The vegetarian-dining scene in Dubai is lacking a little – well a lot of – zip. To date, there aren’t many specific vegetarian restaurants like you would find in other cosmopolitan cities such as Sydney, LA, London and New York where the trend for designated veggie eateries and raw food restaurants has exploded. Admittedly as Dubai becomes more international and upscale, vegetarians aren’t being completely ignored. As one visitor to the website ‘Happy Cow’ – a vegetarian guide to restaurants and health food stores – notes: “It is possible to get a vegetarian dish in just about any Dubai restaurant.”
But if vegetarians aren’t ignored, they are often treated with indifference. And while it’s one thing to rule vegetarians out completely, it’s another to recognize their existence and then offer an unappealing, uninspiring token veggie dish that smacks of no effort. It’s a situation that long term Dubai resident, Arti Halligan – whose husband Steve turned vegetarian a few years back – is all too familiar with. “If you go to a nice restaurant, there is usually one dish swimming in cheese or a boiled vegetables options neither of which are very exciting,”’ says Arti. Chefs just don’t look after their non-carnivore diners enough and much of the time vegetarians are forced to get stuck into the bread bowl while their friends salivate over the ‘best steaks in the world’. While carnivores coo over their expertly prepared and beautifully presented entrees, vegetarians are left to pick at an overcooked plate of pasta arrabiatta and the likelihood is that they will leave feeling still hungry. All in all, it’s hardly a dining experience to write home about and vegetarians could be forgiven for thinking that they could have eaten better at home, something Arti acknowledges: “Ever since Steve became vegetarian we tend to eat out less and less as the choices are usually so limited. If we find a place, we usually tend to stick to it. I love More café (04 283 0224) for their pumpkin and feta salad”. Yet as delicious as More’s offering is, even for those passionate about pumpkin, it’s not one that you would want daily.
It has been argued that high profile celebrity chefs such as Gordon Ramsay – the irascible chef almost as famous for his four letter outbursts in the kitchen as for his food – haven’t helped matters. Not content with forcibly ejecting restaurant critics or celebrities from his restaurant, Ramsay’s relationship with our herbivorous brothers and sisters is a notoriously volatile one. The flamboyant former football star has been the bete noir of the vegetarian community since 2005 when he fed meat to a vegetarian in the second series of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. He then sparked further outrage when he confessed in an interview to having fed a dish to a vegetarian party that contained chicken stock. Ramsay’s much touted Dubai gourmet venture, Verre (04 227 1111) happens to be one of the worst offenders with vegetarians made to feel they should kneel in gratitude and supplication if Verre can rustle up a non meat dish. Glasshouse (04 227 1111), the restaurant adjacent to Ramsay’s Verre, is a good bet; although the menu is not entirely vegetarian, the meat count is low with lots of imaginative, vegetable based options. Yet for the most part, Glasshouse is in the minority. For while a fast food chain like Burger King manages to offer its customers a surprisingly decent spicy bean burger, most high-end establishments simply don’t seem to know how to prepare an up scale meat-free meal.
Mid range eateries tend to be more accommodating. The Noodle House (04 294 0885) for example, will cook any of their dishes as vegetarian while ex pat favourite, Fibber Magees (04 332 2400) boasts a huge and varied vegetarian menu. But be warned sometimes seemingly innocuous offerings like THE One’s (04 345 6687) celebrated slow roasted tomato soup have actually been cooked in a meat stock and for the most part, non meat eaters would do well to look to other cuisines – notably Indian where you can feast on vegetable curry. But once again, these ethnic venues tend to be at the cheaper end of the scale and unlicensed; reinforcing the lack of fine dining opportunities for vegetarians in Dubai.
It’s a situation that needs to be addressed. The demand is there; Dubai has more vegetarians than people think – they have just been forced to hide in their homes eating dishes by Amy’s Kitchen; a Canadian company whose wholesome organic vegetarian convenience foods from pizza and pot pies to stir fries and soups are stocked in Spinneys (04 355 5251) and the Organic Food shop (04 398 9410).
Essentially then, it is possible to survive as a vegetarian in Dubai, but to thrive? Well that’s an entirely different story. In a city renowned for its happening restaurant scene, veggies are left feeling shortchanged. Still there are signs that Dubai’s growing population of non-meat eaters are biting back and in response some restaurants such as Tang (04 339 3333) at Le Meridien Mina Seyahi have begun experimenting with vegetarian haute cuisine. Often these options won’t appear on the menu, but on request, the chefs will happily conjour up some of the most delicious dishes (sans meat) imaginable, which help dispel the stereotype that veggie dining is Spartan, dull and healthy (many contain butter and cheese). Vegans wouldn’t approve, but even the staunchest of carnivores would do well to give them a try. Who knows, maybe just maybe, a ‘green gourmet’ boom is beginning…
Survival tips for vegetarians in Dubai
For hassle free dining in Dubai, commit a few of the following phrases to memory…
Ana nabatee – I am vegetarian [male]
Ana nabateeya – I am vegetarian [female]
Mish akool lahma walla ferekh khalis – I don’t eat meat or chicken at all
Ana nbattee. Ana laa akul lohhoom – I am vegetarian. I don’t eat any meat