Hey, guess what? It’s been ten years since David and I moved to Dubai. A whole fucking DECADE!!!! Guess what else? After all this time, I still can’t say that I like living here. And yet here I am anyway. Go figure. And (for a bunch of different reasons) we’re actually planning on sticking around – for a while at least. So, even though I can’t say I enjoy life in Dubai, I am making an effort to at least try and actually live in the city I’ve inhabited for ten years. Believe it or not kids, I am trying. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I haven’t written a piece shitting on Dubai for a while. Nearly four years in fact. Sure, I’ll whinge about it every now and again, but that’s normal, right? We all whinge from time to time. Nope, I’ve been making a real, concerted effort to find some kind of peace with the fact that this is where I am now. It makes no sense to keep fighting it. But that doesn’t mean I need to like it. I never will. What it does mean is that, occasionally, I will venture out of the comfort of my home to try something new. Something that might even be a little bit fun.
So when my beautiful friend Zimmy asked me to join her for a Bengali cooking class, of course I said yes! To be honest, I actually had no idea what Bengali food looked like, or even where Bengal was. But hey, I was going to spend some time with my second favourite person in Dubai, cooking up a storm and then eating it. What is not to love about that.
Quick geography and history lesson: Bengal, an area in north-eastern India, was ruled by the Brits until they decided to finally piss off home in 1947. The area was then divided into states belonging to India (the predominantly Hindu, west side) and Pakistan (the Muslim, east side). Fun fact: in 1971 the side belonging to Pakistan gained independence and became Bangladesh (hey, you learn something new in this ejo every damn month!). Our Bengali cooking class featured food from the Indian side of the road. And it was amazing.
The class, held at Hyatt Place hotel was a collaboration between one of Dubai’s prominent food bloggers, Ishita Saha, author of Ishitaunblogged and co-founder of food and travel portal FoodeMag, and and a local outfit called Frying Pan Adventures. Frying Pan Adventures is actually the reason I was really excited about this event. I’ve been reading about their back-alley, culinary adventures for years. Let me put it this way; if I was visiting Dubai as a tourist today, I would skip the luxury hotels, waterparks and malls and I would hit the streets with Frying Pan Adventures. For me, a city’s heart and soul are hidden away in its unseen alleys, and I really believe that the best way to get to know a place is through those backstreets and through the food you find there. Not the “five star” Michelin pretenders, but real food, eaten by real people, every single day. For me, it’s no contest.
Frying Pan Adventures is the lovechild of several young entrepreneurs, mostly women, who came together over their shared love of food. And can I just say, I am thrilled that they didn’t just take that love and open (yet another) Dubai restaurant! This city already has 20,000 of them. It doesn’t need another one (are you listening Gordon Ramsey)? Here’s the thing though, only half of those restaurants are listed on Tripadvisor or Zomato. The rest are small, backstreet joints with no website, no Facebook page and sometimes not even a menu. And they’re usually doing a roaring trade with those in know. The ladies (and gent) of Frying Pan Adventures have taken their passion, and their knowledge of these backstreet gems, and opened that world up to those of us who would otherwise never get to experience it. Isn’t that just awesome!
I’m yet to actually go on one of their walking tours (the class I attended was a one-off event), but I have booked to do their Middle Eastern Food Pilgrimage next month, featuring food from Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt and Iran. I’m excited. And you know what? I’m excited that I’m excited. This is a new feeling for me. Of course I should have guessed that I would feel more at home amidst the grittiness and realness of Old Dubai, than in the distorted reflections of its skyscrapers.
And so I, and 19 other people, went along to the special Bengali cooking event earlier this month. I ate some yummy Bengali snacks as I watched Ishita prepare and cook a couple of the dishes on the menu, with the help of some volunteers. She made us begun bhaja; seasoned and fried eggplant slices topped with garlic sauce and pomegranate. Yum! We then watched her make shorshe baata maach, which is a fish dish made with incredibly delicious and sassy mustard flavours. Speaking of which, did you know that the single ingredient that is most definitive of Bengali cooking is mustard oil? I don’t think I’d ever tasted it before, but it’s so fragrant and aromatic and flavoursome. I’ll definitely be cooking this easy to make dish myself at home.
But my absolute favourite dish of the whole day was luchi!!! Luchi, for the unenlightened (as I once tragically was) is a deep-fried flatbread that puffs up while it’s cooking, transforming it into a billowy pillow of delicious, hot, flaky goodness. An orgasm in your mouth. I could literally eat these all day long, and Bengalis do. Luchi is served with breakfast, lunch and dinner. How fucking civilised!!! And yes, in case you were wondering, I do have a thing for fried bread. Don’t judge. When they went around the group asking people what their favourite Indian dish was, I unequivocally said naan. Coz you can eat it with ALL the other dishes!! Duh!!
After the instructional part of the event was over, we were all taken upstairs to a hotel suite that had been transformed into a typical Bengali home with the help of some soft furnishings, knick-knacks and old photos. It was a really lovely setting and we all sat down to enjoy the rest of the food, which had been prepared by the hotel cooking team and served, family-style, by our hosts from Frying Pan Adventures.
It was such a treat to be part of this culinary adventure and to experience something new in Dubai and on my taste-buds. Nothing will ever change the way I feel about this city. But I can easily admit that there are many things here that are good. Pockets of culture and authenticity and realness, and even joy. If I can find more of those things, then perhaps I can also find a better way to live here. Perhaps I can find my place. For fuck’s sake, if fried bread can’t do it, nothing can.