Before Dubai transformed into a glittery global hub with an international culinary scene, there were limited—albeit much loved—dining options that represented the city’s mix of influences. Sisters Arva and Farida Ahmed have fond memories of going for Friday-night dinner with their parents to one of the city’s Lebanese -shawarma joints, chai cafeterias run by Indians from the Malabar Coast, kebab joints, or the rare steakhouse.
“Everybody who grew up here knew only those five restaurants,” says Arva. Clustered on either side of Dubai Creek, a saltwater stream that slices through the heart of the city, these restaurants represent Old Dubai—the four neighborhoods that predate the skyscrapers that now define the skyline.
Over the past 20 years, Dubai has experienced a burst of development, and with it, a world-class dining scene. The city now boasts restaurants from some of the world’s most well-known chefs, from Gordon Ramsay to Nobu Matsu-hisa. After a brief halt in 2020 due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, new restaurants are opening and thriving. “The good restaurants have thrived with a bumper 2021 of record revenues, and this year we’re already witnessing a mammoth lineup of new openings,” says Samantha Wood, a Dubai food critic and restaurant reviewer. The Michelin Guide announced it will debut in Dubai this year.
But the foundations of Dubai’s modern culinary diversity still lie in the neighborhoods and the nondescript yet unique restaurants of the Ahmed sisters’ childhood—something Arva always felt was missing from Dubai’s marketing. “There was a big gap in the way people were not talking about [Old Dubai],” she says. “I felt it was important to showcase this other side.”
In 2013, the sisters launched Frying Pan Adventures, a tour company that takes residents and travelers on immersive, three- to four-hour experiences along the bustling, unmanicured back streets of Old Dubai to find culinary delights ranging from the best pani puri—a beloved street snack from the Indian subcontinent—to well–hidden falafel joints. The tours tell a story of the city’s history and its food, weaving together a larger story about community, migration, and aspiration in a city that is at a global crossroads.
The company was born out of Arva’s own explorations to find the tastes of her childhood when she returned to the city in 2010 after living abroad. She felt unmoored by how much the city had changed and wanted to connect to her roots, blogging about her culinary adventures. “I was so consumed by the idea of discovering and showing people the places that weren’t getting the light of day,” she says.
COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions hit their business hard, with group size reduced from 12 to six people. But the sisters found creative ways to keep going, -launching an online guidebook exploring the city’s spice souk and a podcast called Deep Fried that features Dubai food trends and local business owners. Both of these have given them the opportunity to reach people outside of Dubai.
While there were fewer visitors from overseas to take their tours, Frying Pan has stoked newfound local interest, especially among the city’s many expats, who are looking to understand more about the place where they live. “Before the pandemic, 30% of our client base was Dubai residents,” says Arva. That has now risen to nearly 60%. “When you have that level of community,” says Arva, “it is hard to give up.”
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