 355 4462 / 352 3554
[pssst...they also have a smaller branch in Oud Metha called Rangoli Lite. It's not healthier food per se, it's the same offering, just a tinier place.
Phone: + 971 (4) 357 6701 / 357 6702]