Arva Ahmed is changing her city. The 29-year-old came home from the US in 2010 “to reclaim my seat at the dinner table”, as she’s put it. Her quirkily titled food blog “I Live In A Frying Pan” has won a reputation across Dubai for sharp, insightful writing and encyclopedic knowledge.
Ahmed is one of the co-founders of Fooderati Arabia, an affiliation of 125 Dubai food writers who collaborate to investigate the city’s dazzling variety of cuisines.
Now she is launching Frying Pan Food Adventures, Dubai’s first-ever food tours, centred on the old districts by the Creek. “These are the pockets of town that depict a different, unglamorous, yet charming and historic side to Dubai,” she says.
These are the neighbourhoods where Dubai’s 19th-century trading links were established – and where vast numbers of new arrivals from South Asia, Africa and East Asia have settled, following the 1970s oil boom that spurred Dubai’s growth.
Each tour visits about 5 or 6 restaurants in a single area, walking a few minutes between each one. And they’re all in the evening: daytime is out because of the heat – and because everyone’s at work. It’s only after dark that Dubai’s street life gets going.
Dip into her African tour, which explores untouristed Hor Al-Anz to contrast Maghrebi cuisine from Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt with African dishes from Ethiopia and beyond.
The Indian tour focuses on Meena Bazaar, a web of streets in Bur Dubai that forms one of the city’s oldest commercial neighbourhoods. Ahmed led us from Gujarati nibbles to Punjabi delicacies to give a mouthwateringly vivid picture of the city’s North Indian culinary heritage, ending at a backstreet cafeteria for the deliciously sweet yoghurt dessert shrikhand, laced with cardamom.
I also loved the Arabian tour, which started with exquisite falafel at a garishly lit takeaway in Rigga, moving on to a Lebanese bakery for savoury manaqish pastries, then the Jordanian feast dish of lamb and yogurty rice known as mansaf, Yemeni roast chicken mandi, the Palestinian sweet treat kunafeh, and more.
Highlight of the night was an Iranian restaurant hidden on the upper level of a nondescript retail mall – otherwise impossible to find. Squatting cross-legged, we dipped hot bread into minty aubergine dip, before tucking into aromatic lamb kebabs.
And she knows her onions. Throughout each tour, Ahmed sparks with ideas, switching from a discussion of Dubai’s cultural mix to theories on the origin of the croissant, to stories of the 6th-century Persian king Khosrau, famed for combining meat with fruit.
There’s an intriguing hint of subversion to all this that undercuts Dubai’s carefully moulded tourist persona. Forget seven-star hotels and brand-conscious bling: Ahmed is shaping an image of Dubai that values cultural authenticity and one-to-one local encounters.
Like I said, she’s changing her city.
(At the time of writing prices had not been fixed for each tour, and may vary depending on date and group size – email ahead to check the details.)