For a long time food has been my primary obsession. I’ve worked in professional kitchens, had my own small bakery, and have exhausted shelves of all food-related literature, but, above all, I have always been a spectacularly avid eater. Much more than a form of sustenance, for me food is the way I see the world.
Penetrating Abu Dhabi’s eclectic and growing food scene requires an extra effort while living at NYUAD’s Saadiyat Island campus, so to start my exploration of Abu Dhabi’s food scene, I thought a food festival would provide an ideal sampler of all the local available gastronomic options. So, on Friday, November 7, I went to the first-ever Taste of Abu Dhabi Food Festival. The experience, sadly, was anything but a gastronomic pleasure.
My search for a foodie experience was hindered by many distractions, all of which stole attention from the food. There was loud music, not enough places to sit, and so many kids running around that it was like eating in an obstacle course. There was a stage, there was music, even a row of out-of-place bean-bag cushions, but never an invitation to enjoy a proper meal. In the end it was hard for me to recall why I had gone there in the first place. Unfortunately, I think, Taste of Abu Dhabi focused more on the festival and not enough on the food.
But okay, I have to confess. Maybe food festivals aren’t the problem. Maybe I am the problem. Why anyone chooses to pay money in order to enter a venue crowded with people grubbing on versions of a restaurant’s less interesting dishes — the size of which does not exceed the palm of the diner — I will never understand.
The very concept of a food festival offers a challenge in delivering good food. Freshness, one of the biggest markers of food quality, cannot be guaranteed in a food festival. The food in the stands is usually pre-prepared (with the exception of grill stations). Variety is also limited by the infrastructure available to each stand, and the dishes a restaurant chooses to serve have to be portable. Any sort of sandwich or slider, for example, is an ideal food festival item. It’s usually not messy, easily portioned, and requires no cutlery. Something like pasta, on the other hand, which is best eaten right away, is not practical for a food festival.
All this is to say that, from the start, it is difficult to find superb quality in the food served at food festivals. A great example of failing all these challenges was tuna tataki that I had from the stand of the St. Regis Hotel restaurant Turquoiz. It is safe to say the dish had probably been sitting in a fridge for over four hours. The fish was sadly overcooked by the rice vinegar in the miso dressing, so it seemed more like a ceviche than anything else. Plus the ratio of tuna to cucumber made me think I was eating a veggie tataki whose clumsy executor had accidentally dropped in a few pieces of tuna from another preparation. Silly me, I should have known better than to order “raw fresh fish” at a food festival.
On the other hand, in one of the smaller tents, I bought a twelve-pack of Camel Cookies, which, if you’re not familiar with them, are one of the most sensible conjunctions of industrial sweets and home baking available in Abu Dhabi. The people at Camel Cookies give cupcake tins a whole new purpose. They pillow the mold with a layer of very chewy and slightly cinnamony cookie dough, layer it with Nutella, Hershey’s Cookies ‘n’ Cream bars, or Kinder chocolate, and cover everything with more dough. I doubt anyone exists who is immune to the charms of these bite-size pieces of heaven. The cookies compensated for the escalating disappointment I felt as I wandered around trying other offerings.
Truth is, a food festival is supposed to celebrate food. Taste of Abu Dhabi felt like it was organized as a festival first, and a foodie event second. I understand that this was the inaugural event and the organizers probably didn’t calculate that more than 14,000 people would attend the festival during its three day run. Next year, I hope they will find a larger venue, with bigger stands, and more tables and chairs. Abu Dhabi is rapidly becoming a foodie town, and there is an increasing demand for variety, not only in terms of cuisine, but also in presentation. Taste of Abu Dhabi is not alone in responding to this demand and other venues, including the new Ripe Market at the St. Regis, will respond as well. This column will be offering you regular commentary on Abu Dhabi’s foodie happenings. Bon appetit!
[Image source: Turret Media]