An important part of travelling is trying the local cuisine. Exotic flavours and intriguing food combinations add to any holiday experience, stimulating the senses and forming long-term memories. No visit to the UAE is complete without sampling real Emirati food.
It’s easy to think of Emirati cuisine as being the same dishes available across the Arabic-speaking world. Tasty mezze dishes and succulent barbecued meats dating back to ancient times and were carried across borders by various invaders, from Alexander the Great to the Ottomans.
Of course, you will find numerous restaurants dubbed ‘Lebanese’ or ‘Turkish’, which offer wonderful baba ganoush, hummus and fattoush, as well as delicious sambousek, kibbeh and kebabs. There is, however, a unique local cuisine that many visitors miss out on when they visit Abu Dhabi.
Here, we take you through what is meant by ‘Emirati Cuisine’ and, most importantly, where you can find it!
What is Traditional Emirati Cuisine?
Long before the establishment of the UAE, nomadic tribes travelled across the region with their camels and other livestock, such as sheep, goats and chickens. These early inhabitants’ diets reflected the ingredients these travelling tribes had available to them.
Each tribe would trade with other travellers and passing by merchants for rice and grain, which formed a large part of the Bedouin diet.
Depending on the season, vegetables were added to dishes wherever they could be found, and of course, the ubiquitous date played a large part in this early nomadic cuisine. Once settlements were made, other fruits and vegetables found their way into local cooking, forming the basis of what we now call Emirati cuisine.
Some Classic Emirati Dishes
During different seasons, the dishes served vary based on seasonal ingredients. In colder months, it is common to consume dishes that are rich in rice, vegetables, and wheat. However, dishes with animal protein such as goat, camel, and freshly caught fish are preferred in the summer months. These are some of the early dishes that remain popular with Emiratis today.
Khuzi, also known as ghouzi and ouzi, is the national dish of the UAE. This dish is popular during Ramadan and on other religious holidays. The dish comprises slow-cooked roasted lamb or mutton served on a bed of rice mixed with vegetables and nuts.
The mother of all Emirati meals, Machboos Diyay, is a chicken and rice dish flavoured with cardamom, cumin, cloves and other spices. The rice is cooked with chicken broth and topped with roasted marinated chicken. Other forms of machboos including mutton or seafood, are also available.
A porridge-like dish of boiled, coarsely ground, cracked wheat, or bulgar mixed with meat and vegetables.
This traditional breakfast dish is a sweet and savoury combination. It consists of sweetened cardamom and saffron spiced vermicelli noodles, topped with a sort of omelette.
These delicious little dough balls are the perfect way to end Emirati meals. Like Greek Loukoumades, balls of cardamom and saffron fragranced dough are deep fried and then coated in date syrup and sesame seeds. They are crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. Legaimat is particularly popular with locals during Ramadan and around National Day.
5 Best Emirati Restaurants to Try in Abu Dhabi
This Emirati chain restaurant has several outlets across the UAE. The Abu Dhabi branch is located in Yas Mall, close to the entrance of Ferrari World. It is clearly identifiable from its elaborate façade, which looks like a traditional coral stone building, and the large model camels by the door. The inside of the restaurant is beautifully decorated with lots of quiet nooks offering privacy for you and your family.
The exhaustive menu contains every traditional Emirati dish all cooked to a high standard and presented beautifully. We recommend trying the ragaag here. It really is delicious!
- Where to find Al Fanar: Yas Mall Cascade Dining Area
- Opening hours: 9.00 am until 10.00 pm daily
Learn more at www.alfanarrestaurant.com
Meylas provides delicious local food in a unique setting. It offers indoor and outdoor seating in Al Muneera’s beach plaza and is open for breakfast at 8.30 am. The surroundings are rustic but comfortable and charming, and the food is exactly as it should be.
Dishes include traditional Machboos Diyay as well as Balaleet and sweet treats like Chebab (Emirati pancakes) and Legaymat.
