ya zaein & firaiha falafel

Two local eateries here in Abu Dhabi have been on my mind since the film festival changed offices a couple of weeks ago and I no longer have regular access to them. (In fact, I no longer have access to any restaurants or shops.) So this is both my first effort at food blogging and remembrance of things past. Strange to feel nostalgia for something when you’re living in a foreign city for only four months. But that’s the way I feel about this place: displacement, occasional amazement, and this weird comfortable homey feeling as if I’ve been here far longer.

Until the move the festival’s offices were located in the Abu Dhabi Film Centre, “opposite the Rosary School,” which is what you would have to tell a taxi driver (or a postman) as there are no numbered addresses here. Most days I would step out for lunch to the nearby shops just off Muroor Road about ten minutes away on foot.

This is not as simple as it sounds — and there’s a reason most of my colleagues didn’t do the same very often. When it’s 116° and humid, such an excursion is more like a workout. But one that I enjoyed — not only do I not mind the insane heat in Abu Dhabi, I kind of love it. Especially after being in an air-conditioned office for hours, I found the blast of heat and light most welcome. There was a sun-baked tranquility to the wide side streets, lined with low-rise schools and media agencies and dusty trees, making me feel I had them all to myself. I would take my time on the long sidewalk by the walled-off boys school, the heat of the sun intensified by the right angles of the sidewalk and wall; it felt like walking in a brick oven. Shards of green broken glass would make a musical sound under my shoes in the quiet of the afternoon. Skinny feral cats would greet me from alcoves. After a few minutes I’d feel like I was evaporating.

Both of my potential destinations were well worth the trouble. In both cases there would be AC, friendly staff, and good Middle Eastern street food waiting for me.

Ya Zaein is a sit-down shop with a big counter and a big oven behind, exactly like a New York pizzeria. They deal in a couple of different kinds of Middle Eastern pastry; I’m not even sure what they’re called. (The English text on the menu simply calls them “pastries.”) These creations are made fresh to order with many different toppings, but being a vegetarian I only considered cheese and vegetables. There are flat ones, resembling soft little pizzas (pizza is a Middle Eastern concept in the first place, of course), and filled pockets that are much like empanadas. I would get the flat pastries with feta, and usually spinach as well. Once I ordered one labelled “mixed vegetables” on the menu, and it came with a dusting of za’atar (the quintessentially Arabic blend of oregano, thyme, and other dried herbs) and fresh mint. You gotta love the Middle East, where mint is a vegetable. Though “mint pizza” is not something that’ll ever top my list, I enjoyed it.

The pocket thingeys are filled with labeneh — the creamy yogurt-cheese that is a staple here and has become one of my favorite things in life. The heat of the oven melts and then cooks the labeneh into something like really soft cream cheese. With tomatoes and spinach added they’re little pockets of heaven, so long as you don’t burn your tongue on the labeneh. I’d let them cool off, and inhale them.

I’d always order a mango juice. Fresh fruit juice is ubiquitous in Abu Dhabi and the quality is stellar across the board — gritty pomegranate juice and pulpy mango nectar that seem gourmet to western palates are made fresh even at humble little eateries like this one. I wasn’t much of a juice drinker until I lived here — but not only is it too good to pass up, I find that in this climate I crave it.

As with most such places in Abu Dhabi the food at Ya Zaein is cheap — two pastries plus a juice comes to AED 25, or about US $6 — and the staff are very accomodating. While waiting for my patries to be baked I’d check out whatever was on the TV. Usually Arabic soap operas or talk shows, but once it was an old black-and-white musical, probably Egyptian; in the scene I caught, a beautiful woman stood at a window facing a river and was serenaded by a man in a boat below. The ballad was lovely and absolutely unclassifiable to me — there’s so much I don’t know about Arabic music.

If there was nothing good on TV, I’d check out the turtle in the shallow tiled fountain out the back (note the Ya Zaein logo in the fountain’s tiles). Another reason to love Abu Dhabi: in New York (and a lot of other places), this turtle — completely open to the elements and passersby — would have been stolen or killed long ago.

