Culinary By Justin Gibson

Savoring the Sands of Time

YOU, THE UAE'S CULINARY SCENE AND ONE DAY TO TASTE IT ALL

The United Arab Emirates sits at a captivating crossroads in time: In the past, millennia of civilization passed through this section of the Arabian Peninsula - with much of that history still interspersed in the sand dunes to date. But, more recently, seven different emirates liberated from British rule banded together to form the UAE, which then rode the region's oil boom to exuberant heights.

Today, the country's historic roots and exorbitant modern wealth weave together to create an incredibly eclectic and unique identity, especially so in the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Skyscraper jungles house the likes of opulent palaces, grand mosques and plush resorts with a smorgasbord of surreal possibilities peppered in between. Indoor ski resorts? Check. A bazaar dedicated to gold? Check. Ancient burial grounds, a Ferrari theme park and an annual catwalk of prized camels? Check, check and check; if you're imagining it, the UAE most likely has it, no matter the theoretical contrast.

Dubai's skyline

IF YOU'RE IMAGINING IT, THE UAE MOST LIKELY HAS IT.

The cuisine of the country is caught mid-time-travel. World-leading gastronomic experiences neighbor street markets with wares that predate automobiles, let alone Michelin Stars. Whether you're an established foodie, sport a striking sweet tooth or have simply worked up an appetite from globetrotting, the United Arab Emirates' culinary scene has your stomach's desire. The key to making the most of your time here is branching out to both ends of the country's timeline.

SABAH (MORNING)

Depending on where and how your trip unfolds, the start of your day can take a myriad of shapes. Historically, the meal has been equal parts sweet and savory: Balaleet (vermicelli sweetened with a medley of sugar and spices before being topped with an omelet) and muhalla (whole wheat and date crepe) are clear-cut traditional examples, prized on many menus - though an excellent choice of venue for the real deal is the Arabian Tea House in Dubai's historic heart.

But, as with all modern cosmopolitan hubs, global influences shine. French patisseries, Australian coffeehouses, Mediterranean brunch spots, Balkan cafes, American comfort food and British bistros barely scratch the surface of what's available. If you can't narrow it down to one country's cuisine, have them all: Venues like the Social House in The Dubai Mall sport everything from shakshouka to the quintessential New York bagel.

Bedouin tea with nuts and dried fruit
Balaleet

BAED ALZUHR (AFTERNOON)

Midday sees the sun well overhead and your stomach likely growling - the street-food stalls' sumptuous smells certainly contribute to that. If you were going to grab a quick snack, the ever-revolving display towers of meat may spin you in the direction of a shawarma, but consider: The majority of the country's border stretches along the Persian Gulf. Seafood has a particularly prominent place in the country's palate, and is subsequently done very well.

Case in point: Those in Abu Dhabi should seek out the Al Mina Fish Market. Colorful rows of scaly saltwater denizens adorn the stalls perused by wholesalers, but for lunch purposes, your order should be smaller. Select the fresh fish, crab or prawns that appeal to you, then a short stroll over are counters dedicated to gutting and filleting. Then, right next door are the small canteens devoted to cooking your catch. With a nominal fee at each stop, it's quite possibly the freshest meal you can enjoy in the entire country at the cost of pocket change.

For a more opulent experience, the polar opposite of Al Mina is Pierchic. Jutting out over Dubai's water atop a private pier, fresh, sustainably sourced seafood is transformed into luxe works of art with Mediterranean flavors. While this venue is renowned as a romantic dinner spot, the benefit of enjoying lunch here is sparse crowds - making for an intimate experience. For a less luxurious (though equally delicious) lunch option in Dubai, a simple walk down the beach will deliver you to Bu Qtair.

Fresh spices and vegetables at a street stall
Fresh seafood at a fish market

Formerly a seafood shack plopped onto the beach, the restaurant now boasts an actual brick-and-mortar building housing throngs of patrons eager to enjoy the secret masala curry sauce. While this flavor might always have seemed destined to be coveted, no doubt the raving endorsement from the late Anthony Bourdain helped.

Finally, if your taste buds would prefer your afternoon treat to be sweet instead of fishy, you can't go wrong with an order of karak and lugaimat. Karak is a black tea brewed with spices and cream - and easily bought from any roadside stop. Lugaimat are fried dough balls (if your mind jumps to donut holes, you're not wrong) drenched in date syrup or rose-flavored honey. Individually they're treats, collectively they're taste bud decadence; the perfect midday pick-me-up.

Grilled tiger prawns

MASA (EVENING)

As the day sets on the UAE, night proves to be when Dubai really shines - the city puts on a show when it comes to dinner. Novelty experiences (like dining at a table suspended over the city by crane) are abundant, but look past them for the truly breathtaking venues. At.mosphere sits at the summit of "restaurants with a view," as its location within the world's tallest tower garners the distinction of world's highest restaurant. Savoring exquisite gastronomical creations with a bird's eye view of neighboring skyscrapers makes for an otherworldly ambiance.

Hitting the town to find dinner sees you awash with options, but contrary to conventional wisdom, staying in might be your best bet: The hotels and resorts of the city go above and beyond providing memorable dining options - especially if you factor in the added benefits of Travel Leaders UK SELECT bestowed upon you by booking through our agency. As impressive as At.mosphere is, it's not the most lavish choice in town: That distinction likely goes to any venue within the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah hotel. A self-proclaimed seven-star resort, extravagant indulgence is the standard here and "award-winning" is baseline for its nine restaurants. While you couldn't go wrong with any of them, we recommend Al Iwan. It's not the most romantic (that's French restaurant Al Muntaha), or the most extravagant (Gold on 27 is a chic gastro-bar literally glittering with gold), but it is mezze dining of quintessential Arabian cuisine. Ending the day with time-honored dishes within the literal symbol of modern Dubai seems a fitting conclusion for savoring the full scope of the UAE's culinary identity.

The following hotels are a smorgasbord of paradise, each providing a unique flavor of respite and relaxation. The one thing they all have in common? Bonus amenities and added benefits available when booking through our agency with Travel Leaders UK SELECT Hotels & Resorts.