Is Zurbian the new Mandi?

One of the highlights of last week was meeting Riath, the Yemeni Balqees raw honey importer at the International Fine Foods Festival. Riath, mum and I instantly connected over a string of honey and Yemen-related thoughts: the medicinal value of raw honey; the importance of honey in Ancient Egypt; the meaning of propolis and how it can mummify flies who intrude a bee hive (congealed flies. ewww.); how Riath painstakingly transports honey from Yemen, ensuring that it escapes both the heat and light of a typical desert day to retain its quality; raw honey from dark caves in Malaysia; my stupidity in cooing over honey that was actually cheap-grade in the past—and for lack of better knowledge, my likely continuing stupidity for years to come; how slicing open a fresh English muffin from the neighbouring Baker & Spice stall at the Festival + slopping it over with baked ricotta cheese from the Italian Dairy Products sampler plate + drizzling it with Riath’s ancient Sidr honey from Hadramaout, Yemen + sprinkling the open-faced ricotta bun with salt = an INCREDIBLE breakfast combination; how Dubai’s beloved Mandi also hails from Hadramaout (no. Mandi is not an Emirati dish.); why nothing in Dubai could ever parallel the real Mandi taste in Yemen [weep.], and,

Riath: Have you ever tried Zurbain? It really should be more popular here in Dubai!
Mum: Oh yes, I think I tasted it once when I visited Yemen.
Me [*imaginary dunce cap*]: Eh? What’s Zurbian? I haven’t seen it at Al Tawasol […the only Mandi restaurant I have gone to because they’ve cast a magic spell on me with their buttery mandi and if I eat it anywhere else, I fear that I will be zapped into a wart-covered toad.]

Our 30 minutes of buzzing about like happy queen bees suddenly ended on a sobering note. I was the only one of the three who hadn’t tried Yemeni Zurbian, a dish that was highly regarded by a Yemeni native who clearly knew his food.

Who’s even heard of Zurbian? Have you? Tell me you haven’t so I feel like less of an ignoramus.

Anyhoo, that mound of rice up there is Zurbian. I was so impatient to figure out what this dish really was that I read through as many mandi menus as I could, and finally zoomed in on the first place that seemed to have it: Noor Al Mandi in Ghusais.

Now here’s a little Zurbian historical snippet for you. The Indian ambassador to Sana’a, Dr. Ausaf Sayeed, claims that Zurbian is a descendant of biryani:

There was a steady interaction between Hadramout and other places in Yemen and the Deccan during the reign of the Bahmani and the Golconda rulers.Several prominent members of the Sayyid families of Hadramout immigrated to India and established hospices and institutions of Arabic learning in India…Hadramout had a great impact on the culture, music and cuisine of Hyderabad. Likewise, the impact of Hyderabad on the southern Arabia was significant. A number of land reforms that were introduced in Hyderabad were applied in Hadramout with suitable modifications. The Hyderabadi cuisine, particularly its Biryani, is popular in many parts of southern Yemen as ‘Zurbian’
[India-Yemen Relations: Rich History & Bright Prospects]

The relationship between biryani and Zurbian was right there in every grain of perfectly spiced rice on the Zurbian platter. There were caramelized onions, cardamom pods, planks of cinnamon, and other whole garam masalas flecked across the entire rice landscape. It’s the sort of rice dune that makes me want to burrow into the fragrant mound like a mole and eat from the inside out. This, mind you, comes from a girl who doesn’t even fancy rice to begin with.

The lamb looked like it had been tenderized in yogurt, with pink juicy insides and a dark brown fatty-chewy skin that had me nibbling greedily on every bone. A chubby skinned potato sat on the edge, helping to add the token tender veggie in this predominantly meat and rice dish. I ate it all—rice, meat, potato, each element on its own, then mixed in together, then with a splash of salsa-like zhug, then with zhug and yogurt, then each element on its own all over again. If this Zurbian came even 20% close to the real deal from Yemen, then…I’m booking a flight to Yemen.

The other dish that made it to the table, Thareed Madfoon, didn’t quite distract me away from the Zurbian. Sheban, who’d been dragged out on this Zurbian exploration, thoroughly enjoyed the BBQ’ed chicken over gravy-soaked shards of bread…but in my Zurbian-zapped mind, the Madfoon paled in comparison to the dusky biryani descendant plated right next to it.

Credit also goes to Noor Al Mandi for serving us a complementary soup, Maraq, that instantly brought a smile to our lost, hungry, WHERETHECRAPISTHISRESTAURANT, faces.

It was the perfect remedy for two throbbing heads that hadn’t had a chance to eat lunch until 4pm, had consulted multiple GPS options, snapped angrily at each other in the car, switched driver and shotgun roles at least twice on the journey, and had lost their way multiple times before finally finding the restaurant. Ghusais, I will figure you out someday, but till then, let there always be Maraq to dissolve my angst in a well-seasoned combination of chicken and meat stock.