My other choice for lunch was a falafel shop around the corner. I didn’t know its name, Firaiha Falafel, until I took this picture of the façade. This place is a little more rundown than Ya Zaein — there’s a small, untidy counter with only one guy working behind it; boxes of supplies are piled haphazardly in every corner; there’s only room for one small table. Invariably the TV hanging in the corner is tuned to a religious channel — I’d always hear a few verses of the Koran recited melodically (with accompanying English subtitles) while I was waiting for my falafel.

And honestly it isn’t the best falafel in Abu Dhabi. But falafel here is like pizza in New York: you really can’t go wrong. And these will do. I would always order one regular and one Arabic falafel. Regular means Lebanese style — note the Cedar of Lebanon on the sign. The falafel balls are smashed up and rolled in soft flatbread like a burrito. (I’ve never seen falafel served whole in a pita here, so I’m not sure if that hails from another Middle Eastern region, or if it’s just a New York thing.) Lettuce, tomato, a bit of tahini sauce, and a bit of hot sauce are the spartan accompaniments. Honestly I found them a bit dry, but I would usually wash them down with laban (buttermilk). The important thing is that the falafel balls, the stars of the show, are served fresh and fresh — often I’d have to wait for the guy to make them — and mixed with sesame seeds, which is something else I never saw until I came here. It makes such a difference.

The Arabic-style falafel (“Arabic” in this case referring to people of the Gulf region, as opposed to Levantine or Mediterranean folk) is pressed flat and fried in something that looks like a Foreman grill. The “Arabic” or Gulf style of anything is to fry it to death. (And serve it with French fries; in fact, I’m pretty sure they serve a French-fry falafel sandwich at this shop). But I like the flat shape and unique texture it gives to the whole package.

Two hearty falafel (with accompanying mixed pickles) and a little carton of laban at Firaiha will run you AED 16 — that’s just over US $4.

Often after I made my order, the counter guy — who didn’t have much English — would smile and offer me a complimentary piece of falafel. This kind of generosity and courtesy is common at Middle Eastern restaurants and cafés in my experience. Along with the bowl of free pickles to munch on while enjoying the oasis of cool air and listening to the ringing, insistent recital on the TV, that’s why I would come here, and that’s what made it so satisfying above and beyond the dry, average falafel. I’ll miss these places.

6 comments so far

  1. Ally on

    Seems like dairy is a big staple. The yogurt, cheese, buttermilk…or is every society big on diary and I never noticed? I’m a little lactose sensitive (and not a big diary fan) and I’m starting to notice that most people really like the stuff. Definitely big in the Midwest.
    I think I would need and IV to walk around in 100+ temps AND humidity in order to stay alive. Seriously, let me know when they get that outside air conditioned.

  2. Ally on

    I like the photos too. What app did you go with?

  3. Jim on

    I downloaded a bunch of apps, but this is Hipstamatic (with the Kaimal lens, which is supposed to be a tribute to 1970s India).

    The regions where dairy is not as big are the far east: Japan, China, etc. (Maybe why I’ll never be a huge permanent fan of those cuisines. Wouldn’t know what to do without dairy, especially being a veg.)

    If anyone air conditioned the outside (with big domes around cities or something), it would probably happen here in UAE!

  4. Ronald P on

    Great piece, Jim, loved it – you nailed it all, well-written. Makes me miss Abu Dhabi, Dubai, the UAE. And makes me want to run down to Falafel World, my local Lebanese place (and home to what’s still my favourite hummus in the world).

    Thankfully, Toronto’s got a lot of Arabic places to eat. I just need to find a regular shisha joint. (I wonder if I’d get in trouble, bringing a shisha up to the rooftop terrace at the TIFF Bell Lightbox…).

    Looking forward to the next entry.

  5. Kathlyn on

    I miss miss miss AD! Jim, I was just yesterday telling Elvie, the new Vollie Manager, about you and Alyssa, how I was pretty sure you guys were vegetarians, as well as about all the great food she’ll be able to have there. She’s veg too (eats dairy) so I hope you’ll show her around food-wise!

    Ron, if you set up a shisha area on top of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, I’ll come to Toronto for sure!

    Wish I was there now…wish AZ had some decent falafel – guess I’m going to have to be happy with quesadillas…

  6. Jim on

    Oh man. If only I could get a good quesadilla in Sydney — or AD for that matter.

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