The United Arab Emirates is a food oasis located in the center of the Middle East. Although it’s mostly surrounded by deserts, the UAE has a diverse cuisine that’s famous for travelers to visit and taste.
Although there is international dining from all over the world, for a truly regional experience, the best dishes to try are authentic Emirati ones. Most of these meals are influenced by surrounding countries and have been made into staples of local culture due to their popularity. And as such, they are found almost anywhere you travel.
Keep in mind there are plenty of famous local foods that didn’t make the curated list below. With that said, here are nine of the most iconic foods and drinks to savor while visiting the United Arab Emirates, in no particular order:
Shish Tawook and Shawarma Sandwiches
The UAE has a strong culinary connection to other countries in the middle east, including Lebanon. Shish tawook and shawarma are some popular street foods that came from Lebanese culture and have adapted to be a part of everyday life in the UAE.
The difference between shish tawook (also spelled shish taouk) and shawarma is distinct but they can sometimes get confused. Shish tawook is mostly made out of chicken. The chicken is marinated in a yogurt and tomato base with plenty of herbs and spices. It’s then put on a skewer and grilled on an open flame.
Shawarma can be made out of multiple types of meat, but chicken shawarma is what is most commonly compared to shish tawook. The meat is marinated in a very simple blend of oil and spices. It’s then put onto a spit and cooked for several hours, sometimes overnight to achieve a specific roasted flavor.
To make the famous street food sandwich, these meats are then sliced thinly and served on pita bread with an assortment of toppings. The most common toppings are pickles, onions, tomatoes, and yogurt sauces.
It’s the perfect dish to get on the go if you’re looking for a quick bite. They can be found in most stores and on street corners throughout the country. This meal is fast, cheap, and delicious, so it’s no wonder it’s one of the most popular.
This dish is a local favorite of Emirati culture and is loved throughout the Arabic Gulf in several cultures, including Kuwait and Bahrain. There are a few variations of it that are made commonly throughout the UAE.
One of the ways that Emiratis make al machboos is with chicken or lamb served with seasoned rice. The rice typically comes with lemon, as well as cinnamon and cardamon, giving it a distinctly fresh flavor. The meat and rice are typically cooked together slowly in an oven so that the flavors combine fully.
Al machboos is usually served with other items, such as a variety of salads and a yogurt-based sauce called raita, which comes with it to balance the flavor. This is a very filling local dish, which makes it easy to serve the whole family.
While it’s typically only served during celebrations such as weddings, banquets, and religious festivals like Ramadan, there are many places to try this dish and it’s relatively simple to prepare. Al harees is made by mixing wheat, water, salt, and meat in a pot to cook for several hours.
Some recipes have the wheat boiling for several hours before adding the meat to the stew. Others add all items together to cook for the same amount of time.
Regardless of how it’s prepared, it’s one of the most iconic cuisines of Emirati culture, with recipes being handed down through many generations. If given the opportunity to try al harees it will absolutely be worth it.
Similar to harees, al madrouba is a very popular food served at Islamic ceremonies. During Ramadan, dishes are prepared throughout the day and savored once the sun goes down. It’s very common to find it at festivals and events rather than at restaurants because of the fact that it takes a long time to prepare.
Al madrouba is made with meat, typically chicken but sometimes that’s substituted for lamb or fish. Crushed grains are added in addition to rice, yogurt, tomatoes, onions, plus an array of different seasonings. It’s cooked down with water over several hours. Once the meat is cooked well and the rice and grains are soft, a wooden spoon is used to mash all of the ingredients into a porridge-like consistency.
It’s easily digestible for adults as well as children of all ages due to how it is broken down in the final process of cooking. Al madrouba is also not a very spicy dish like some of the other stew dishes in Emirati cuisine.
Although a couple of the other items discussed so far have been soupy in texture, fatteh is a much lighter alternative for a meal. It has a hodgepodge of ingredients that Emiratis have been tossing together for years for a delicious, quick meal that is sure to satisfy everyone.
Fatteh typically comes in three layers: the first contains bread that’s soaked in chicken broth. The second layer usually has a variety of vegetables and chickpeas, including thinly sliced zucchini. The third layer is a mixture of spices, tahini, and yogurt. For garnish, pine nuts, parsley, paprika, and red pepper flakes are added to give this cool, savory fare a bit of crunch and spice.