Here, you can also try camel milk, date milkshake, and zaatar (thyme) tea.
This place is very popular with the locals, so they must be doing something right! It makes an awesome location, too for firework nights in Yas Bay; you’ll have front-row seats!
- Where to find Meylas: Al Muneera Beach Plaza, Al Raha Beach Area
- Opening hours: 8.30 am until 10.30 pm daily
Al Mrzab serves traditional Emirati cuisine alongside dishes from other countries in the region. The restaurant is usually quite busy, so be prepared to book a table or wait.
The setting is not overly fancy, but the service is of a high standard, and the food is absolutely delicious.
- Where to find Al Mrzab: Located on Airport Road in the Mushrif Area
- Opening hours: 7.00 am until 11.30 pm daily
For reservations call +971 2 666 2333
Yadoo means Granny in the Emirati dialect and ‘Yadoo’s House’ brings you all the warmth and wholesomeness that you could predict from a place with such a name.
A great spot for breakfast with a range of Emirati and other Arabian dishes, Yadoo’s house serves up some of the best Shakshuka anywhere in Abu Dhabi.
- Where to find Yadoo’s House: Al Nasr Tower 2, Al Amman Street, just off Muroor Road
- Opening hours: 8.00 am until 11.00 pm daily
For reservations, call +971 2 441 1311
A relative newcomer to the Abu Dhabi dining scene. This modern chic space plays homage to Emirati culture and values through its inspired decor, but the real star at Erth is definitely the food.
The menu may not be entirely traditional Emirati, but everything on your plate is locally sourced from farms around the UAE.
- Where to find Erth: Al Markaziyah West, Al Hosn Area
- Opening hours: 8.00 am until 11.00 pm on Saturdays and Sundays and from 12.00 noon until 11.00 pm Monday to Friday.
A Real Emirati Dining Experience
As well as the various restaurants around town offering Emirati cuisine, there are other culinary experiences that you should consider incorporating into your trip.
One option, is to have a traditional Emirati meal inside an Emirati home. In order to do this you do not need to quickly find yourself a friendly Emirati and wrangle a dinner invitation… although it would be fabulous if you could!
There are some ways as a tourist you can get a real taste of Emirati hospitality. One option is to book a ‘Savour a traditional meal with an Emirati’ experience on AirBnB experiences.
Another way to learn about Emirati hospitality is to attend a coffee-drinking ceremony at the House of the Artisans, situated in Al Hosn. These usually take place daily at 2:00 p.m., but do call ahead to avoid disappointment. For more information, click here.
Other Places to Get Arabic Cuisine in Abu Dhabi
In addition to the Emirati restaurants listed above, numerous Middle Eastern restaurants around town offer flavours from throughout the region. Here are some of our favourites:
- Bushra – perfect for an elegant night out, Bushra, part of the Trilogy by Buddha Bar, is located in Abu Dhabi’s newest entertainment hotspot, Yas Bay. Following a delectable meal full of local flavours, head upstairs for cocktails at the swanky Siddharta Lounge. For more details click here.
- Beirut Sur Mer – Situated in the Mamsha area of Saadiyat Island, Beirut Sur Mer offers the full range of Lebanese mezze dishes and grills right by the sea. For bookings and more information click here.
- Tean – another 5-star location is Tean at the Jumeirah Saadiyat resort. Enjoy an al fresco dinner full of local flavours as you listen to the waves lapping against the sand. To find out more click here.
- You can also find lots of budget Arabic restaurants on the backstreets. Do not be afraid to try them. If they’re full of locals, they will surely have great food!
Before you go… Important things to consider when planning a trip to Abu Dhabi
- Pop into our essential planning information page; it includes everything you need to know about getting around Abu Dhabi, a handy guide on what to pack and top tips for first-timers on the dos and don’ts, laws, and customs in the UAE.
- Don’t forget to pack your travel insurance!
- Discover the best places to stay in Abu Dhabi, or bag a bargain on your accommodation here:
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