There are over 200 nationalities living in the United Arab Emirates, and pretty much every community has a restaurant, canteen or hole-in-the-wall serving up its much-missed local comfort foods. When I first moved to Dubai after living in Asia for many years I was craving those favourite dishes that had long become staples of my diet, and set out on an extensive mission combing the internet and the streets to find them. Some things, such as a good palak paneer or a butter chicken, are easy enough to find, Dubai's Indian and Pakistani restaurants being plentiful and affordable. Other items, such as laphet thoke, or Burmese pickled tea leaf salad, took longer to uncover (you can find it at the excellent Innlay Asia, featured in this post). Here are five of my favourite discoveries for you to try next time you're craving a fix of your favourite Asian comfort foods in Dubai, from Japan to Pakistan with a few stops in between.
Fujiya, Millennium Airport Hotel, Casablanca Street, Garhoud
Dining in Japan is a delight on so many levels, whether it's a cheap katsu curry after a hard morning's skiing on the slopes of Niseko, delicate and wallet-shattering kaiseki in an ancient inn in Kyoto, or sushi for breakfast at a counter in Tsukiji market after a 4am walk around the tuna auctions. But for me, nothing can quite beat izakaya dining. Izakayas are where I first learnt to love sashimi, discovered that the word nomihoudai meant all-you-can-drink (and we certainly did), and where I first tried the monstrosity called hoya that was a speciality of the region I lived in (it translates as "sea pineapple" but don't fall for the name - it has an ammonia-like flavour which, combined with overtones of seawater and its own guts, really turns the stomach). The word izakaya is often mistranslated as "Japanese pub", but this doesn't quite hit the mark. Food in an izakaya is a far more serious affair than the "two pints of lager and a packet of crisps" kind you'd find in many English pubs. An izakaya is more like a combination of a bar and a restaurant, often small and cosy, casual and fun, potentially boisterous after a little too much sake has been consumed, but always friendly. It's where you go after work to snack on multiple small dishes designed to pair well with your favourite tipple. Ingredients are usually seasonal, and you'll end up with an enviable selection of small individual plates in front of you, each menu item having its own particular piece of tableware. After living in Japan for eight years I've sought out a proper izakaya in all of the cities I've lived in since, with varying success. And then, in late 2018, former professional sumo wrestler Akio Hayakawa opened the doors to Fujiya in a fairly offbeat location close to the airport, and my izakaya dreams came true. The menu is full of truly authentic Japanese dishes that became firm favourites during my time living there, such as slightly sweet and vinegary shime saba cured mackerel, and fragrant herby shiso leaves lightly fried in tempura batter. You can go for a quick lunch and have a steaming bowl of ramen or simple Japanese cold soba noodles, the perfect refreshing dish for one of Dubai's hot summer days. Or you can push the boat out and order the wagyu shabu shabu. For a real treat in the evening, nothing beats a cold pint of Kirin (yes, Fujiya is licensed) paired with my favourite aburi mentaiko, lightly grilled salted cod roe with just a tiny dab of mayo on the side. In the good old days when I flew frequently for work I got into the habit of stopping in at Fujiya prior to a late-night departure, or heading there straight after arrival, carrying suitcases and duty free bags which Akio-san always obligingly stored for me as he ensured my Kirin was ready and waiting. Whenever I'm missing my time in Japan, Fujiya is guaranteed to hit the spot.
Long Teng Seafood, U-bora Towers, Al Abraj Street, Business Bay
I first discovered Long Teng Seafood on Instagram a couple of years ago when I was looking to feed a craving for Saturday lunchtime dim sum. During my four years in Hong Kong, weekend dim sum lunches became de rigueur, from the distinctly down-and-dirty type with chipped crockery and tea spilt on tables, to the three-Michelin-starred delights of Lung King Heen at the Four Seasons Hotel where I was lucky enough to work. So being seduced by the promise of all-you-can-eat dim sum that looked about as authentic as it gets, I ventured to a rather uninspiring part of Business Bay where I discovered some very inspiring dim sum. From red rice cheung fun filled with crispy bread and steamed prawns to crunchy vegetable tofu parcels, translucent har gao prawn dumplings and delicious soup-filled xiao long bao, Long Teng's dim sum are the real deal. I'm a bit snobbish about spring rolls (they always seem like filler to me), but when pressed I managed to find space to squeeze one in, and was rewarded with an almost impossibly crispy crunch without any of the oiliness and soggy filling that you often encounter. And the final icing on the proverbial cake - egg custard tarts so light and flakey that you practically have to hold onto them for fear they might float right off your plate. As the name suggests, Long Teng also offers "live" seafood (I'm a bit squeamish about seeing my lunch swimming before I eat it, so tend to stay away from this), and what is reportedly the best Peking Duck in town, with a Chef who specialises in nothing but this one dish. The menu is as close as you can get to any of the great menus I've seen in Hong Kong, and if you're craving dim sum and a little bit more, Long Teng is the place for you.
