I escape the blinding rays of an urban desert sun and falter into the hushed, dimly lit restaurant. Dazed, burnt, colour-blind. A few faces hover around the waiting area, all men, one familiar, two unfamiliar peering out of a pitch-black kitchen window. I lower my gaze shyly before I can fully take in the fourth on the phone. It is over an hour past opening time.
“Are you open?” It is more a plea than a question. Turn the kitchen lights on. Please be open. I drove all the way.
The familiar one levels his gaze with mine, hesitation at the tip of his boyish Uzbek chin, his eyes shifting past my shoulder as if to greet my companions who would magically materialize through the wooden door as it clicked shut behind me. There are no companions. I am alone this time. I just want breakfast.
And then the hesitation dissolves into a smile. “Yes, we are open.”
I love the early morning tranquillity of an empty restaurant, one that is yawning awake with an occasional clank of a dish or shuffle of feet, maybe the sweeper by the front or the chef turning the lights on. This might seem positively ghostly to most, and it would as well to me at any other time of the day. But right now, after an overly social night out on my food trail, just a few fatigued minutes past nine, with no companion but my copy of ‘How to Speak Arabic, Volume 2,’ it is exactly the sort of easy, languid atmosphere I need to coax my senses awake. Sabah al khair habibti.
A silver dallah of Gahwa slides in front of me, full of Arabic coffee that is the watery colour of a heavily diluted Americano. The accompanying finyal is painted with the traditional yellow and green rim, a vibrant hat tip to paper cups often full to the brim with a mainstream brew, empty to the base from aged-old tradition. It is not the best gahwa I have had – the brew is weak, the cardamom barely noticeable and a side of dates woefully missing – but the hot liquid plays its part in cranking my brain cogs back to a slow rumbling start.
The coffee also makes me painfully aware of a cavernous stomach. Two lumbering pages of Arabic past tense under my belt, breakfast still hasn’t made an appearance. Shutt. Shuft. Shuftee. Shaaf. Shaafat. The server apologizes, explaining that the kitchen is facing a power cut this morning for some inexplicable reason, making me wary about the contents of my anticipated breakfast plate.
But when it finally arrives, it lures me away from the third page, past tense, special hollow verbs. Threads of glistening chopped noodles shaded light brown to yellow to earthy orange lay scattered under a frail omelette that is folded delicately down the centre like a soft tissue. Over the past three years, I’ve come to acquire a taste for balaleet, a taste that is best described as a subtle tug of war between sweet buttery noodles and savoury shreds of omelette. The noodles should slide through your tongue with ghee-varnished ease, sealing in a fragrant memory of saffron and cardamom before a salty omelette patch wipes out the memory and you’re compelled to start the tug of war all over again.
Had I brought a breakfast companion, I might have reordered the khameer I did on my last visit to Jawareh. I remember the sweet milky tone of the bread being appealing on its own, and utterly addictive when smeared with dabs of off-white cream cheese and viscous date molasses (dibs).
The luqaimat we had greedily devoured for dessert on our last visit were also ideal candidates for a naughty breakfast, their crisp dibs-streaked shells collapsing like bee-hives threaded from stretchy yeast-risen dough.
Friends that have accompanied me on my rare Emirati food explorations have shown a clear-cut preference for the sweet breakfast breads, dibs-coated dumplings and roasted flour crumbles. These dishes appeal to flavours often familiar to non-Emirati palates, with a few deviations like pairing sweet noodles with omelette (which might even be deemed fashionable given the salted caramel or waffles-and-fried-chicken trend) or dibs, a pungent deep-throated date extraction that makes maple syrup taste timid.
With the global tastebud having evolved towards stronger, spicier, louder flavours like those of masala-laden Indian or greasy Chinese fast food or herb-specked cheesy Italian, the more muted flavours of the local Emirati cuisine often take a backseat for many tourists and residents, most of whom don’t even know where to find it in the city. Some may argue that you could toss in more green chillies to amplify the heat of an Emirati dish. But then, you’re not tasting the cuisine as it should be and it gets so close to Indian flavours that simplistic comparisons become inevitable.
The menu at Jawareh boasts a commendable spectrum of Emirati savoury dishes beyond breakfast, everything from Malleh to Machboos. A server once told me that the restaurant was established by a chef who has served a member of the royal family in the past, and it is he who has passed on his skills to the Indian cooks in the kitchen and periodically pops in to supervise their work.
Your best bet is to visit before 1pm, when there is a greater likelihood of most dishes listed on the menu still being served. Or better yet, just call them first. When we last visited during a weekday lunch, most of the menu was not available, though that led to the fortuitous discovery of a lentil-studded taht laham coated with juicy cooked-down tomato chunks (taht laham: spiced lamb tucked under, or taht, a mound of fluffy rice). The spice mix used was reminiscent of more fiery Indian meat and rice pilafs, yet lighter and milder in a way that would not stick uncomfortably to your ribs hours after the meal.
The tender lamb pilaf completely overshadowed the thareed djaj (crumbled bread soaked in a thick chicken stew), which after a few unskinned pimply chicken and overpoweringly turmeric attempts, was moved off to a corner of the table, never to return to the centre.
On that last trip, I also made a far from compelling case for the harees, a sludgy wheat and lamb gruel with little nubs of tender meat flecked through the molten ghee-garnished dish. Jawareh’s version was one of the most wholesome porridges I have tasted in the city,
But having never tasted harees before, my lunch partners steered clear after a few forced attempts. This is a dish that needs context – it has nourished generations since medieval Mesopotamia (Nawal Nasrullah) and the food geek in me finds that fact intriguing enough to keep tasting what many others would pronounce a bland dish with a textural turn-off.
Lunch time was far busier than what it is now. I had spotted only one family amidst the tables of men eating fish and rice back then, a family that had been whisked away to a private cubicle where women can enjoy their meal in privacy. This is not a tourist hangout and I doubt most residents – including those living in Qusais – even know about this six-month old Emirati eatery. The imitation coralstone and gypsum walls show a sincere attempt at keeping the ambiance local and authentic, the palm lamp shades and roofs affirming a love for Emirati handicrafts that are far harder to track down in the souks than inflatable pink ponies, made-in-China.
As I shut my book on the page that introduces past tense, verbs ending with a vowel and start making my way out to the reception, I realize that when I do write about Jawareh, I’m not going to beg you to drive out to Qusais right this very minute. This is not that kind of place. But it is the kind of restaurant you visit if you want to learn about the local cuisine, don’t have the luxury of visiting an Emirati home, and you’ve already got some of the popular Emirati suspects like Al Fanar, Biker's Cafe and Mallas under your belt. It’s the sort of place that leaves you no excuse but to know your thareed from your jesheed.
I smile at the familiar face as I step closer to the wooden door, barely glance at the face still propped against the phone, turn back to nod at the faces still peering through the kitchen window. Still, a pitch-black kitchen window.
Al Jawareh Traditional Restaurant
Phone: 04-2671701, 04-2679559
Directions: Drive past Dubai Grand Hotel to your left on Damascus Street. Cross the junction (with Baghdad Street) and turn into the first by-lane to your right. Jawareh will fall within 100 metres to your right, across from the Daily Restaurant on the left hand side of the road. Or just click through to my Google map of hideouts.