Thursday, February 27, 2020

Dubai - The Food

Food and drink in Dubai are interesting in many ways. Alcohol is really eye wateringly expensive. A pint of beer, ordinary bog-standard draft, will cost you AED 50 which is INR 1000 or GBP 10 or USD 14. That is stiff by any standard. A bottle of Tanqueray 10 cost an astonishing AED 1400 that is INR 28,000 or GBP 280 or USD 390. Mind you booze is only available in 5-star hotels in Dubai, so one must be fair when comparing prices. Looking at it another way was, if it is only available in 5-star hotels, and at these prices, you have no choice. Bottom line, booze prices in Dubai are sobering, unless it is happy hour when prices can half.

Food is also pretty expensive in Dubai. Being located in a dessert, obviously, nothing grows and everything is imported. Buying specific top-quality produce like fish and serving it in high end restaurants is often at prices that exceed those in Europe. The matter is that pork is served in very very few places. The other meats that are served, be it beef or veal or chicken, are all Halal. One of the important factors when butchering animals in the Halal method is to cut the Jugular or Carotid Artery and allow the animal to bleed. Does this result in “dry” steaks or can a Halal steak be cooked rare? I do not know. I recall reading interviews with top British chefs who had opened restaurants in Dubai, complaining that Halal meat was dry. Personally, I have no opinion. We did not eat at Nusret or Gunyadin the now world-famous Turkish steakhouses with outposts in Dubai.

We did have 3 rather exciting meals. They were at

1.   Al Fanar an Emirati Restaurant in the newly developed Al Seef are at the Dubai Creek
2.    Anar a Persian Restaurant 
3.    Perry and Blackwelders a Texas Style Smokehouse and barbecue restaurant.
What is Emirati food? I asked my friend Jumbo, a long-standing UAE resident. He laughed and said there is no such thing. I then rsearched and Google gave vague general answers. One point to be kept in mind is that Levantine cuisine [Lebanese – Shawarma, Humus, Tabbouleh, Baba Ganoush, Vine Leaves and so on] form part of the modern Emirati cuisine, but they are recent imports. I could find no answer on what exactly constituted Emirati food, thus, proving Jumbo to be correct. 

There are however several dishes that are typically Emirati, some of whose names we in India are familiar with. If you do visit Lucky Restaurant or Jaffer Bhai Delhi Durbar, or Persian Durbar etc. you will see a section on “Arab Dishes”. These are Emirati dishes. Kepsa or Kebsa, Machboos both rice-based dishes with fish, or fowl or meat, Khuzi which is a whole lamb stuffed with Chicken and egg and rice, Harees or what we would call Harissa a thinner version of Haleem, Balaleat a breakfast dish, and of course Luqaimat a fried dumpling doused in honey or date syrup. Biryani is also widely consumed.

Fish is consumed very popular and is available everywhere. The Emiratis are absolutely mad about Hamour which is, in reality, several fish varieties all closely related forming part of the Cod family. You also get Shark which is prevalent in local waters. The cuisine does feature a lot of rice as well as vermicelli dishes which is cooked in flavoured liquid or stock and served topped with protein. Vegetables are cooked lightly in a light Tomato based gravy. On the whole the rice dishes are similar to our Biryani’s except that they are drier, certainly not as rich and oily and with a much milder spicing. In fact, what we do in Mumbai is we order Arab Mutton Biryani and Arab Butter Chicken from Jaffer Bhai Delhi Durbar whenever we have our craving. It is delicious. Once you taste it, I promise you, you will make Arab Mutton Biryani your preferred choice.

So off we went to Al Fanar, much researched by us and, endorsed by the Concierge. Al Seef is brand new development along the Dubai Creek, with the low-rise buildings being constructed in the traditional old Emirati style. Al Fanar was along the creek and we took an open-air table. Across the water we could see what were Dubai’s first skyscrapers – Rolex Towers – and some brightly lit Dhows. Quite pretty. Since Al Fanar was not in a 5 star, no alcohol. We ordered Vimto the local favourite. This was served icy cold, and it was sweet, very sweet. Vimto is drunk especially during Ramadhan as with the volume of sugar, you get an instant rush. No need for Gatorade.

Above: Ice cold Vimto

We were served a small bowl of Channa, simply boiled, served warm. The Emirati, like the Punjabis, really know how to cook Channa. It was very good.

We ordered Shark Cutlets or Koftat Samak as a starter. These were much like what we get back home. Lot of fish rather than filler, which is of course what is desired.

The main course was Machboos Laham or rice with lamb. The rice was cooked in meat stock with the Persian Dried Lime. This was excellent. Since we are Indians and need ‘daal’ to go with our rice, Deyay Nashef was ordered. This is Chicken cooked in a Tomato gravy which instead of rice to accompany we requested Bread. The Bread was a flatbread and delicious. The Deyay Nashef nice and mild and worked well with the Machboos. The only problem was the portion size. This was enough food for 3 people and a bit. Dishes are not individual portions and eating family style is the norm.

