The litmus test of a memorable meal is when months later, you can still mentally savour the flavours of the meal. Thinking about that slow-cooked lamb in tomato broth, tender grains of rice tossed with dill or dumplings pudgy with curried chicken and coriander, your stomach tugs you back to a meal moment in time. It’s that flavour-defining moment when a dish climbs into the hammock of your palette and decides it will stay comfortably snug in your taste memories for months, or even years, to come.
Here are some of my best meal moments in the UAE from 2013. Being an exploratory eater, it’s rare for me to visit a restaurant more than once. I quickly get distracted and drift to the next adventure even if I’ve sworn by the flavours of the last one. I’m hoping that some of you have visited these places and if you have, then tell me: are these flavours still making love to taste buds the same way they did to mine?
The thought of this fleshy mass of pink lamb meat bunched up under a tight skin sealed with fat and flecked with cumin – the thought of it simply makes me dizzy with longing. If I could request RTA to construct one uninterrupted suspension bridge from my apartment to any point of Dubai, a one-way to Cabrito would be it.
I’ll admit to being a late bloomer on the Vada Sambar scene. But after sinking my jaws into the deep-fried vadas at Woodlands and feeling the lentil innards bounce off my teeth with gravity-defying fluffiness, I’m a ready convert. I’d even go so far as to say that if any Karama-based vada worth its crunch were looking to martyr itself, there'd be nothing more noble than drowning in the enticingly aromatic sambar that Woodlands spoons out, probably by the gallons every day.
Until the Farmer’s Market on the Terrace reopened this fall, I’ve never had a worthy reason to drag myself out of bed on a Friday morning. But for the past month, I’ve slipped out of my Friday morning stupor to find myself lost in a new form of hallucinatory haze: sausages crackling on the grill, warm English muffins, soft pillowy buns, strips of lamb, pickled eggs. And maybe a mango-yogurt drizzle to glue all the ingredients together. If it weren’t such a crime to sleepwalk straight from my bed to the market in PJs and raggedy hair, I’d have committed that indiscretion by now.
It took me a second visit to Al Nasma to realize that this is one of those rare, rare places that I’d gladly visit again – even if I had to trade off a new restaurant exploration opportunity in the bargain. I'm won over by the unpretentious, simple and fresh mezze: the baba ghanouj, hummus, fattoush and tabbouleh, each made doubly flavourful with fruity olive oil and a resident beach breeze. The food, the ambiance and generous Mustafa do wonders in shushing the daily harrowed noise in your head until ýou can hear nothing more than a gentle sea-side murmur. The chicken soup is truly one for the soul, and best paired with an order of grilled khubuz smeared with a lip-smackingly salty and bitter chilli paste that makes even spice wimps…err hum…go back for seconds.
Chappli Kabab made by the white-bearded grandpa at this run-down bachelor adda in Sharjah is not just one of my best kabab experiences in 2013 – but one of my best kabab experiences ever. Seriously. Juicy nubs of beef, tomato and masala are squished together and flattened into discs that taste invincibly perfect – until they are made impossibly perfectER with a squeeze of fresh lemon. Paired with a hot tandoori naan for a paltry price of 5 dirhams, this kabab delivers a tight thamacha in the face of other mediocre kababs that dare to tempt your tastebuds.
[For my non-desi friends, sorry for the Hindi verbal deviations. Adda = haunt/ hangout; thamacha = slap, but one only rendered effective if given ‘tight.’ Please refer to latest Bollywood release for a blow-by-blow lesson in tight thamacha delivery.]
Just thinking about Zurna’s tahina roll makes me realize how incomplete my breakfasts have been since June. How have I drowned cups of steaming coffee without a crusty roll dotted with peppery Nigella seeds? How have I laboured through bowls of dreary cereal when I could have been unwinding chewy tahini-coated threads coiled under a crunchy baked crust? How have I said good morning to people, when the good was miles away, sitting in sweet nutty indulgent silence at the back of Zurna’s tiny dining room?
I don’t know how.
It’s nothing short of tragic that I’ve lived steps away from Iran Zamin for over twenty years, and I’d never tried their Baghali Polo with Maahicheh until last March. The lamb shank has such tender sophistication that it doesn’t do a clumsy ‘fall off the bone,’ but an exponentially more magical ‘glide.’ The only possible accompaniment that can touché the pink juicy lamb is the platter of perfectly-fluffed rice grains, tossed with melted butter, dill and broad beans. I’m grateful that the lukewarm service and ear-deafening music are reasons to stay away, else I’d have to bury this blog for good and start one called 365daysofbaghalipolo.com.
Hunks of soft chewy lamb and beef kabab, unctuous tomato gravy, dollop of creamy yogurt, spongy cubes of pide plump with gravy, and an intoxicating drizzle of melted butter. I beg you to refrain from ordering this dish - unless you’re comfortable with regressing into a crazed over-stimulated gorilla with butter-gravy drool on every available orifice of your face.
You can be sure that I'll be hitting the rewind button on these dishes in 2014. If you’ve tried any of them, I’d love to hear from you. And if you feel that there are other dishes that should have hit a home run in 2013, I want to hear about those too. Let’s plan to make 2014 a milestone year of local food discoveries – hidden gems, old-time classics, atmospheric backstreets, and mountains and mountains of those glorious chappli kababs. Happy New Year foodie soul mates, I can’t wait to dip my finger into the pot of untasted honey that’s going to be 2014.