Sometimes it takes leaving home to realise what’s in front of you. That was the case for Arva Ahmed, co-founder of Frying Pan Adventures.
Arva has lived in the Deira area on the Dubai Creek with her family since 1989. But it was only when she went to study in Philadelphia, followed by three years working in New York, that she developed a real passion for cooking and exploring through food – and decided to bring this knowledge back home.
“Food is one of our great connectors: to previous generations and to other cultures around the world. It’s a universal language. If you’re in a new place and explore its food, you start opening up stories of the communities that eat those foods, and you discover the essence of a place,” she says.
On her return to Dubai, Arva set about exploring her neighbourhood’s multi-cultural food scene with gusto: stumbling across new places and getting to know the people and myriad cultures that were all around her.
“I loved the idea of finding something new in my own back yard. It made me feel like an explorer and still does. It keeps the city interesting for me,” she says.
So, she started a food blog to satiate her unquenchable appetite for discovering Dubai’s hidden gems. “I wanted to write about the food of the people. The places that surprised me, where stories are shared, and traditions preserved. Tiny little eateries recreating the flavours from their home country for their community,” she says.
Preserving culinary traditions is something Arva is passionate about too.
“Dubai is like a crossing point on the Silk Road where all these different flavours and traditions come together in a big pot. It’s a really easy place to access many different food cultures, including some countries that are in conflict, such as Syria and Yemen,” she says.
It was on a work trip to Delhi that the seed was sown for her pioneering food tour business. Arva saw someone leading a street food tour and knew that’s what she wanted to do. So, along with her sister and “partner in crime” Farida, she trained as a guide and launched Frying Pan Adventures in 2013, taking people to taste their way around the souks, holes-in-the-wall and side streets of old Dubai. As well as international tourists, the local-led tours proved really popular with residents. Delving into the homegrown food culture, while well known to some locals, was less familiar to many than the world-class international fine dining.
“Walking around a humbler side of town that oozes character and discovering a whole range of beautiful cultures living side by side in the city really excited people,” says Arva.
“I love that you can globe-trot your way around the world through the food here: you can be on the banks of the Tigris in Iran eating masgouf [barbecued carp] with your hands then tasting chopan kebab [shepherd’s kebab] in Afghanistan… And, of course, you have all of the western food trends and amazing Michelin-starred chefs. There are so many options in Dubai, at both ends of the spectrum.”
If she had to pick one dish to eat, she’d opt for a paratha egg sandwich. The flaky “almost croissant-like” flatbread typical of Kerala is filled with cream cheese and omelette, then sprinkled with crushed-up spicy Chips Oman (crisps from neighbouring Oman flavoured with chilli and paprika) and slathered in hot sauce. “Eaten with a cup of chai, it’s perfect!” says Arva. “It’s a weird mashup that’s so representative of Dubai and all the random cultures that come in and influence the food.”
Reluctant to plump for just one favourite, however, she begins to describe the quality of Iranian kebabs in mouthwatering detail. Family-run institution Al Ustad Special Kabab is Arva’s pick for authentic Irani food, while she’ll head to Aroos Damascus and Sultan Dubai Falafel for “the most amazing” hummus and falafel. When it comes to Indian food, it’s all about grazing on pani puri, bhel puri, sev puri and samosa chaat at Meena Bazaar.
Although Frying Pan Adventures resumed service after Dubai’s lockdown lifted, with smaller groups and a host of health regulations in place, they have taken the decision to pause tours once again. For Arva, the joy of her tours centres on sharing food and interacting without barriers.
She cannot wait until life returns to normal so she can sit down to break bread with culturally hungry visitors in her favourite haunts once more. “Sharing a meal and stories with someone and opening up your culture is a very intimate way of connecting,” she says.
In the pause, however, she has re-started a food podcast, written an online guidebook to Dubai’s historic spice souk and is enjoying some time in the city with her young daughter.
“People come into Dubai with so many misconceptions – that it’s all glitz and glam and doesn’t have a soul. I love busting that notion. A place is what you make of it, so if you’re ready to go out and explore you can discover so much… Like the best restaurants, you just need to roll up your sleeves and dig right in!”
Broaden your horizons in Dubai
In Dubai, you’ll find all the right ingredients for a sun-soaked trip. The sophisticated metropolis by the sea provides unforgettable experiences, from serene safaris in the desert to dining in the world’s tallest building. Broaden your horizons with a trip that takes in its exhilarating mix of record-breaking architecture, traditional neighbourhoods and white sand beaches. You’ll return home with plenty of tales to share.
Find out more at, visitdubai.com