Every type of food is available in the UAE, which has some of the finest restaurants in the world. This is not entirely surprising since over 200 nationalities live and work here and millions of visitors holiday the country, influencing its sophisticated and innovative food culture.
In recent years, celebrity chefs have launched a variety of fashionable restaurants in the Emirates' five-star hotels. The most notable include Gary Rhodes, Vineet Bhatia, Marco Pierre White, Nobu Matsuhisa, Yannick Alleno and Pierre Gagnaire.
Gourmet food can also be experienced at two unique festivals in the UAE: the Taste of Dubai Festival, which usually takes place in March at Dubai Media City and Gourmet Abu Dhabi, a culinary extravaganza held in the capital in February each year.
International fast-food chains, dishing up the standard fare of hamburgers, chips and pizzas, are located in the larger cities and international theme restaurants such as TGI Fridays, Planet Hollywood, Fashion Café, are all represented in the Emirates.
In between these extremes are numerous restaurants serving authentic ethnic cuisine from every corner of the globe.
Gulf and Middle Eastern food is also available in a wide variety of venues, from expensive restaurants to local cafés, many taking advantage of the excellent seafood available in the locality.
One of the most exciting aspects of travelling to a new destination is the opportunity to sample local food and an increasing number of restaurants and cafés are now serving traditional Emirati food. Try Mezlai at Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi, Milas in Dubai Mall and Al Fanr in Dubai Festival City.
Some cafés (Mama Tani, Majilis, Café2go) have a contemporary take on traditional ingredients, serving camel burgers as a healthy alternative to beef and highly nutritious, low-fat, camel milk is being used to make cheese, ice-cream and delicious chocolate.
The organic and slow-food movement has also taken hold with popular farmers' markets springing up in the urban centres and some restaurants and cafés focusing on local and organic produce.
Alcohol is generally only served in hotel restaurants and bars (but not in Sharjah). Exceptions are some clubs (e.g. golf clubs) and associations. Restaurants that are not associated with hotels are not permitted to serve alcohol.
The range and scope of Emirati food was traditionally very limited since produce was scarce in this extremely arid environment. Bedouin survived on camel milk and dates on long treks through the desert. Fish was plentiful on the coast and any excess was salted and dried, finding its way inland to the desert and oases. Here, date palms flourished, some fruits, vegetables and cereals were grown, and sheep and goats were raised.
Despite the fact that ingredients were few, Emirati cooks were inventive, concocting a variety of dishes from very little. Foreign influences also shaped the local cuisine: the dhows that carried pearls to India and elsewhere came back laden with spices and later rice. And so today, Emirati food is characterised by a unique spice mix bezr and usually features rice. Cumin seeds, cinnamon sticks, coriander seeds, black peppercorns and chilies are the basic ingredients, but each family has its own 'secret' recipe. Traditionally the bezr that was mixed inland was milder than that used on the coast.
Considering the lack of ingredients, a surprisingly wide variety of breads were made, ranging from the pancake-like chebab to crispy, wafer-thin regag and leavened khmeer. This was the standard carbohydrate before rice became popular. In many cases yeast was not available so dates were fermented in the sun to act as a raising agent. Bread was often eaten with butter, cream cheese made from goat's milk, or honey. (Visit the Dubai café Mama Tani to try some of these breads for yourself).
Arabic coffee (gahwa) flavoured with cardamom epitomised the hospitality of the desert where even your enemy was served at least one cup. An expansive hospitality was also evident on festive occasions where food was prepared in large quantities for guests. Khuzi (a stuffed whole roast lamb or goat, on a bed of spiced rice) would have been served at the mansaf (traditional bedouin feast). This would have been the centrepiece of a selection of food which would have been placed on a mat surrounded by guests.
Today, dishes such as machboos (a delicious casserole of lamb or chicken with rice) is a particular favourite in the UAE. So too are diyai mashwi (grilled marinated chicken), hareis (slow-cooked wheat and lamb) and baryani (meat or fish cooked with Indian-style spiced rice). Dates, of course, are a standard staple and dibs (date syrup) is used to flavour both savoury and sweet dishes.