Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Missive 1: Food in the UAE Part 1

For my first compartmentalized entry I’ll start talking about food., which is non-offensive, but reveals a lot.  In some ways, it reminds me of Japan in that you get the local food, the immigrant food, and the weird version of American food.

Let’s take the last first and take it from there.  Here in Sharjah you have small malls like Matajer and the Sharjah Co-Op, which is actually an amazing grocery store/ general store.  But in them are McDonalds, Burger King, Subway, Hardee’s and the like.  What I have to say about them is much like the famous scene in Pulp Fiction in which John Travolta talks about there being a Royale with Cheese because they’re on the metric system.  But this isn’t exactly true.

What you get is American fast food with weird variations to the menu that address regional tastes.  This could include Emiratis, Indians, Filipinos, and the like as well as expats.  Considering that the hierarchy here goes from locals to expats to the upper working class, you will find things like a Peri Peri Chicken and Chicken Tikka sub at Subway or a Date Pie at McDonald’s.

 Probably one of the stranger things that I  found was a “Chicken Loader” at Hardees, which is a grilled chicken tortilla wrap, stuffed with Jalapenos.

This brings me to the idea of “spicy” here at fast food joints.  First, Rule 35 of Emirati Fast Food Culture: If it can be made, it can be made “spicy”.  In the case of the Burger King Chicken Tendrgrill, Spicy isn’t some sort of Cajun spice, it’s Tabasco. Lots of it.  And in the case of the Chicken Loader (strange name, by the way), nearly enough jalapenos as chicken.  Maybe not, but seems like it.

The second rule of Emirati fast food is Upsell, Upsell. Upsell.

In other words, the very nice Filipino woman behind the counter asks,
Chicken Fries?
More fries?
Orange Juice?

My favorite incident was (twice) a nice African guy tries to upsell me on American cheese like I’ve never had it on a chicken sandwich like THIS. “American Cheese, very nice…”, and he gets me a slice of the luxury Velveeta like it’s this exotic import product (which I guess it sort of is), but wow.  Next comes the kettle cooked potato chips, where he personally gets one fresh from the vat on a plate for me to sample like it’s foie gras.  I find this fascinating and gratifying, if a little bizarre.  He’s puzzled that a guy with a little paunch can pass up these delicacies, it seems.

But there you have that. And every fast food place delivers by motorcycle. Yes, take out Subway – Actually ShoBi the driver is a really nice guy at Subway here on Campus, but I haven't done that yet.

Being that the UAE is about 80% expat, you find almost everything here. The Indian food isn’t like the States, it’s serious. At the Gazebo, the menu is about a quarter inch thick and there’s all this Southern stuff I’ve never even heard of – ever.  There’s almost anything from this general area, Turkish, Lebanese (not so much, surprisingly),  Iranian (Again not as much as there are tensions),  Bangladeshi, you get the idea.

The strangest thing I’ve found is NORTH KOREAN. Yes. There is a restaurant run by the Dear Leader in Dubai, and it is worth a go.  It’s a small place with a half dozen identical, immaculate slim young women who not only serve you things like Codonopsis Root, “Vitality Health Drink (dessert)” and the national cold noodles (not my liking, but worth doing) to standard Korean BBQ.  The waitresses have name placards with the national flag on it and perfectly serve from the right, and so on.  After the meal, there is a floor show where they sing Nationalist K-Pop and hand out apples to the audience while playing accordion in front of a big watercolor backdrop of the Motherland. No value judgment, but my mind was blown.  The one thing I noticed was one of the waitresses staring outside the door, and I don’t know if she was thinking, or if I’m projecting.

I’ve gone on long enough about food for this time without even touching on the local stuff.  But eating here is an adventure, and I’ll get to more of this in a future entry.

Next - the National Drink - Lemon Mint ;)

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