A few months ago I had the opportunity to visit the Middle East with about 24 other students/JVs from the Kellogg School of Management as part of a class called GIM (Global Initiatives in Management). We visited Bahrain, Oman, Abu Dhabi and Dubai for the purpose of learning about business in the region and to work on our group papers. I’ve always been intrigued by the Middle East and figured I’d visit Dubai at some point, so this trip was a great excuse to see more of the region AND not have to do any trip planning whatsoever.
While I was excited to travel with friends (new and newer), learn about business and just experience the Middle East, what I was most excited about was of course the FOOD. Middle Eastern food has been my jam for years. Falafels are probably on my list of top 10 foods and I’ve been killing Schwarmas for years. I know my way around a lentil, and who doesn’t love meat on a stick? Exactly. I knew this was going to be a good trip when upon landing in Bahrain for our first night in the Middle East (at around midnight) someone mentioned that they were going on a hunt for meat on a stick. My kind of people!
Here’s a look at some of what I ate over my two weeks in the Middle East…
We flew Etihad Airlines to the Middle East and I was super excited because everyone says Middle Eastern airlines are great. As we sat down the flight attendants handed us a menu… yes a printed menu… for us to peruse to order our inflight meal. Granted there were only three options for the main it was still pretty cool. I chose the lamb kofta with saffron rice, which was actually pretty good for plane food. Not the best kofta of the trip but definitely better than most other plane food I’ve consumed over the years.
Our first night we went in search of meat on a stick. That’s when i was introduced to the crazy juice menus in the Middle East. They had everything from strawberry to mango to avocado. Yes, avocado juice. Of course I ordered that. It was more like an avocado smoothie and insanely delicious. That’s when I decided that at every meal I would have a DIFFERENT type of fruit juice.
I quickly became excited by the breakfast selection in the Middle East. Perhaps my favourite way to start the day was with a little bowl of stewed beans known as Ful medames which you eat topped with chopped onions, parsley, lemon and spices. I may just start making ful for my breakfast here. So a great and protein-packed way to start the day. I also got a lesson at breakfast in beef bacon which I did not enjoy. I don’t think they smoked it, and I definitely think bacon needs smoke. I passed on the beef bacon from thereon out.
One of our first lunches was at Al Abraaj at a mall in Bahrain. I was excited to try some traditional cuisine and opted for the rice dish known as lamb maqboos and then shared a mixed grill with a few of the boys.
Perhaps one of my favourite things about dining in the Middle East is the representation of foods from other Middle Eastern countries. For one of our dinners we went to an Iranian/Persian restaurant (on their New Year) and had one of the biggest feasts I’ve had in my life. What you see above are two of maybe 5 or 6 different dishes. Insane.
As I mentioned above, while in the Middle East we were responsible for working on our group papers. My group paper happened to be on luxury retail in the Middle East which basically meant that we absolutely HAD to visit high-end malls throughout the region as part of our research. I didn’t even use quotation marks around any of that! We really were doing work. At the Moda Mall we had lunch at Abd El Wahab. It was great! Not only did we sip on deliciously refreshing mint lemonade but I also had a killer lamb kebabs (kafta?). So good.
I couldn’t visit the Middle East without hitting McDonalds (at the airport in Bahrain). I was totally excited to see a chicken Big Mac on the menu. Think McChicken meets Big Mac. So basically replace the beef patties with breaded chicken patties. It was actually not delicious at all. Mostly because the texture of the chicken was weird and rubbery. Womp womp.
When we arrived in Oman that night we were starving. After suffering through airport food for dinner (yes, the above-mentioned Chicken Big Mac) we needed some sustenance. Luckily when we arrived at our hotel we were created with the above scene across the street. There were tons of people watching football/soccer AND Arab Idol, smoking shisha AND eating. So at about 1am a group of us rolled across the street where I partook in my first falafel IN the Middle East. I may have ALSO had a schwarma. Falafel and schwarma at 1am? Don’t judge. Or do, but I still come out the winner.
Oman was the sleeper hit of the trip. I went into Oman not really knowing what to expect (and this is after confusing it with Amman, Jordan for longer than I care to admit). Oman proved to be wonderful. Vibrant, so much energy, great scenery, street culture and of course food. Perhaps my favourite meal of the entire trip was at a Turkish restaurant in Oman called, appropriately enough, Turkish House. This was another one of those never ending feasts but this time the theme was seafood. We started with an assortment of dips, salads and spreadables like labneh, tabbouli etc. with the most delicious Turkish flatbread which came hot out of the oven and in huge ovals. Then we had perfectly golden-fried calamari rings followed by the most jumbo of jumbo grilled shrimp. Since this obviously wasn’t enough food they brought out HUGE grilled Hammour fish which we call Grouper over here.
My quest to try all of the juices continued in Abu Dhabi with this lovely pink lemonade from Shakespeare and Co. Don’t get it twisted though, this isn’t the pink lemonade you’re likely imagining. This features grenadine and rose syrup. So refreshing. Definitely one of my favourite beverages of the whole trip.
I also finally got my paws on some dates! The Middle East is of course famous for their date production so I knew I wanted to snag a few boxes to bring back stateside. What I didn’t count on were all of the dipped and filled versions that I spotted at this kiosk in a rando “community” mall in Abu Dhabi. The huge dates were stuffed with things like nuts and candied fruit and dipped in chocolate or a crushed nut coating. Loved these.
One of the best finds on this trip was Automatic Restaurant. It’s a Lebanese chain restaurant but don’t let the word chain fool you, this place is legit. So legit in fact that different groups on our trip independently discovered the spot. So legit that a lot of us had multiple meals there over our 2.5 days in Abu Dhabi.
The last stop on our trip was Dubai. After hearing so much about Dubai I was so excited to see it with my own eyes. With all the hype I definitely got there and didn’t quite get it. Dubai reminded me a lot of Vegas but with less nudity and alcohol. So man-made and so little culture (or so it felt). BUT I’m glad I saw it. For some reason we didn’t have a lot of meals to report back on in Dubai despite being there for 3 or 4 days. The most remarkable meal was at a Moroccan restaurant in the Mall of the Emirates called Almaz by Momo. I’m pretty sure I’ve never been to a real Moroccan restaurant so this was pretty exciting. We started out with a really great fattoush salad and for my main I had the chicken tagine while my dining companion had the pigeon pastilla. Yes, pigeon. Not as freaky as you would think… it really just tasted like poultry.
Perhaps the most fun I had in Dubai was a random tasting that my research group and I set up. We kept on hearing about Camel’s milk and decided “When in Dubai…”. So we hit up the supermarket in Dubai mall and bought five varieties of camel’s milk: plain, strawberry, date, saffron and rose. We then went back to the hotel, got a a few glasses and went to town. We unanimously agreed that the plain cow’s milk was not delicious and way too tangy. My favourites were definitely the date and the saffron. The rose really did taste like rose and the strawberry tasted like strawberry milk. Very glad we tried them.
After a great two weeks in the Middle East I’m ready for more! I thought it was really interesting to be in a place where religion really ruled and was on display all the time. There are few things like walking through the streets and hearing the call to prayer for the first time.
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