Five Rules For Navigating The Souks of Dubai
From chef and world traveler Jamie Bissonnette.
November 29, 2017
By Cassandra Landry | Illustrations by Kristina Micotti
So, you’re finally in Dubai, and you’ve been dreaming of the markets for months.
You’ve practiced saying hello (marhaba), and thank you (shukran-lak), and it’s only when you roll up to the bustling marketplace that you realize you have no idea where to start. You’re not just here to window shop, but you don’t know the secret code that everyone else seems to know.
Lucky for you, we’ve partnered with Emirates airline to bring you chef insights into the desert’s most stunning metropolis. First up: tips from Chef Jamie Bissonnette, who spent months navigating the city’s souks while opening an outpost of his beloved stateside tapas restaurant, Toro. Traveling with Bissonnette is an exercise in instinct: he has a magnetic sense of the true and original hiding in a city’s maze of streets. Markets, the original chef treasure chests, are what he does best. Relax, and follow his lead—and, your nose. Really.
1. Have a Plan, But Allow Yourself To Be Drawn In
“The best thing about the Middle Eastern souks is the quality and variety. The fish souk is really interesting, because it has varieties of fish that I wasn't familiar with. Tons of different kinds of prawns and beautiful blue crabs and lobsters,” Bissonnette says. “You see the piles of spices outside, beautiful colors like bluish-lavender and really, really purple hibiscus, pink and black salts… it’s just a remarkable place.”
It can be a lot to take in, which is why he recommends striking a balance: not too focused that you forget to take your time and explore, and not too open that you’re pulled in every direction at once.
“I like to know that I've got at least a few goals, so I have a reason to go in and talk to somebody. If you just walk in blind, they'll start pressing things on you. But, if you go in there and say, ‘Okay, I'm looking for a really awesome black cumin,’ then at least you're in charge.
He adds, “If you walk in and you're like, ‘What's the best thing you have in here?’ You're getting whatever they want to sell you.”
2. Taste and Talk
Now’s not the time to be shy, Bissonnette says. “Some places are better than others, but you can't tell until you start tasting and talking.”
One stall might be hiding the best Balinese long pepper, while another has unmatched dried prawns. Your next stop has a curry blend that's just out of this world, and it’s alongside one with the best pistachios. “You have to start poking around, like anything. There's pre-made packets for tourists that are easy to grab, but it's just not as special,” he says. “Some of them will have a jar of honey that looks like you could get it in a grocery store, then you go somewhere else and they pull out a jug of wild honey with no label on it, from a mountain in northern Iran—and there’s only three gallons of it. It's crazy expensive, but it tastes like sorghum and it's the most interesting, complex honey you've ever had. Of course I bought it.”
Most visitors come to the Middle Eastern markets ready to engage in the famed stall-side negotiations they’ve heard so much about. Go for it, Bissonnette says, but try to feel out the true value of the thing you’re haggling for.
“If it's something generic, like a bag of black limes, go get it somewhere else where it’s cheaper,” says Bissonnette. “But if it's a spice blend that they've made, or honey from their hometown, and they're not budging on the price, that's fine. It’s worth it.”
3. Always Accept Tea
If somebody offers you a cup of tea, accept it, Bissonnette advises. It’s good manners, and it may lead to a more meaningful discovery.
“It's a nice way to break the heat and just chat somebody up,” he says. “The first time I did, I ended up with a really great baharat and amazing cardamom” — about that cardamom: Bissonnette says he didn't realize how amazing green cardamom could be, until he was in Dubai and smelled it fresh. ‘I was just beside myself,’ he says — “which were things he didn’t even have out. He was friendly and engaging and was excited to have people in who were passionate about food. As long as it took me to drink that cup of tea, we talked about all the spices and where they were from, where he was from. It was really just a special moment.”
4. Find This Shawarma
Directions, à la Bissonnette: if you’re walking through the fish souk, follow it through to the gold souk, and then follow that through to the spice souk: on the corner, you shall find a fresh juice stand advertising “Mexicy-style” shawarma—DFC Cafeteria. This is your place.
Mexican-style, it turns out, means meat doused with an unlabeled, piquant, delicious-beyond-belief hot sauce, wrapped in taboon bread and pressed to a perfect crisp. “I've had shawarma many times before, but as far as I'm concerned, that was the first time I'd ever had it,” he says. “It was that good.”
5. Just Buy It
You know the whole, ‘Maybe I'll come back and get this before I go home later this week,’ thing you do when you’re traveling? Don't do that. Just get it, says Bissonnette. “Because you're not gonna go back,” he says. “You're going to find another neighborhood and forget about it. If you don't buy it, you're just going to buy something that's less awesome later on down the line. Just get it.”
Not that you need to panic and drop major cash on every shiny thing you see—spring for the unique, even if it’s the smallest portion they’ve got. You don’t even have to have a use for it in mind right away; it’s about capturing the essence of your surroundings. If it moves you, consider it.
“Tasting food from somewhere else transports me there,” Bissonnette says. “Whenever a friend who travels gives me even a small dime bag amount of za'atar, just enough to put on a bagel, it’s still special.”