Send a ship loaded with converted vintage food trucks from the UK to the Persian desert? Take cutting-edge, fashionable British street food to a traditional, conservative culture? Plan, build and run a road-show of three large-scale food festivals over several weeks in a region we had no prior experience of?
Last year we had an intriguing proposition pop into our inbox: would we launch a series of street food festivals across the UAE? It came from the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority and, I must admit, the idea all sounded a bit far-fetched and a little bit crazy.
Now, after many months of return trips meeting with the various multitude of stakeholders involved; heading out for site visits; getting to know the local food scene and culture; sending a convoy of food trucks out from Rainham, Essex, to Jebel Ali Port, Dubai and putting together and building three events, one after another, in three very different locations…well, it still seems crazy.
We have run many food events over the years and considered ourselves to be rather handy in last-minute, high-pressure situations; but this project was to take the biscuit, gobble it up furiously and spare not even a single crumb. The highs and lows and the unique dramas and challenges were many and constant. But despite the culture-shock and complications, it has been a pretty incredible journey.
Grateful for the winter sun and with all preparations in place as much as they could be, we welcomed the arrival of our select crew of some of the best street food traders in the UK –who, after several weeks apart, were now feeling anxious to be reunited with their food trucks- and got ready to head straight out into the furthest reaches of Abu Dhabi for our first event.
Our first event was in Mediant Zayed, a Beduoin town in the Western Region. It is literally in the middle of the desert, in an area commonly known as the ‘The Empty Quarter’. Most people who live in Abu Dhabi have never been there. Desert dunes ripple and undulate into the horizon as far as the eye can see. It is a beautiful and extremely evocative landscape.
Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan created the town in 1968 for the local nomadic Bedouins, gifting them permanent homes of bricks and mortar. Nonetheless, they still seem to prefer to live in tents which you see pitched up in their front gardens. Abu Dhabi is only 43 years old, and coming here brings home that the recent, frenzied development and modernity witnessed in Dubai and Abu Dhabi City is built on a vastly contrasting traditional culture and way of life.
As traders frolicked in the pool bar and worked on their tans, behind the scenes operations were cranking up. We spent the next few days building the event in a very large, very lovely, but very empty park. Driving to site through the desert landscape each day, encountering not much more than an occasional camel, it did occur to us more than once that what we were doing here was utter madness.
How were Basque-style pinxos, grilled cheese sandwiches and brioche ‘sliders’ going to go down with the locals… if they ever turned up in the first place that is.
We finally opened the festival gates to our first show. Slowly but surely, curious groups of giggling girls and Emirati families started trickling through and as the sounds of our live band’s traditional Oud playing took to the air and mixed with children’s laughter and happy noshing, the atmosphere hummed to a warm and lively buzz. The next day things were different. The word had spread via social media and the ladies of Medinat Zayed were out, and they were hungry! Far more adventurous than their male counterparts, the abaya-wearing ladies flowed through the festival in a sea of black, trying everything they could and posting it all on Instagram to prove it.
Relieved, we were able to relax in the festival Bedouin tent with traditional Arabic coffee (a refreshing, light brew made with cardamom, rose water and saffron) and juicy dates in the company of a majestic white falcon. Time seems to travel at a different pace in the desert. Days unravel rather than thrust forward the way they do back in London. I was beginning to get used to it. But we had a program to stick to and another event to run - this time in Al Ain.
Al Ain is Abu Dhabi’s second largest city. Having developed around an Oasis it is relatively green and known as the ‘Garden City’. It boasts a single mountain as its backdrop - Jabal Ḥafeeṫ, more a craggy lump of rock really.
We had set up in the beautiful Jahli Park in the shadow of the Al Jahili Fort. As we approached the evening of our first day, the dipping sun bathed the park in a soft, golden glow and a quiet stillness hung in the air. This proved to be the calm before the storm. Nothing could have prepared us for the enthusiasm and excitement displayed by the good people of Al Ain! The event was a sell-out.
Headed by the heroic Andrew Dickens, the chef demo theatre was graced by local talent such as the splendid Suzzane Husseini, as well as a UK contingent including street food legend and Food Network television supremo Andy Bates, John Quilter (aka the ‘Food Busker’), Jun Tanaka and James Walters bringing sand back to the desert by teaching the local Emiratis how to cook Arabic food like he does at Arabica Bar and Kitchen in London. Brave. But his freekeh was a winner.
Meanwhile, the street food crew from the UK dealt with food sourcing ‘issues’ in their stride by heading to the local markets (and coming back with camel hump!), were keen to explore the local food scene, quick to accept random invitations for midnight dune bashing or to share a traditional meal at a local sheikh’s house, and thoroughly committing themselves to the hotel Happy Hours - it is fair to say that the general philosophy and approach was work hard, play hard.
By the time we rolled back into Abu Dhabi City we had all geared up and were ready for the final show down, beachside!
We were pleased to have more local UAE traders who had impressed us represented for this last event. They put on a great spread and did their home turf proud.
Our seafront location on the ‘Corniche’ beach, with the blue waters of the Persian Gulf contrasting against the rising city behind us, was striking and (despite a mild sandstorm) our grand finale event was another runaway success.
Street food is still a relatively nascent concept in the UAE but, as our festivals showed, there is a lot of enthusiasm for good quality, well prepared food that’s affordable, informal and social. Exchanging, sharing, connecting. This is what street food is ultimately about.
Roll on the caravan for 2016!