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Food, Dining, & Drinks in the United Arab Emirates

Historic Diet

Emirati Food - Meal
Emirati food

Dating back thousands of years, there was little vegetation and few animals in the region that today is the United Arab Emirates. During most of the region's history the nomadic desert dwellers, the Bedouin, ate little more than camel's milk (and milk byproducts) and dates. Those on the coast ate more breads, rice, fish, and dairy, since some areas supported cultivation, but even in these regions the diet was based on camel's milk and dates.

Culinary Influences

Before oil was discovered in the United Arab Emirates the country was viewed by many as little more than a desert with a few sleepy port villages so the U.A.E. received very little outside influence. After the discovery of oil in the mid-1900s the country "opened up" and their food changed dramatically. For the most part, the local population in the U.A.E. eats a diet similar to the Levantine diet, consisting of meats (but no pork), dairy, and breads in conjunction with fruits or vegetables in various forms, like hummus.

Today, the U.A.E. is an immigrant, or foreign worker destination and each group arrived with their own foods. While few groups arrived in such large numbers to forever alter the diet, the substantial Indian and European populations have created enough demand to make Indian and fusion restaurants very popular, especially in the cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Staple Foods

The United Arab Emirates doesn't have any true staple foods anymore. Historically their staple foods consisted of camel's milk and dates, but as urbanization and immigration occurred this has changed significantly. Today lavash (thin bread) and rice tend to be as close as the country comes to a staple.

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Falafel: mashed chickpeas (garbanzo beans) deep fried and served on bread with fresh vegetables like tomatoes and onions
Hummus: chickpeas (garbanzo beans) mashed with lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil among other seasonings
Shwarma: seasoned meat (usually lamb or chicken) served in lavash (thin bread) and at times topped with vegetables or a sauce

Dining Etiquette

Eating in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) is a long and drawn out event during which the goal is to socialize. This trend is apparent both when dining at a local's house in a more informal setting as well as at a formal business dinner at a five star hotel. In addition to long meals, the Emiratis also have a few general dining rules, but they will rarely to never demand you follow these rules.

Locals in the U.A.E. don't use their left hands to eat; neither touching their food with their left hand, nor even placing their left hand on the table. You will also notice that locals never place their feet on a foot rest or cross their legs since it's considered rude to show the bottom of your foot to another person. Also, some locals won't eat with people of the opposite sex; this is especially true in public restaurants among conservative families. In fact, it is considered improper for a man to even acknowledge or touch a woman unless you are introduced by a man and she offers you her hand. Today most locals are quite liberal in this regard and few will be offended at a foreigner's mistakes in this regard, but when in doubt ask or follow a local's lead.

Generally speaking, dining in the U.A.E. is more formal that in many parts of the world, particularly in business situations and this begins with dress and appearance. Always arrive on time and don't ever order alcoholic beverages since most Muslims don't drink. Dinners are consumed using continental manners, meaning their knife is in the right hand and the fork in the left. Try to avoid the month of Ramadan as well since Muslims don't eat or drink during the sunlight hours during this month and most people prefer dining with family each night when the day's fast has finished.

Although the Emiratis are masters at adapting to their guest's customs and are used to foreigners in the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, it is still good manners to adjust to their customs. However, as you will quickly notice, the majority of the people that live in the U.A.E. are not Emiratis. For this reason, the best advice is to follow the lead of your host. If you have a European or North American host they may follow their local dining customs, which is why the default dinning etiquette is to follow formal protocol.

Tipping in the U.A.E. is common and expected, especially in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Rates are roughly equivalent to Europe at about 5-10% for food service. Since exchange booths are common in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, tipping in US dollars or Euros is accepted without any fuss, although tipping in the local currency remains the best option.

Celebrations & Events

There are two major food holidays in the United Arab Emirates including Eid al Fitr, which takes place after Ramadan, a religious holiday that requires fasting for 30 days. To celebrate the end of this fast Eid al Fitr is filled with numerous foods, which differ from Emirate to Emirate, but these dishes are generally based on lamb and another meat.

The second major food holiday is Eid al Adha, which is only celebrated after a pilgrim returns from haj, the mandatory journey for every able Muslim to go to Mecca. Again, this festival contains a large number of rice and meat dishes, including many of those served during Eid al Fitr.

Drinks

Perhaps the most authentic of beverages in the United Arab Emirates is Ayranser, a yogurt-based drink. Coffee, particularly strong coffee is also growing in popularity.

As a primarily Muslim country, alcohol can only be purchased in hotels or at specialty stores for foreigners living in the United Arab Emirates.

The tap water is safe to drink in the United Arab Emirates. However, many people may have trouble adjusting to the local tap water, as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to.

This page was last updated: March, 2013