In December, I traveled to Dubai as part of a Trade Mission with the Organic Trade Association (OTA). At the onset, I was nervous about what I had read online. A conservative Muslim culture that I knew nothing about. Well, none of it was what I expected!
I found a vibrant International culture of Westerners, South Asians, and of course, Emiratis all coexisting with tolerance and acceptance. A place of great wealth with an eye towards the future and a market that is hungry for Organic products.
We were on a mission to explore the Organic market potential for U.S. products in the Middle East—and I was on a mission to discover the food in this exotic corner of the planet.
Dubai is one of seven Emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Perched on the very tip of the Arabian Peninsula, it’s a hot dry place, not exactly suitable to growing a lot of food. Exporters love this county because they import almost 80% of the food they eat.
Only a few decades ago, the discovery of oil transformed this spit of land from sand dunes and tribal fishing villages into an international hub. Today only 5% of their revenue comes from oil.
The economy thrives on trade, tourism, aviation, real estate and financial services. With one of the highest standards of living in the world, most Emiratis and high-skilled expats enjoy luxurious lifestyles.
Turns out, they eat well too!
Emiratis are only 12% of the population; the rest are Westerners, Indians, Pakistanis and Arabs. They settled and worked here and brought with them their culinary traditions.
These traditions blended well with the local saffron, cardamom, sesame and date honey, and now, a gastronomic landscape blossoms like a desert flower.
Yes, you can still drink camel milk, eat fat dates and fine fish, but there is a multicultural parade of exotic dishes that await the Dubai visitor.
The first evening I thrilled at the view from my hotel window. The modern architecture, the tallest building in the world all beckoned, but I had just traveled halfway across the globe.
Tired as I was, I mustered up the will to go upstairs (something I usually dismiss as lazy) for Indian food at a place called Tresind. They base their philosophy on “less is more,” and when I was served a tower of cascading dry ice, I thought I would walk away hungry.
Little balls filled with potato and watermelon essence only confirmed my fears of want. But they were delicious!
As the courses came, I discovered they were reviving the ancient legacy of India with an evolution of modern Indian cuisine.
The spicy potato dish with crispy okra and dabs of labneh cheese was an utter surprise.
The slow-cooked beef swimming in Madras curry and surrounded by Islands of mashed potato truly mouthwatering—and spicy. The jasmine rice was a fluffy perfection.
They then presented me with a mid-meal palate cleanser—a lemon tree planted on an island of dry ice. Underneath the tree was a fallen lemon, and inside that lemon lay frozen lemon-pomegranate sherbet to sooth my curried tongue.
I cried three times over that meal—not only from the heat and theatrics but from the exquisite blend of heat and acid, spice and sweetness each bite imbued.
Satiated, I slept like an Arabian princess dreaming of a culinary land that needed great exploration.
I went exploring the next day before my work began to see if I could find organic products. I had to look no farther than the convenience store half a block away. Much to my delight, I found organic eggs, rice pulses and nuts.
I visited Carrefour and Lulu hypermarkets—defined as a retail outlet of over 2,500 square meters—these stores were brimming with organic choices. They showcased huge sections dedicated to organic products as well as having organic provisions placed strategically throughout the stores.
Many retailers offer organic products, both online and in-store and include home delivery service.
I went to work on day two, attending the Middle Eastern Natural and Organic Expo (MENOPE), where four U.S. Companies met organic buyers.
I found out that because Dubai is a center of global trade, many products that come in are destined for the broader Middle East, Asia and North Africa regions.
Food re-exports from the UAE have increased more than 25 percent over the last decade.
The UAE imported $13.3 billion worth of agricultural products in 2018, and of that, $1.2 billion worth of agricultural products came from the U.S.
According to USDA’s Global Organic Trade System (GATS), the U.S. Organic Exports into the UAE totaled $10,704,852.00 in 2018.
According to Euromonitor, Organic sales in the UAE grew 21% between 2017 and 2018 totaling $21.3 million in 2018.
A healthy, well-educated consumer,along with government health initiatives, will only accelerate demand for Organic food products over the coming years.
The MENOPE show—though smal— was a success; partnerships were struck, and foundations laid.
On my very last day, I had one more gastronomic feat to perform: I took a Middle Eastern Food Pilgrimage with Frying Pan Adventures!
For 4.5 hours, I ate my way through the streets of Al Riga, one of the oldest neighborhoods of old Dubai.
Led by an intrepid guide, we sampled meals of Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq and Iran. Some of these countries I will never be able to visit, but this pilgrimage took my palate on an authentic excursion to each one. It was if I sat in a grandmother’s kitchen and sampled each country.
We were told to measure our feasting at the start. But when we entered the Sultan Dubai Falafel House, my reserve melted away in the sesame studded falafel and swirling hummus.
The Palestinian-Jordanian restaurant, Qwaider Al Nabulsi, made a mean tray of warm, gooey cheese kunafa—a traditional dessert made with thin noodle-like pastry soaked in sweet, sugar-based syrup layered with cheese.
I went wild over the Lebanese baklava shop where they were wrapping a tray of sweets destined for a wedding the next day.
We devoured a traditional Egyptian pizza slathered with a sweet hot chutney at Al Amoor Express.
We then went to Kirkuk, Iraq, where the restaurant, Kabab Erbil Iraqi, first opened its doors in 1973. Here the specialty is openly splayed fish cooked over open flames. Flatbread and flat parsley lay ubiquitously along its encrusted side.
Our final destination was Sadaf Iranian Sweets, an Ali Baba’s cave of enticing Persian ingredients from saffron and barberries to pistachios and pomegranate molasses. Here I ate my first saffron ice cream drizzled with rose syrup.
I was drunk with the pleasure of so many countries, tastes and traditions. I wobbled my way to my hotel.
If you have the chance, do visit Dubai at least once. It’s a great place to market organic products and a scrumptious place to savor Middle Eastern food.