If someone asks me where they could dig around here for a goldmine of authentic restaurant gems, I’d point in the direction of that dreaded National Paints Roundabout and whisper, Sharjah.
I spent the first six years of my life in Sharjah. A pity, because my food memories are restricted to Cerelac, Pofak and Omani chips. And Areej. One of the few ‘restaurants’ I remember was one where my sister and I jointly celebrated our birthdays—Hardees. I loved the place to bits and my parents had organized the best kiddie birthday in the world. I still remember the musical chairs (and I remember losing at it. I hated losing at musical chairs. Until I stopped playing it one day—the tension of scramming over in my frilly dress and furiously plonking down on that chair or wiggling myself into the seat even after it was obvious I had been second to grab it, all of it was just overwhelming. No number of Barbies you could throw in my face as a prize could change that. Why can’t everyone just get a chair, sit down, listen to one continuous track of music, and each get a free prize.)
I was back in Sharjah for a food hunt last week, and now, I finally have memories that span beyond Hardees.
The person who led me on this food trek was Shiyam, the affable, brilliantly smart and impossibly understated food genius who really, truly, knows his stuff. Just read the About page on his blog, and you’ll start to get a very small idea of what I mean—small, because he’s humbly left praiseworthy bits and bobs out. I have nothing less than a Mount Kilimanjaro of respect for him. Two other men extremely critical in this foodie quest were Bjorn and Sheban, the Sharjah soldiers who keep stumbling across brilliant foodie gems, and then tempt me right when we all know that there are hideous pythons of Dubai-Sharjah commuter traffic between them and me.
The trek began with muffled conversation between bites of Aunty’s Dabeli: potatoes smashed and tossed in a tomato and onion gravy reminiscent of spicy pav bhaji, swaddled in the belly of a soft buttered pav. 2.5 dirhams, 250% flavour.
Between mouthfuls of food, Shiyam started feeding me little snippets of his fascinating life story, one that I hope he or somebody else with a distinctive storytelling voice brings to life someday. We need these authentic stories to be told. I am done with the social media drama queens (and kings) who’re thrown up on a pedestal for every reason other than their knowledge of food. It’s humble yet knowledgeable guys like Shiyam from whom I’ve got a bucket load to learn.
He led me into a kitchen with a kadai full of Bread Pakodas foaming at their mouths with bubbling hot oil. After seeing them on Shiyam’s FoodnFlavours blog, I’d expressed a craving for potatoes sandwiched between bread slices and deep-fried in batter. If you think that that combination sounds preposterous, then you’re probably right. It’s carb in carb, and deep-fried into a more cohesive and crunchy-squishy carb. It’s that minimalist’s arch nemesis served with a combo of not one, not two, but three chutneys parading around the plate—sweet dates chutney, coriander chutney, and sukha lasan (dry garlic) chutney. It’s that notoriously nonsensical hodgepodge dish that is so characteristic of Indian street food. That mocks intuitive and logical culinary composition. That snickers in the face of everything that is healthy and good for you. That when you’re craving comfort food, is so Goddamn Good.
We nibbled so much that night that I honestly don’t even remember scarfing down the batter-jacketed potato patty that arrived in the familiar patty-bun-chutney garb of a Vada Pav.
But the Bhel Puri I remember, because that was a revelation. I’ve had this haystack of puffed rice and fried sev (gram flour threads) with potatoes and onions and pomegranate seeds and every other chutney and masala within one-hand reach of the chaat maker many times before, but I’d never had it Mumbai-style—with raw mango strips. Somewhere in that consciously confused medley of ingredients, those mango slivers really shine through with a sharp tart acidity that I will want forever more in all future Bhel Puri renditions.
Lucky Shiyam, he lives within easy craving distance from these places and has figured out the good grub from the not-so-good stuff that often lurks just footsteps away. And what’s great is how he’s connected with the folks, building bonds strong enough to entertain his strolling into their kitchens for a peek. This ex-chef and serious food and wine connoisseur has probably wined and dined with revered top chefs of the world, but you’d never detect it in the twinkle of his eye. He seems to have a knack of befriending everyone, be it the guy standing over the kadai of frothing bread pakodas or…ahem…an Arab sheikh. And that humility and genuine engagement can be so refreshing in an online nation of food that all too often, courts popularity rather than the palette.
Stay tuned for Sharjah Food Trekking, Part 2. I clipped this post into 2 bits not because I didn’t get around to writing part 2. It’s already done to be honest. I just get so blitheringly bored myself reading long posts that I can’t imagine you having to suffer through it either.
Dabeli and Chai
Mazeej Al Punjab Cafeteria
Near Immigration Office, Behind Al Mahatta Park, Al Nud, Sharjah
Raghuvanshi Chaat – Bread Pakodas, Vada Pav, Bhel Puri
Al Rajwah Cafeteria
Al Khayal Building, Rolla Road, Umm Tarrafa, Sharjah