The word fatteh in Arabic translates to crumble, which this meal tends to do when served. It’s typically offered during the summer months due to how refreshing the yogurt paired with the zucchini can be. It’s also presented cold making it an easy dish to create early in the day and set aside for later.
Considered one of the national dishes of the United Arab Emirates, this one is worth making the time to taste. While it’s frequently reserved for special occasions, it can be found in almost all fine-dining restaurants in the UAE.
Khuzi, also spelled ghuzi, qoozi, and quzi (depending on the country of origin), is made with mutton or lamb. It’s usually roasted for a significant amount of time with a bunch of spices. In Emirati culture specifically, it’s wrapped in date palms and submerged in an oven for several hours.
It’s then plated with rice that is spiced with cinnamon, saffron, nutmeg, and cardamom. The dish is topped with raisins and pine nuts as well as some vegetables to create a super filling and complete meal.
Because khuzi has a long preparation time, be willing to wait if dining out. Though it’s worth the wait, keep in mind a portion can sometimes be large enough for an entire family. So if you’re ordering this at a restaurant, make sure to get a few appetizers to pass the time and bring along enough friends and family to finish it.
Similar to a doughnut, this delicious sweet treat is a can’t-miss classic. Though luqaimat is often provided at special events, due to its popularity it has become a treat that can be found year-round at local restaurants. You’ll see spellings of lokma, lukma, or simply “Arabic dumplings”.
Luqaimat in Arabic translates to “little balls”, which is exactly what these desserts resemble. They are similar to a round dumpling made with butter, sugar, flour, yeast, and milk. It’s seasoned with saffron and cardamom. They are fried until they are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. A date sauce accompanies them, giving extra sweetness and a sticky texture.
This comfort food is considered a classic for a reason. And given it’s easy to locate at restaurants throughout the country, be sure to taste luqaimat on your next vacation to the UAE.
Dates are significant to Arabic culture in a number of ways. They’re considered a delicacy that symbolizes wealth and abundance and is a vital food throughout Emirati households. Most major cities like Dubai in the UAE have shops that sell many flavors of dates and candies made with dates.
One way to enjoy this small fruit is a desert called al batheeth. It is made using several methods, so you may have a different experience eating it in one place than in another area of the country. One way Emiratis serve batheeth is in a crumble form with a spoon, using a mix of date, saffron, and ginger.
A more common offering is in a cookie shape. The ingredients of the aforementioned crumble are then mixed with water, creating a date paste, and wheat flour. This gives the cookies a nice, smooth texture, and holds together well when paired with beverages.
Another way it’s showcased is in a ball form, similar to the previous luquaimat in shape. Batheeth balls are decorated with different kinds of toppings, including sesame seeds, raisins, and nuts.
Due to their diversity and importance within the culture, dates in any way, shape, or form should certainly be consumed while on a UAE trip. Whether you have them in a fancy pastry such as a batheeth cookie, or just on their own dipped in chocolate, eating this fruit is a delightful experience that should be experienced.
Gahwa (Arabic Coffee)
The United Arab Emirates elevates the coffee lovers’ experience to another level, with an array of upscale roasters located throughout its major cities. There are many coffee shops found in the country, so it’s hard to miss an opportunity to taste Arabic coffee.
The traditional name for Arabic coffee is gahwa or qahwa. It’s presented in a traditional coffee pot called a dallah, which has a special shape and design. It’s created by using coffee beans that are still green and cardamon is added to enhance the flavor.
Dates usually accompany gahwa, which is a common drink throughout the day in Emirati culture. The beverage is a sign of hospitality and generosity. The practice of serving it is a protected cultural practice that has been even been recognized by UNESCO.
Drinking coffee in the United Arab Emirates is possibly one of the most important food traditions the country has and should be added to any traveler’s bucket list.
Emirati cuisine is filling and wholesome, with a lot of care put into every dish. It’s evident by how delicious all the local favorites are. However, these nine favorites are just a small fraction of the local cuisine. There are plenty of other foods to eat in the United Arab Emirates.
The UAE fare has multiple international influences, which enrich the flavors and make it a culinary hub for travelers. While visiting, make sure to incorporate as much local food as possible in between the incredible international cuisine that is offered here to create an amazing foodie trip to this gorgeous Middle East and Southwest Asian country.