Everything about Noor Al Mandi—their Zurbian, their traditional spacey décor which they have proudly pimped across the first two pages of their menu, their friendly servers who thoughtfully rang a (false) alarm when they suspected a cop of writing us a parking ticket—warrants a return visit. I’ll be back. Maybe the next time I might be compelled to betray Al Tawasol and give their mandi a try.

Noor Al Mandi
Phone: +971 (4) 2390700 / 2390600
Directions: Drive towards NMC Specialty Hospital in Ghusais. Stay on Amman Street, with the Hospital on your right. Drive down until you see an Emarat petrol pump on your right, and immediately take the next service lane exit into a row of restaurants. You should spot a red-signed Noor Al Mandi to your right.
A more detailed map is available on the restaurant’s facebook page.

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.

14 thoughts on “Is Zurbian the new Mandi?

  1. Sajitha Hyder says:

    :)..I love zorbian. then again there is hardly a rice dish i met which i havent liked..i ’d mentioned one to u before… not paying attention..arwa:P..Malek al mandi does a mutton zorbian which gets sold out pretty quickly on weekends i think…I remember thinking tis neither a biriyani nor mandi.. the original parent? very interesting.. the best zorbain i tried ws in saudi..also the best mandi.. also best kabsa..

    1. inafryingpan says:

      @facebook-1345243222:disqus – I know I know…my memory is being chewed up my the memory dogs. I will note down Malek Al Mandi. Also, can you imagine, I haven’t tried Kabsa yet? I’m such a slacker. :(

  2. saleem ahmed says:

    Liked the zurbian – almost the same taste as biryani – nothing like Hyderabadi Biryani – meet and chicken was very juicy and tender. Hope some day you will take is to eat in the Mandi

    1. inafryingpan says:

      Dad, we’ve first got to try Al Tawasol right next door! That’s my next goal in life ;)

  3. Arwa A. Lootah says:

    This makes me want to dive in!! Especially with the Laban Up!!

    My father was an Embassador in Yemen two decades ago!
    We visited one summer but never tried their food!

    You brought back memories of Yemen! :)

    1. inafryingpan says:

      @twitter-31427948:disqus – oh wow! This blog is keeping good company!! That said, I guess this warrants a trip back to Yemen to try their food? ;)

  4. Chef and Steward says:

    Great honey is indeed prized as liquid gold. My father farms it and so we know that the quality of the honey is very much dependent on where it is grown, what the bees feed on etc. Some be keepers feed the bees honey to maximize yield but it negatively affects the quality of the honey. Happy to see your growth in appreciation for this wonderful product. That Zurbian platter sounds delicious!

    1. inafryingpan says:

      @ChefandSteward:disqus – wow, lucky you! You must have had pots and pots of incredible honey growing up. There’s nothing like growing up on or near a farm, I feel very envious of people like yourself who’ve had the privilege of doing so and growing up around quality ingredients!

  5. Varsha says:

    Long time lurker, first time poster – just because I can’t believe you’ve never had zurbiyan! LOL The best I have had is right in Deira, a place called Arab Island restaurant . It’s a hole in the wall joint, thats super busy and runs out of zurbiyan ( it’s the most popular) if you’re not there in time. Recommended by a Yemeni and his place to eat when he comes to Dubai, so can’t be too bad. For me, it’s zurbiyan over mandi every time. From the JW Marriott/Movenpick Hotel signal on Salahuddin road, take a left and then first right ( onto 42A street) , then first left again ( onto 38A street). The restaurant is on your right.

    1. inafryingpan says:

      @33b549c992c982ee5e0b8c38788922c3:disqus – hi there, thanks for the long time lurking and good to finally hear from you! :D Would you believe, I haven’t eaten a LOT of the yummies Dubai has to offer?! I can eat out 4 times a day,every day, and still not have covered it all. but that’s good in many ways, because…how unfun is life when you’ve got nothing left to discover? ;)

      I have got the directions for your Deira pick for Yemeni food etched in my mind…this sounds like just the kind of place I need to expand my Zurbian-repertoire. Thank you for the tip!

  6. Varsha says:

    P.S: We haven’t been in a while, so can’t vouch for it’s quality now. Have to add this disclaimer, as we this is Dubai.

    1. inafryingpan says:

      Oh I am no stranger to that ;) The kinds of places I love often don’t have the luxury of consistent experiences. They serve food from the heart, not from some mass-manufacturing steel tube. The excitement is just that…you never know what you’re going to get, and when it does turn out to be good, it’s all the more special.

  7. Amal Osman says:

    I’m not a big fan of Mandi, I always order Zurbian “It just tastes better in my opinion”. You should really try “Al fakher restaurant”. It’s located in Hor Al Anz East (it’s next to baskin Robins).

    1. inafryingpan says:

      @twitter-910346078:disqus – thank you for the restaurant reco! Al Fakher is on my list now, yay for more zurbian places! Thank you :)

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