Dubai: Cuisine on a grand scale

 

By Elizabeth Greenberg, Staff Writer

 

I bring most everyone who comes to visit me in Minnesota to the Mall of America.   Yeah, it's kind of ostentatious, but there's something wonderful about a mall where there are entire stalls devoted solely to the sale of hermit crabs.

Dubai: Cuisine on a grand scale

 

By Elizabeth Greenberg, Staff Writer

I bring most everyone who comes to visit me in Minnesota to the Mall of America. Yeah, it's kind of ostentatious, but there's something wonderful about a mall where there are entire stalls devoted solely to the sale of hermit crabs. 

 

 

But Minnesota's dubious pride and touristy joy pales in comparison to some of the offerings in Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates. Dubai is home to, among many things, Jebel Ali, the world's largest man-made harbor; several sets of man-made islands being constructed in the shapes of palm trees and world maps; and the Burj Al-Arab, the world's tallest hotel, set on its own man-made island in the sea. If you thought our amusement park in the Mall of America was impressive, Dubai's Mall of the Emirates contains its own indoor ski slope. Unsurprisingly, given all the construction, tiny Dubai is said to currently contain 15 to 25 percent of all of the world's tower cranes, according to a 2006 report. 

Then, more relevantly, there's the Dragon Mart.

 

The Dragon Mart is an enormous dragon-shaped Chinese wholesale goods market in Dubai. Shops extend all the way down the nearly mile-long spine. The Dragon Mart sells nearly anything you could think of—their website lists furniture, clothing, electronics, lighting, and metal products, among others. But don't let the wide variety of goods fool you: Dubai's Dragon Mart is no Chinatown. It was formed to sell goods internationally, not be a hub of the local immigrant community. However, it is a strangely good example of what makes Chinese cuisine in Dubai unique.

 

In many of the countries we've been to together, Chinese food came to the country along with a wave of Chinese immigrant laborers.  Since they were seeking alternative sources of livelihood and were bullied out of many fields of work, they settled on opening Chinese restaurants, and adapted their meals to the tastes of the local populace to generate income.

 

What makes Dubai an interesting case is that neither of these patterns holds true. As Jennifer Lee puts it, "the Chinese in Dubai are businessmen, manufacturers, and traders. They do not work in restaurants." Additionally, in Dubai, there's hardly any local palate to adapt to: 85 percent of the population of Dubai is expats from other countries.

 

So what does this mean for Chinese cuisine in Dubai?  For one thing, part of the pattern of immigration holds true: the waitstaff in Chinese restaurants is the population willing to provide the cheapest labor.  As a result, most of the waitstaff at Chinese restaurants in Dubai are Filipino rather than Chinese.  For another thing, there is no single most popular local interpretation of Chinese food in Dubai.  Meals range from the traditional (ma po tofu) to foods familiar to American consumers (sweet and sour chicken) to foods familiar in other countries (Chicken Manchurian).

 

Best Restaurant Worldwide?
Although the Golden Dragon Restaurant is Dubai's oldest Chinese restaurant, Zheng He is possibly better known. Perhaps most startling, the restaurant has an entirely Chinese staff. "If you walk in and there is a Filipina hostess, it doesn't give you a sense of authenticity," says the executive chef, Leong Chee Yeng.  Despite this interest in authenticity, the food at Zheng He is hardly traditional. Their dishes, like those in many local restaurants, contain many ingredients not commonly found in China, such as black truffle, white asparagus, and caviar.

 

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CHINAINSIGHT (CI) is published monthly ((except July/August and November/December are combined) by China Insight, Inc., an independent, privately owned company started in 2001 and headquartered in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.

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