Above: Machboos Laham

Above: Deyay Nashef 

The setting, the cool weather and the food made a most pleasant evening.

We do like Persian food. We have eaten it in the past on several occasions. London has some decent Persian restaurants; Patogh, Kateh and Kandoo are three which come to mind. The Persians are good with rice and aubergine, they know how to get the best out of it. Anar is a place we had been to earlier; you can  read about it here.

The meal started with simple cottage cheese, much like our Paneer [in fact they call it Panir] served with Spring Onion Greens, Mint, Basil, Walnut, Radish and warm Flatbread. You make a little packet for yourself using these ingredients and pop it into your mouth. Very similar to Peking Duck or Crispy Aromatic Duck. Really delightful. I remembered eating this last some 30 odd years ago at our friend Bolly’s wedding [he is Iranian].

Above: Panir with the herbs and the flatbread

Salads with Yogurt are also very big in Persian food so a Borany Badamjan which is Aubergine, Yogurt and Garlic was ordered. Cool creamy and refreshing. We also got Mirza Ghasemi which is a sort of Baingan Bharta smoky roast Aubergine topped with Egg. This was a Quail Egg, sunny side up. I believe the dish is traditionally made with the egg scrambled with the Aubergine, much like our Kheema Ghotala.

AboveBorany Badamjan

Above: Mirza Ghasemi

The Chelo Kebab came highly recommended. It was well worth it. Tremendously juicy, minced lamb grilled on a flat skewer with some brilliant plain “Saffron” rice.

Above: Chelo Kebab

Above: The Saffron Rice with Tadigh or the crisp bottom.

The last dish was our ‘daal’Ghormeh Subz as classic a Persian dish as you can get. Spinach, Methi leaves, Rajma, Dried Limes and Lamb all cooked together, much like a Saagwalla Ghosh, turbocharged. Absolutely wonderful. This is one of our favourite dishes anywhere, and it is healthy to boot.

AboveGhormeh Subz 

This was a super meal and if you are in Dubai this place in highly recommended. By the way, it is in a 5 star, so you get booze.

The other memorable meal was at Perry and Blackwelders, which is a Texas smokehouse or barbeque place. This is US style barbeque where the meat given a dry rub, cooked over smoke for several hours and then served. You must have seen countless shown on TV with US style barbecue. Perry and Blackwelders is a large multi-level restaurant also in a 5-star hotel. This place served Pork.

We have never eaten US style barbeque, and have salivated watching shows on TV. We are not regular visitors to the US, and thought this will not be terrible so why not give it a shot. Boy oh boy, we are glad we did.

What is the classic appetiser when eating barbeque? Buffalo Wings with Blue Cheese Sauce. Reasonably spicy Chicken Wings came with an offer of gloves! Yes, why dirty your fingers when eating wings? No malarkey with finger bowls. Gloves were donned, Wings picked up and the bones licked clean. A wonderful starter.

Knowing this was Texas Barbeque, we had to order the two classic dishes. Smoked Beef Brisket and smoked Baby Back Ribs. Side order was a mix of Potato and Sweet Potato fries. The Brisket was really really good. Deeply smoked and tender beyond belief. The Ribs, like the cliché, literally fell of the bone. There was no chew. This was more, much more, than what we thought Texas Barbeque could be. This was excellent food. I know we were in Dubai, a million miles from barbeque country of Texas, North Carolina and Tennessee. It made us realise why US style barbeque is so loved and such a big deal is made of it. This is not kebabs cooking over charcoal, this is not Yakitori. This is something more, much more. We are hooked.

Above: Buffalo Chicken Wings with Blue Cheese Sauce

Above: The Barbeque Smoked Beef Brisket. Truly delicious.

Above: Baby Back Pork Ribs

In conclusion, like every great city be it London or New Your or Tokyo, Dubai offers you a myriad of food at all price points. You can eat very well in Dubai and the gastronomy on offer is second to none.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Abu Dhabi - The Sheikh Zayed Mosque and the Louvre

We had been to Dubai a few years ago. So, all the tallest building, biggest mall, indoor skiing in the biggest mall, dessert safari kind of tourism was done. Not many new sites had come up in Dubai, except probably, the Frame.

However, Dubai’s bigger [much bigger by land area] sister Abu Dhabi has two attractions. The Louvre which was inaugurated in November 2017 and the Sheikh Zayed Mosque or the Grand Mosque, which we had not seen despite it having been inaugurated in 2006.