Dampa Seafood Grill, Baniyas Road, Port Saeed, Deira
I visited the Philippines a couple of times back in the early 2000s, travelling from North to South, from rice terraces to volcanoes, from the restaurants and bars of Manila to beachside barbecues on Bantayan Island, and as much as I tried to sample everything along the way (apart from balut - boiled fertilised duck embryo eaten straight from the egg shell is something I hope I will never have the need to consume) I never found the food particularly inspiring. Aside from the freshly grilled fish, everything felt very heavy, full of pork and beans, with desserts so sweet they practically dissolved your teeth enamel before you'd even swallowed the first bite. So when my Filipino friends in Dubai mentioned a great Filipino seafood place where they literally dump the bounty of the ocean in front of you, which you then eat with your hands, I was intrigued. And off we went to Deira one evening to Dampa Seafood Grill to try the Dump-A-Seafest, a rather unappetising name for what was a really quite fantastic meal. The restaurant is fun, casual and quirky, with a large outdoor seating area for the cooler months. You can play retro arcade games while you wait for a table at busy times, or start with one of the Fish Bowl Mocktails, an entire litre - or two if you're really thirsty - of sugar rush-inducing sweetness with names like Lindsay Lohan and Incredible Hulk. My friend Von took control of ordering, and minutes later a metal pan full of shrimp, crab, mussels, clams and corn in a spicy cajun sauce was dumped onto our wax-paper covered table, along with a smaller pan of crispy tilapia and two giant squids on sticks on the side. A pile of rice was spooned out directly in front of each of us, we put on plastic gloves, and went to work. You quickly realise why this place is such a hit - the seafood is perfectly fresh, the shrimps sweet and juicy, the mussels firm and meaty, and the sauce so moreish you can't help but scoop it up with balls of rice straight from the table. I feel like I've done a disservice to the Philippines over the years by basing my opinion of the food on what I tried 20 years ago. It's probably time for another trip to see what it's really all about.
Café Isan, Cluster B, Lake View Tower, Jumeirah Lakes Towers
I've mentioned Café Isan before in my post on the best small restaurants to revisit after lockdown, but it merits another mention as it was the place that delivered all of my much-missed Thai comfort foods on good days and bad when I first moved to Dubai. At Café Isan they don't compromise on flavour, or on spice level. If you ask for Thai spicy, you'll get Thai spicy - there's no toning down here, which tends to be a habit at many other places around the city. They're also not shy about offering the really authentic dishes that you wouldn't usually find, including Tom Saap Nua, an Isan-style spicy sour soup made of beef tongue and innards. I've stopped in for bowls of Khao Tom rice porridge after early morning wakesurfing sessions. On really hot summer days I head over for Som Tum Isan papaya salad with fermented fish sauce, or a Sup Nor Mai salad of boiled bamboo strips with Thai herbs, mint and lemon, followed by a bowl of Bua Loi, pretty pink and white rice balls in warm coconut milk. When dining with friends who aren't as keen on fermented fish as I am, we go for the more farang-friendly items such as the outrageously delicious Massaman curry and the unmissable Phad Kra Pao stir fry with Thai basil, garlic, chilli and a crispy fried egg on top, a typically Thai staple and something that I would eat multiple times a week when I lived in Bangkok. Café Isan also does a great vegetarian and vegan selection which is worth a try whether you're a herbivore or not, and you can play Uno or Connect Four if you want to add a bit of competition to your meal. If you're pining for true Thai flavours in a setting that's as close to a Thai streetfood stall as you'll get over here, then this is the place for you. Oh, and they were also awarded 2020 Best Thai Restaurant in Dubai by Time Out, beating all of the high-end Thai restaurants around town. Quite a feat for a self-taught chef, and yet another reason to pay them a visit or order from them online.
Ravi Restaurant, Shop 245, Al Dhiyafa Road, Satwa
First of all, a caveat - this may not necessarily be the best Pakistani food you'll find in Dubai. But for atmosphere, people-watching and affordability, Ravi Restaurant, or Ravi's as everyone calls it, can't be beaten. On a busy street corner in Satwa, Ravi's has been serving up unassuming but delicious Pakistani food for the past 42 years, and there's nothing like a bowl of their daal butter fry or a plate of chicken tikka as you sit at a roadside table and watch the Satwa evening street life go by. It's a Dubai institution, as much favoured by taxi drivers as it is by local families and expats, and the brave can even enjoy a spicy dish of brain nihari for an early morning breakfast - Ravi's is open for a quite incredible 22 hours a day from 5am to 3am. Curries are served in plastic bowls, water comes in anachronistic styrofoam cups, and every meal is accompanied by piles of piping hot bread fresh from the tandoor. It's the first place my parents look forward to visiting every time they come to Dubai. It's a great spot to go to with people who've only seen the blingy side of the city. On cooler winter nights you can have a great dinner, then go for a walk around the Satwa neighbourhood, stopping at the Indian sweet shops to pick up dessert, getting a cup of karak at one of the tea counters, or buying rolls of traditional Bedouin sadu fabric. Lockdown hit Ravi's hard, and the owners had to start selling off personal assets to keep the business afloat. It's finding its feet again now, and in these uncertain times when we all need a bit of comfort food, it's a great place to go for a highly affordable dinner. Any support you give them - whether it's a dine-in visit or a take-out order - may go that extra step to ensuring that this Dubai institution doesn't go the same way that so many other small restaurants have as a result of the pandemic.