Emirati food, the principal cuisine in Dubai, is all about one thing: spice. Put down the salt and pepper; in Dubai, all the flavor you'll ever need is already sprinkled into the dish from a wider variety of seasonings, few of which you may not be familiar (Is za'atar in your spice cabinet? What about cardamom?). There are so many interesting and exotic dishes to sample in Dubai, the best way to navigate its rich culinary landscape is by starting with the basics.
Al machboos is the Emirati's staple dish – think what red beans and rice are to New Orleans – and something you can't skip on your tasting tour of the Emirates. A favorite in the home and at restaurants, al machboos appears to be a simple dish – your choice of meat topped with rice – but packs a big punch flavor-wise, because it's seasoned with cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, dried lemon and yellow raisins. Thanks to Dubai's location along the coast, fish is plentiful and widely used as the choice of meat in hardy dishes. M'hammar will satisfy any seafood lover's craving for the taste of the Arabian Peninsula, prepared with locally caught fish and served with sweet yellow rice, caramelized onions and of course, a host of spices. Believe it or not, camel is widely available throughout Dubai, but is typically served on special occasions and often considered a food eaten among VIPs.
Other traditional fare to look out for are chebab, Emirati pancakes infused with saffron and cardamom and topped with yogurt and date syrup; khameer bread, which is stuffed with sweet or savory fillings, and kunafa, the Middle Eastern take on a cheese Danish. Arabic coffee is an experience in itself, especially for those who often take theirs with only cream and sugar. This coffee features regional lightly roasted beans mixed with saffron and cardamom. The ingredients are ground, boiled then strained and served in small cups. Don't forget to satisfy your sweet tooth here either. Emiratis love their desserts. The most traditional is luqaimat, which is batter deep fried in ghee and served with local date syrup (think doughnut holes with a Middle Eastern twist). Another classic dish is balaleet, which features sweet vermicelli noodles with raisins, saffron, cardamom and other spices. And if you're visiting during Ramadan, try Assidat al-Boubar, a pumpkin pudding made with rosewater that's widely served after the fast is broken.
A huge part of what has shaped Dubai's food landscape is the melting pot of cultures (more than 200 nationalities) that share the city. Aside from Emirati establishments, you'll find restaurants serving everything from classic French fare to dim sum. If you want flash, definitely go to one of the Burj Al Arab's restaurants. There's also La Petite Maison, a Michelin star-rated French import that sits near the Four Seasons. For beloved (and cheaper) casual eateries, head over to Al Samadi Sweets for Lebanese and Arabic dessert, or kick back and relax at Seven Sands, the oceanfront restaurant at Jumeirah Beach Residence. For more information about where to eat, check out the Dubai tourism board's website.