We drove from Dubai leaving at 9 am on silky smooth highways. These were probably the best roads we have ever been on. The roads in Croatia were good but these were better. Once you cross the Dubai border or, more correctly, leave the Emirate of Dubai and enter the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, the road changes colour. No, no, it is not miraculous, it is simply a safety measure to warn drivers that they have entered Abu Dhabi, and now the speed limit is lower than that in Dubai. Often not only is the asphalt a different shade, but, the lanes are painted a bright signal red to warn drivers of the changed speed limit. A 75-minute drive brought us to the Grand Mosque.

A few bits of advice when visiting the Grand Mosque:

1.    Arrive in the morning before 10.30. Fewer people around. Less lines, less hold ups at security.
2.    Do not go on Thursday evenings or on Fridays.
3.    For males, dress in long trousers and long sleeve shirts
4.  For females, you will be compelled to wear an Abaya. You can borrow one there. Which will raise issues of hygiene. If possible do carry your own. Alternately you can wear an ankle length skirt with a full sleeved top and a stole to cover your head.

To enter the Grand Mosque, which is free, you need to register either at a window or at one of the several self-help kiosks. You are given a small “ticket” which has a bar code that is scanned at a few points. Be sure to carry this all thru your visit as it will be scanned repeatedly.

The Grand Mosque is huge. Acres and acres of white marble are used. The marble is very white, very clean, very bright and often makes photography difficult. The cleanliness is something that is most striking, it is really really clean. The Grand Mosque also has some biggest, largest things, such as the largest hand knotted carpet and the largest Chandeliers.

The insides of the Grand Mosque are really quite something. The inlay work, intricate and extensive. The Chandeliers very tasteful and the glass windows, I thought, stunning. Do have a look at the photos. I came away very impressed. The Grand Mosque is a must visit.

The Louvre, on the other hand poses a bit of a problem. The building is designed by the highly respected Lord Norman Foster of Foster and Partners the UK based Architects. It is supposed to be beautiful, designed as seemingly floating with sunlight appearing to pass thru Date Palm fronds. Like many other structures in the UAE, the fascination or even obsession for including water bodies, is evident here too. Pools of water give the illusion of a floating museum. I used the word “supposed” a couple of sentences ago. My primary reason is that as a visitor, you really have no idea, or chance to see the design of the building. The only way you can really appreciate the building design is from a distance. I found this strange.

As far as the exhibits were concerned, we both found them to be “thin”. No really heavyweight exhibits. There was an exhibition on entitled 1000 years of Luxury. 

Decent. But, unfortunately, overall, you could give the Louvre a miss.

Above: For some reason this exhibit of a primitive tool reminded me of the Asterix & Obelix comic books. To me the tool looked exactly like the "Menhirs" Obelix carried on his back.

Above: From the exhibition on 1000 years of luxury. A rather modern looking Gold Bracelet with plant motifs. This is from circa 200 to 100 BCE or nearly 2200 years ago.  

Above: I was fascinated by this Statue carved in Italy in about 1870, not so long ago, just 150 years. The skill with which the exquisite carving on the mans robe is done, showing the Terrycloth or Towelling and the strands. So also the details of the beard. Amazing skills.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Dubai - Lessons for Modi ji and the Indian Government

We were in Dubai on a short 5-night beach holiday. Yes, beach holiday. Dubai does have a lot of sand; it is in the Dessert after all. Dubai, located in the Persian Gulf, also has beautiful sandy beaches. The beachfront hotels are a-plenty at all price points. The weather in the winter months is truly delightful. The sun doesn’t seem as hot, , the sea is a refreshing 21C and the ambient temperature is a pleasant 22C during the day with a cool sea breeze. The evenings get cooler and you will need a light jumper or sleeve. The air is pollution free and the sea clear. What more can you want? A cold beer in the afternoon while you lie on the recliner? A Daiquiri? No problem. On a private beach, the hotel will happily serve you intoxicants. Many hotels do have private beaches, that is beaches open only to hotel guests. We had a delightful relaxing time.

Do you remember when you were in school, your class teacher invariably asked you to write an essay on what you did or how did you spend your vacation? Well, in that vein, I thought why not write about what I learned, and what I realised during my vacation.

The first thing I realised is how absolutely correct our Great Leader Modi Ji was. In 2014 when he used the phrase “Maximum Governance Minimum Government.” Remember that? Well, let me tell you that Dubai is a shining example of “Maximum Governance Minimum Government.” You do not see law enforcers around. Yes, many private security guards but they are at best, information kiosks, sheep dogs to keep the pack of tourists together, or simply there to point you in the right direction. You see no Police. Despite this, crime is virtually non-existent, and, the levels of cleanliness are startling. No one, absolutely no one, litters. If you are caught committing a crime, Sharia Law applies so you could be fined, jailed, flogged, have your hands cut off or beheaded. If you are lucky you will be fined, flogged, jailed and then deported. I presume lawyers practicing criminal law are non-existent in Dubai.

