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What’s Hot and What’s Not – Food and Drink in the UAE in 2012

In the spirit of looking forward, I thought it would be fun to do a bit of crystal ball gazing about the food and drink scene in the United Arab Emirates.  There have been a few articles online about global trends but is it different in a place eager to cement its place as the trading hub of the Middle East?  Here’s the view from some movers and shakers (or should I say tipplers and tasters?) plus my own Mystic Meg contribution.

I asked Food and Travel writer James Brennan, the force behind Lafayette Gourmet’s events Harriet Bardsley, writer and wine expert Sarah Walton, Mahiki marketeer Harry Santa-Olalla, restaurant reviewer supremo Samantha Wood (aka Foodiva), MMI’s Head of Wine Tony Dodds and cheap eats champion Arva Ahmed which food and drink trends will be ascending faster than the lift in the Burj Khalifa in the UAE in 2012 and what will be resigned to the culinary doldrums.

What’s hot in 2012?

James Brennan: Could we be moving into a new phase for homegrown restaurants in the UAE? Dubai’s Okku now has more awards than pulsating purple jellyfish. Wild Peeta is another Dubai start-up conceived and driven by locals. And Table9 is proving that you don’t need a world-famous celebrity chef’s name above the door to win plaudits.

Okku, Wild Peeta and Table9

Harriet Bardsley:
Getting really good value for money will continue to influence customer behaviour in 2012 but people still want to have fun and eat great food.  Simple classics from earlier eras will be a big thing, especially 80′s-style traditional dishes like lasagna, prawn cocktail and kedgeree…and large portions too.
Learning to cook is having a massive resurgence so people can eat good food at home and feed their children healthily.  Cookery classes will be the new ‘going-out’ in 2012 (Lafayette Gourmet is holding some soon) as well as staying in for a special home-cooked meal (cheaper and more romantic than a fancy restaurant).

Picnics and hampers will be big in 2012 – not only stylish and economical but healthy too – get out more and enjoy the ‘ outside’!   Healthy eating will be even more of a focus this year.  There’s also a spirit of ‘seize the moment’ as who knows what the future will bring.  Getting to know new cultures through food in this country of 147 different nationalities is on many people’s ‘bucket lists’ – and that includes experiencing traditional Emirati cuisine.
I can see technology influencing and the  way people eat and order evolving – iPad menu anyone?!  It’s only a matter of time.

Lasagna, picnics and Emirati food.

Harry Santa-Olalla:
2011 saw the start of an influx of London-based food and beverage brands into Dubai including Mahiki, Embassy, Gaucho and Siddharta Lounge and I see this trend continuing in 2012 including the launch of Mo*Vida.  Londoners have come to expect a new level of added-value service, for instance Mahiki takes the experience to a whole new level with our mad shows, highly trained theatrical bar staff and standard of service.  The juices for our cocktails are freshly squeezed that day from the best fruit e.g. whole pineapples.  It’s the exact opposite of just having an ordinary experience with a cocktail served to you on a tray.

Good ingredients and attention to detail will be under the spotlight in 2012.    The sharing concept will also continue to rise in popularity – it’s the sociable experience of sharing platters and cocktails.

Samantha Wood:
I’m predicting an increased demand and supply of locally sourced produce mainly vegetables and fruit, and in some cases organic, fuelled by the growth in farmers markets.  Also they’ll be more and more home-based artisan producers whether cakes, chutney or chocolate.
Home-grown cafe concepts have been abundant in the UAE for a while, but we are now seeing more locally developed fine dining restaurant concepts take form with the likes of Table 9 at Hilton Dubai Creek. Having said that, the celebrity chef trend will still continue fueled by a primarily expat population. Gary Rhodes is opening at St Regis Abu Dhabi Corniche this year (Rhodes 44) fusing Arabic influences into his cuisine, and five chefs from Michelin-star restaurants in the US and Europe (total of 12 stars) will descend on Dubai for a gala dinner at Sofitel Dubai Jumeirah in April.
They’ll be more ‘chefs for hire’ setting up businesses in the U.A.E. to meet demand for home entertainment. And we’re going to see more technology-driven restaurant experiences from online restaurant reservations to i-pad menus. The growth of the UAE food blogging/ social media scene is giving consumers increased access to impartial online reviews.

