Visit Abu Dhabi for a once in a lifetime culinary trail with our food guide

The city offers everything from traditional Emirati fare to gourmet French dishes and fusion Peruvian delicacies
Coya Abu Dhabi
Coya Abu Dhabi

When we first landed in Abu Dhabi, it was exactly what we envisioned it would be. From being picked up in a high end Mercedes, to staying at the 50th floor of the Conrad, it was extravagant and luxurious. But as we spent more time in the capital city, we discovered that it is more than just the fast cars and the glitzy malls. Hidden behind the buzz, is a calmer, laid-back Emirate with pristine beaches, cultural hotspots, and a thriving culinary scene that is slowly discovering and shaping its identity. Often overshadowed by Dubai, Abu Dhabi, the capital city of UAE, has a lot to offer. 

UAE is made up of seven emirates and Abu Dhabi is the largest one, with 215 islands and a coastline of more than 2,000 kilometres. The early settlers of the area were pearl divers and fisherfolk until the recent discovery of oil in the ’50s when it witnessed a development boom. Today, it is the seat of government and commerce. We were travelling to the country for a very exciting reason — to experience the city’s Culinary Season, an annual celebration of its dining cultures that showcases the 
finest restaurants in the city. 

Saadiyat beach
Saadiyat beach

Leaving behind a rainy and stormy Bengaluru, we were more than happy with the sun and sand in Abu Dhabi. The Conrad Hotel is located in the Etihad Towers, one of the city’s most iconic buildings that you may have seen in the Fast and Furious movie franchise. Our room overlooked the great expanse of the ocean and the glittering skyline and we couldn’t ask for anything more. The hotel itself had us spoilt for choice in terms of cuisines with a Japanese restaurant, Tori No Su, a poolside Italian diner, Sole, and the hip South American lounge, Vakava. After a day of relaxing by the pool, and the private beach, we were ready to explore the city. 

Bedouin roots
The local Emirati food is often overlooked and is actually starkly different from other West Asian dishes. We were introduced to two chefs who represent two sides of Emirati cuisine. Celebrated chef  Khulood Atiq puts the spotlight on the traditional, while young chef Khaled Al Saadi is giving the cuisine a contemporary facelift. We caught up with Atiq, who is one of the first female chefs of UAE, over a leisurely lunch. She explained the nuances and influences that created the cuisine. The Bedouin folk used local produce that was available regionally — the coastal people focussed on seafood and the ones in the plains used the shrubs that grew in the desert. Grains and spices came to the region via trade routes to India and slowly made their way into everyday food. Some signature traditional delicacies are machboos (layered lamb and spiced rice), harees (soup) and regag (a crepe sweetened with dates). 

Traditional Emirati food
Traditional Emirati food

If you want to get a taste of these dishes, then head to Al Fanar restaurant for an authentic Bedouin experience or Yadoo’s House, which translates to grandmother’s house, and more than lives up to its name. For a seafood feast, we recommend the Al Mina Fish Market, where you can have your pick of fresh fish grilled in front of you. 

On the other hand, Chef Khaled’s cooking incorporates fresh produce and novel ingredients that the country now has access to from all over the world. He says since the country is so young and global in its outlook, the definition of Emirati food is also ever expanding. He hopes his approach to the cuisine will come to be considered ‘Emirati food’ in future.

All that glitters is gold
Our next stop was the Emirates Palace. Opulence is the only word that comes to mind when you visit this five-star hotel. Done up in gold and marble, it is the third most expensive hotel ever built. Fittingly, the coffee we had at their cafe, Le Cafe, was also equally lavish — a 24-carat gold cappuccino. Made with camel milk, the drink was topped with a gold leaf, and it’s one for your Instagram page. We were also treated to a Middle Eastern lunch, complete with the quintessential hummus, baba ganoush and platters of kebabs. It was a meal to remember. 

24 K Gold Coffee 
24 K Gold Coffee 

If you have mezze on your mind, we also recommend Beirut Sur Mer, an al fresco restaurant located in the upscale Saadiyat Island. We tucked into fatteh betenjen (tahini-flavored yoghurt, chickpeas, eggplant, crispy bread and pine nuts), hendbeh (a chicory salad) and mouhalabieh (a creamy pudding). The beauty of Lebanese food is that it also has a lot of options for vegans and vegetarians. 

Melting pot
Abu Dhabi is home to chefs from all across the globe who want to push the envelope when it comes to experimenting with flavours. Young chef Pang LC is the man behind Coya Abu Dhabi, a chic Peruvian restaurant in Al Maryah Island. At our dinner there, each dish was more decadent than the last — Wagyu Sirloin with Chimichurri Sauce, Huayro Potato Causa and Manchego Cheese (a mashed potato casserole), Truffle Churros, Miso Beef Ribs, and a Pina Colada Popsicle. The melange of influences and fun ambience makes this one of the hottest spots to hangout at on a Saturday night.

Located right next to Coya, is the renowned French restaurant La Petite Maison. With a view of the sea, LPM is the perfect brunch spot. We indulged in Slow Cooked Duck Legs, Snails with Garlic Butter, and Grilled Wild Atlantic Sea Bass. The chefs pulled out all the stops with these French classics.

La Petite Maison
La Petite Maison

Tucked away in downtown Abu Dhabi are also hidden gems that offer regional cuisines all the way from Ethiopian and Sudanese, to Indonesian and Bosnian. Dig into momos at Nepal Palace, Sudanese shaya jamour (grilled lamb) at Al Mufraka, Ethiopian injera bread at Sheger or nasi lemak at Mamak. And of course, if you’re craving something that reminds you of home, there are plenty of North Indian, Pakistani and Malabari restaurants too. 

The streets of Abu Dhabi reflect the melting pot of cultures that the city is. A meeting point between the East and the West, the cuisine of the city has its finger on the pulse of global trends, and it also looks inwards at the hidden secrets of traditional recipes. Abu Dhabi should definitely be on your list if you are looking for a culinary holiday. 

Must-visit spots

Louvre Abu Dhabi
If you’re an art buff like us, and going all the way to Paris to visit the Louvre is not on the cards any time soon, then the Louvre Abu Dhabi is just the place for you. Managed in partnership with the French government, the museum is designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel. It houses exhibits that take visitors through the history of humanity, all the way from pre-historic Egyptian figurines to modern paintings by Pablo Picasso and everything in between.  

Sheikh Zayed Mosque
An architectural marvel, this mosque was the idea of the late president of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. The awe-inspiring structure takes design inspiration from the Taj Mahal, the Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi Mosque in Alexandria and Moorish mosques. Marble, gold and semi-precious stones adorn the walls of the mosque which can accommodate around 40,000 worshippers.  

Qasr Al Hosn
This fort is a historic landmark located in the midst of the tall skyscrapers in the heart of the city. The monument has a watchtower that was built in 1761 and was also the residence of the ruling Sheikhs. Currently it also houses a museum and an arts centre where you can learn more about the history and culture of the city. When you wander in you can get a glimpse into the way the nomadic tribes lived, dined and the art they created. It is a must-visit for history lovers. 

Jubail Mangrove Park
The mangrove park is a burst of green in the midst of the desert. The sanctuary has a stunning boardwalk with a picturesque view of the exotic animal, marine and bird species at the park. And when it’s high tide you can even kayak down the meandering coastline.

The writer was in Abu Dhabi by invitation from the Department of Culture and Tourism 

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