Dubai: a city with practically no history, institutionalised racism, polluted beaches, censored internet and one of the world's highest carbon footprints; where imprisonable offenses include homosexual sex (10 years), use of cough syrup (4 years), prescription medicine (8 weeks) and even eating the wrong type of bread roll (4 years).
Despite its guaranteed sunshine, world's tallest building and biggest mall; Dubai isn't exactly my ideal holiday location. It is therefore explainable why I was less than ecstatic when it was announced I was being sent there for a week earlier this month by my work.
Part of my general reluctance to visit comes from the fact that the UAE doesn't like guys with long hair. I've read reports of long haired guys being falsely imprisoned in Dubai and others having their's cut off by the police in neighbouring Sharjah. Having had long hair myself for more than 10 years I seriously considered having mine cut, until speaking to the British Embassy first. As it happens, I saw more guys with long hair during 1 week in Dubai than I do in an entire year in the UK.
Getting There - Emirates
I booked my flights the day before (£417 return) via Opodo, then called Emirates immediately to change my dietary requirement. Strangely, the vegan option (code VGML) is named "Vegetarian".
Unfortunately they don't tell you what you're being served, so your guess is as good as mine as to what the food was meant to be (comments please!). The good news is that they serve you first - up to an hour before everyone else.
On my 9.20pm - 7.20am (7 hour) flight there was one meal:
The rice smelt like shoes, but was strangely tasty. What can best be described as dal was dry but OK. The rice salad didn't really fit, but as I was expecting them to stuff up the order and serve me chicken, I was grateful all the same. I'm pretty sure it was vegan - nothing was obviously creamy or egg like. They served it with the obligatory non dairy creamer (containing milk protein), which I ignored.
On my 3.05pm - 7.40pm (7.5 hour) flight there were two; a main meal and snack:
The main part was a strange kind of potato hotpot, but it was warm and I was hungry. The margarine was labelled vegan, but dessert a little too suspect looking. I decided not to risk it, so gave it to another passenger. They confirmed that it tasted really odd, so "probably vegan".
My second meal/snack looked like this:
The roll seemed to be filled with whatever yesterday's main course was. It was just plain odd.
I almost didn't try the muffin, but tore a bit off and saw that it almost certainly wasn't made with egg. It was a kind of mix between crumble and sponge, which had gone a bit hard in the fridge. Still, it was edible, and I wanted another when I'd finished.
I don't know whether the wine they serve is vegan or not; and frankly as the wine hater I am I don't care. They do seem to serve unlimited alcohol though, and have 50cl bottles of cointreau.
Whilst it looks like I'm having a whinge, I'm genuinely quite impressed by Emirates. Other than the creamer they managed to produce edible vegan food that I'd eat again.
If happycow is to be believed, there are about 40 vegan friendly restaurants in Dubai. Whilst I believe there are this many vegetarian restaurants, based on an evening in Bur Dubai I'm not sure how many are actually vegan friendly. That is, unless you speak Arabic / Indian languages and can converse with the staff. In the ones I tried they looked confused and said "no, vegetarian". One got so confused that they said "next door" and pointed to a mixed grill - assumably thinking I was taking the piss or something.
I did find a couple of vegan friendly restaurants though, both with help from others and both part of international chains.
The first, Asha's (in Wafi mall) has an outlet in Birmingham where I ate a couple of years ago. The manager was very helpful and chef came out to advise what could be made vegan. There was a choice of 4 main courses, plus poppadoms and roti bread. The quality was excellent (far better than the UK, which I made a point of telling them) and wasn't badly priced (including a 30% discount from the hotel). I didn't get a flattering picture of the food, so will post a rare photo of me instead:
Their website leads me to believe that there are other outlets in Dubai also.
The second, Saravana Bhavan is in a larger chain, with 25 branches in India and an outlet in London.
I'd not been before though, and was pleasantly surprised to find the first restaurant in my life where everyone washes their hands before eating! It's also the first restaurant I've been to where everyone eats rice with their fingers. It was a good experience, but on reflection using a spoon is easier ;)
All meals they do are the same - thali. 3 of the dishes (the creamy looking ones) are non vegan and you have to make sure you say "no" to the big pot of ghee the guy serving rice walks around with. Puris are unlimited (and amongst the best I've had), as is rice.
The rest of the food was pretty good. I went with an Indian colleague and would certainly recommend it.
Dubai seems to have quite a few juice bars dotted around in malls and at the airport, such as this one in Deira City Centre:
Each time I found one I had a green / vegetable smoothie, which were reasonably priced. Cafe Nero and Costa both have branches selling fruit things, but they're made from juice and ice rather than fresh fruit.
Not strictly vegan related, but I took to drinking mint tea whilst in Dubai, which is easy to find:
In a word: easy. Especially if you visit the lower ground floor of Dubai Mall, where you'll find both Waitrose (yes, Waitrose) and a large Organic store.
Waitrose has a lot of UK stock at sensible prices, so if you've a (studio) apartment; you're sorted. They also have local items too, including American (vegan) recipe oreos for less than a quid a pack. More excitingly still, they also sell Fry's (wish they would in the UK!):
The organic supermarket has plenty of choice, including the largest selection of Amy's products I've ever seen:
Whilst they sell plenty of cold stuff (including fresh tofu) they don't sell any ready to eat items, which sucked as I was staying in a standard hotel room without cooking facilities:
What they do have is a lot of long life vegan stuff, including chocolate and various nut/seed/fruit bars:
I went up Burj Khalifa, which is worth doing at 100 dirhams (the walk up price). The views on a good day are spectacular (I got lucky).
I also went on a Desert Safari, which was fun. The included food was all meat related though, so I ate a large amount of fresh 'simple' bread instead.
I left my vegan suntan lotion at home, as it contains hemp seed and I didn't want to be put in jail for 4 years. I was worried that I was burn horribly, but in reality hardly anyone spends time in the sun during the day - instead most people rush from one airconditioned building/vehicle to the next. I didn't even pick up a tan.
Would I go back? Oh holiday - no. To take a job - no. On a business trip - maybe, but next time I'm having a studio.
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