Artisans chutney, local vegetables, iPad menus.

Sarah Walton:
On one hand, this place is still too new to discover its own direction, and is still aping other markets. Saying that, I see a rise in better quality Middle-Eastern food, particularly old-fashioned U.A.E. cuisine. The world movement taking people back to their natural roots will eventually catch on here, and so food that is geographically and historically relevant will be on the rise, particularly in the home. Organic and local will continue in growth, as it should. If any other cuisine sees a distinct rise in popularity, I would expect it to be the fresh and lively (and also healthy) flavours of countries like Vietnam – seafood, aromatic herbs, citrus etc.

Drinks will follow this trend – light, traditional cocktails, simpler than previous years, and light, aromatic wines – moving towards a drier and more neutral finish.

Vietnamese food, local organic produce and lighter wines

Tony Dodds:
I can’t see customers’ enthusiasm for Sauvignon Blanc slowing down in 2012 – it was the most popular varietal in 2011, but perhaps the ABC (anything but Chardonnay) trend will finally slow down with people turning more towards unoaked-styles.  In red wine, Malbec and Merlot are the grapes gaining more popularity and both Malbec and Torrontes from Argentina are ‘hot’ varieties here at the moment.  Argentina will be the place to watch in wine-making terms, there are a lot of exceptionally good wines coming from there right now.  However, don’t underestimate the appeal of France; in these times of uncertainty perhaps people are harking back to a gentler age through their wine choices.  On the other hand we expect the 2011 growth in sparkling wine and champagne to continue so someone’s celebrating!

Arva Ahmed:
Wholesome falafel joints that have spread their tahini all over the city. The usual Lebanese suspects like Al Mallah and Al Hallab make the list, but in addition, more yuppie quick-lunch joints, namely Just Falafel and Dukkan Falafel, are starting to attack the mainstream appetite by invading petrol pumps and other hot spots all over Dubai.
There’s there’s also a trend into Pakistani kabab fast food joints which looks set to continue in 2012.


Sally – My Custard Pie:
The organic and local produce scene has flourished in 2011 and things are only going to get better.  Ripe and the Souk al Bahar organic farmer’s market are now permanent fixtures with a loyal following.  Consumer demand will influence the choice of what’s on offer, for example kale has been grown locally for the first time this year.  Farmers will start to experiment with new varieties and a bigger range of locally grown fruit and vegetables.

New artisan food producers seem to appear every week – who could have predicted that even two years ago (when it was just Toffee Princess and LilyBakes)?  I’m loving food made with passion like the Italian Dairy Company and the proliferation of really good bakers.  Talking of bread – the choice is now enormous; I’m looking forward to new flavours and shapes from places like Baker & Spice, Crumbs and Le Succes in 2012 – and home delivery will increase…who can resist someone arriving with fresh bread?  The cheese scene is exciting too with Jones the Grocer setting the standard but Lafayette Gourmet hot on their heels and a gorgeous range of French cheese available at Finer Things (Umm Al Qwain).  Maybe someone will start making some really good local camel-milk cheese?

As far as eating out goes, breakfast is the new brunch if the throngs of diners at Baker & Spice, Lime Tree Cafe and Jones the Grocer on a Friday morning are anything to go by.  Simple food done exceptionally well is the key – try the Baker & Spice shakshuka, Jones the Grocer’s home-made yoghurt and fruit or their creamy porridge.   And unlicensed cheap eats with simple food, especially if in a quirky location will do extremely well (see Bu Qtair, Aappa Kadai and don’t forget good old Ravis of course).

I agree with Harriet that cooking classes are in – they will proliferate in 2012 but please no cheffy stuff…good home cooking is what’s in demand (Dima’s kitchen for instance).

While I think supermarket price wars in the UK are incredibly damaging due to the power the big four wield, it would be good to see a bit more competition here in the UAE.  With Carrefour’s expansion, perhaps prices of some of the basics will at least stabilise.

Continue to My Custard Pie to find out ‘What’s Not in 2012?‘.

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