You may think of Dubai as the most wildly opulent place in the world, a city in the desert with both indoor tropical rainforests and ski slopes. But there’s a fascinating and important other side to it - Old Dubai, where migrants and refugees from all over the Middle East and beyond have come for safety or opportunity. Arva Ahmed was raised there by parents who came from India, and is passionate about leading food tours in her hometown as a way to tell stories while making you salivate. Her Frying Pan Adventures include tastings and cooking classes in parts of the city that few tourists and newer expats visit, areas called home by dozens of nationalities. She also shares all the culinary treasures of Dubai with the world as co-host of The Frying Pan Diaries podcast.

Francis Lam: You lead food tours through the city for, I'm assuming, primarily international travelers and guests. What tends to surprise them when you take them around?

Arva Ahmed: You'd be surprised that we take a lot of residents in Dubai on our tours as well. Because people live off in their own neighborhood, they're not coming back to the old side of town, which is where I've grown up and where I live. So, there's this sort of disconnect between the two sides of town - both of which are very authentic, mind you. The tallest building, having the world's most expensive cupcake or cocktail or whatever you're having, sitting up on the nth floor of the best building in the world. That is Dubai. That luxurious experience is Dubai.

But at the same time, the side of town where I live is also extremely authentic, and that's the side of town that reminds me of my childhood. To your question about what surprises people - as you mentioned, people see Dubai as this very modern, sleek, luxurious destination. It's sort of this artificial Disneyland of sorts in the region, and they don't expect that you have all of these layers of culture that are stacked up in the communities here. When people come on our experiences, we make it a point to not just feed them, but we use all of the different communities and the cultures and specifically the plates that are coming out to talk about food history and culture in the region.

It's a statement not just about the diversity of Dubai, but about how important food history and culture is in the broader region, and we can do that in Dubai. We are the place that brings together foods of even cultures in conflict. You might not be able to travel to Iraq right now. You may not be able to travel to Syria. You may not be able to travel to Afghanistan. But just sitting where I am right now, I can go out and have those meals within a 15 minute driving radius, and that to me is fantastic.

Arva Ahmed
Photo: Airspectiv Media

FL: If we were to go out with you, looking out your window in whatever direction you want to take us in, what are some of those neighborhoods? Who would we meet there and what would we eat there?

AA: The neighborhood that I've lived in since 1989 used to be primarily Middle Eastern. A lot of people from Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Iraq and so on. So a lot of the restaurants have that very Middle Eastern focus. For example, we could go one street down and we could have Palestinian-style stuffed falafels, and they're stuffed with chili paste, which we call shatta. They're stuffed with sumac, which is this sour berry that tastes very much like lemons, and they make it in a handmade sort of mold, like an ice cream scoop, but for falafels. They crust it up with sesame seeds and deep fry it. And even their hummus is different because, typically you just serve your chickpeas and tahina, but the way the Palestinians and Jordanians do it is they splash this spicy sauce over it. It's more pungent than spicy. It's green bell peppers, chili peppers, lemon juice and garlic almost blitzed together like a salsa verde, and they just splash it over the hummus and it kicks up the whole flavor level a notch. So you can have Palestinian food.

You can go down the street and have Iraqi food just steps away from that, which means you can have masgouf. Masgouf is a kind of bottom feeder fish that typically, in other parts of the world, you would disregard. I believe in Australia they convert it into fertilizer. But, it's an ancient cooking technique of cutting this massive fish - the minimum weight is about two kilograms. You slice it open. It has to be done is a certain way. You slow cook it around a wood fire to smoke it for about 45 minutes and then you scoop it up with fresh bread out of the tannur oven with mango pickle called amba, tomatoes, a kind of basil leaf that we call reyhan, and onions, and it is simply delicious.

These are walking distance from where I stay now. You cross the creek, you go to the other side and then you land up in India Town. You land up in Meena Bazaar - that's got a lot of really old restaurants, some of which have even been around before the country became a country in 1971 - and you can have a mix of North Indian style street food. You can have dosas, idlis and farahs from South India. So, really, it's this mess of cultures that's just waiting to be tasted.

Arva Ahmed leads food tours of Dubai with Frying Pan Adventures. Stops include restaurants, street vendors, markets and spice shops.
Photos: Airspectiv Media

FL: And I'm really fascinated by what you said before, especially about the people who are coming from places where there's conflict. And they didn't necessarily leave because they wanted a better life or because they wanted to go somewhere else. They left because they had to. And I would imagine that impulse to hold on to what they can remember is intense.

AA: I completely agree. We don't just have people opening restaurants. There are cookbook authors here who feel compelled to write about their recipes, but also the stories behind the recipes, because some of these dishes, they don't taste the same. Not because of the ingredients, but because you didn't have the background behind where that dish was originally eaten, why it was eaten, how it was meant to be eaten. All of that really adds to the flavor behind the dish, because nostalgia is that X factor. It's that flavor component that you just can't replicate. And I think a lot of people feel this need to start showcasing some of the specialty dishes. When I was growing up, it was a lot of the standard Lebanese, but commercial Lebanese - falafel, hummus, shwarma. You had your basic Indian restaurants, a lot of cafeterias doing juices and shwarmas. At that time, we didn't have the nuanced food culture that Dubai has currently. Over time, people have developed this appetite to want to learn. They want to experiment, they want to move past the hummus and the falafels, and they want to start learning about the special Palestinian chicken pie called musakhan from Palestine, or the Syrian fatteh, which is this beautiful crumble dish with warm yogurt, butter, pine nuts and pomegranate seeds. There is an appetite to want to start discovering what are those authentic flavors in whatever form that it is replayed today. And I also see some really interesting innovations happening that I think maybe would not be accepted back in their home cultures.

Arva's food tours include a wide range of foods from Middle Eastern countries all often within walking distance.
Photos: Airspectiv Media

FL: Interesting.

AA: So, for example, there's a baker down my street who mixes three ingredients that I'm quite positive are not meant to be mixed together. Because I've had people from the Middle East coming on my tour and they feel appalled that you would mix ful medames, which is the slow cooked fava beans done Egyptian-style with chili paste, which is shatta, and labneh, which is hung yogurt, in one fatire, which is sort of like a calzone pastry. You would never do that.

FL: That sounds incredible.

AA: Yeah. You've broken all kinds of rules. That is blasphemous. And I have found those same people who say that it's blasphemous lurking around on my streets coming back for exactly that. So in some cases I think it's good to break a few rules. You push your boundaries and you start blending ingredients, and isn't that actually how the world evolves and continues to evolve to begin with?

FL: Yeah. Especially there. You're in a new place, you're living a new life, you've got to make your new pastries.

AA: Absolutely.