Before Dubai transformed into a glittery global hub with an international culinary scene, there were limited—albeit much loved—dining options that represented the city’s mix of influences. Sisters Arva and Farida Ahmed have fond memories of going for Friday-night dinner with their parents to one of the city’s Lebanese -shawarma joints, chai cafeterias run by Indians from the Malabar Coast, kebab joints, or the rare steakhouse.
“Everybody who grew up here knew only those five restaurants,” says Arva. Clustered on either side of Dubai Creek, a saltwater stream that slices through the heart of the city, these restaurants represent Old Dubai—the four neighborhoods that predate the skyscrapers that now define the skyline.
Dubai has witnessed a boom in its development over the last 20 years. This led to a world-class culinary scene. The city now boasts restaurants from some of the world’s most well-known chefs, from Gordon Ramsay to Nobu Matsu-hisa. There has been a temporary halt to new restaurants opening in the city due to COVID-19-related pandemic restrictions. “This is the good restaurants have thrived with a bumper 2021 of record revenues, and this year we’re already witnessing a mammoth lineup of new openings,” says Samantha Wood, a Dubai food critic and restaurant reviewer. The Michelin GuideIt was announced that it would debut in Dubai next year.
But the foundations of Dubai’s modern culinary diversity still lie in the neighborhoods and the nondescript yet unique restaurants of the Ahmed sisters’ childhood—something Arva always felt was missing from Dubai’s marketing. “There was a big gap in the way people were not talking about [Old Dubai],” she says. “I felt it was important to showcase this other side.”
Frying Pan Adventures was founded by the sisters in 2013. It takes visitors and residents on three to four hour experiences through Old Dubai’s bustling streets to discover culinary delights. Puri pani—a beloved street snack from the Indian subcontinent—to well–hidden falafel joints. The tours tell a story of the city’s history and its food, weaving together a larger story about community, migration, and aspiration in a city that is at a global crossroads.
The company was born out of Arva’s own explorations to find the tastes of her childhood when she returned to the city in 2010 after living abroad. It was overwhelming to see how the city has changed. She wanted to reconnect to her roots and blog about her experiences. “I was so consumed by the idea of discovering and showing people the places that weren’t getting the light of day,” she says.
The COVID-19 locksdowns and restrictions had a devastating effect on their business, with the group sizes being reduced from 12 to 6. But the sisters found creative ways to keep going, -launching an online guidebook exploring the city’s spice souk and a podcast called Deep FriedThis feature features Dubai’s food trends as well as local entrepreneurs. These have allowed them to reach out beyond Dubai.
While there were fewer visitors from overseas to take their tours, Frying Pan has stoked newfound local interest, especially among the city’s many expats, who are looking to understand more about the place where they live. “Before the pandemic, 30% of our client base was Dubai residents,” says Arva. This has now increased to almost 60%. “When you have that level of community,” says Arva, “it is hard to give up.”
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