People simply obey the law. They obey inanimate objects like signs! Let me give you an example. “No Parking” or “One Way”. An inanimate sign. Who observes this in our great country? Drugs and booze are against Islam i.e. their religion. Even God will not be able to help you if you are caught with drugs or misbehaving while intoxicated. I must explain, in every country you have laws prohibiting driving under the influence as well as laws against misbehaving when drunk. It is not that Dubai is any different on this score. But where it is different is if you are caught. You will be punished, swiftly and without mercy. Forget about bribery.

I am no behavioural scientist; however, I am sure that there are fewer crimes in Dubai as compared to India or Western Europe and USA. If my assumption is correct, and I believe it would be, several questions are raised. If Sharia Law does result in safer societies should one have this in place? The Deterrence Theory in relation to criminal offending is the idea that the threat of punishment will deter people from committing crime and reduce the probability and/or level of offending in society. It is one of five objectives that punishment is thought to achieve; the other four objectives are denunciation, incapacitation, retribution and rehabilitation. Sharia Law certainly has four of the five objectives with, rehabilitation being the missing part. Let us admit it that we all want safer societies. So, should we switch to the Sharia in India?

I do know that our Great Leader Modi ji’s slogan “Maximum Governance Minimum Government” does not only mean Criminal law. However, what I did glean is that Dubai is a shining example of the slogan. Of course, it is indeed tragic that our Great Leader Modi ji has not been able to meaningfully implement the slogan, but, on the contrary, Government is increasing every day.

Modi Ji, please go to Dubai and send all our bureaucrats there. One hopes that the process of osmosis results in reducing the Government. Wishful thinking.

My second learning is how loosely and irresponsibly we speak. A rather large accusation you will agree. You will always hear, in Dubai the Emir or the Sheiks control everything. They make their money in myriad ways of control. Dubai, as you may well know, has no oil. So that income stream simply does not exist. What does exist is several other income streams, all developed, nurtured, cared for and maintained by the Government.

You know of course, that Dubai relies heavily on expatriates. The visa fees and residency fees, though small, all add up to a lot. Emirates the airline is Government owned. The land is generally government owned. Telecom companies, utilities like electricity and water are Government owned. My research revealed that Le Clos the very upmarket Liquor Shop located outside every Emirates Business/First Class Lounge is ultimately Government owned. Yup, booze shops are Government owned. The Jumeirah Hotel Group is government owned. All this is true, the Government owns everything that is hugely revenue generating, preferably guaranteed revenue.

Now is my question. Where else, my dear readers, does the Government have ownership of exactly what I have described in the preceding paragraph? Our dear Bharat, India. Yes, folks our Government from the time of independence has been in business. Why do we not whisper in exactly the same way about India as we do about Dubai ‘The Government own everything”?

Have a look at this table I have made for you

All PSU Banks
Air India
The Hotel Corporation of India – now disinvested
All the State-owned liquor licencing companies like the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation Limited TASMAC
All the state Power generating and distribution companies

Our Government also own our trains, our mines and minerals and our ports. All huge revenue generators, ordinarily. Of course, I could go on and on with what our Government owns. You all know what an absolute mess the Government has made of these. Each and every one of us is literally poorer, paying more taxes simply because of these inefficient basket cases.

Yet, as I have written, we speak with a mixture of scorn, fear and belief that because the Government owns everything, they have it easy. In fact, all these government owned companies in Dubai are profitable and a delight to interact with besides being world standard. When we have been ripped by our own Indian Government from 1947 with the Government running these generally third-class companies, we say nothing. This is why I said we are loose lipped and irresponsible.

A factor that boggles the mind is the paradigm change in the huge Sub-Continental population i.e. people from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh. It is these same people who back home would spit on streets, be taxi drivers from hell, disobey and break every law large or trivial, are disorderly, rape without a thought in the world, molest women constantly, are transformed into angels in Dubai. By and large our Sub-Continental brothers become law abiding, smile at you, are helpful, polite, courteous and generally nice guys. The same Sub-Continental brothers who make shitty roads, shoddy buildings, cut corners and are [I hate the word and the concept] Jugaad masters, completely change when there. This is an absolutely startling reality that you encounter in Dubai.

Coming back to India I grew despondent. I have never in the past been as depressed as I was returning from Dubai. I know that Western Europe and USA are so far advanced that we in India have no hope in hell of catching up. But Dubai, just a trading outpost in the 1970 has been transformed. The transformation which I believe can be explained with the two phrases - “Maximum Governance Minimum Government” and “the Government owns everything”. It is just that, the Sheiks and the Sharia with their principles that have so changed Dubai. And, this has been done on the backs of the same venal, lazy, short cut taking Sub-Continental individual.

Do we have hope in India? Of course, we do. But it is such a mountain to climb. I often despair.