Organic Abu Dhabi

Under its seemingly ‘artificial’ veneer lurks an organic food movement that is gaining momentum, as a force to reckon with

Vertiginous monoliths of glass and steel. An achingly beautiful marbled mosque. The fastest set of four wheels that money can buy. The undulating, shimmering mounds of sand that seemed to go on forever. So, just where does the word ‘organic’ fit into such an incongruity of visuals? I kept asking myself this very question on a loop, as I made my way, comfortably ensconced in a black BMW, passing skyscraper after skyscraper, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, and then, the Arabian Desert later on. All this, as I drove to my destination on a cool, crisp Middle Eastern November morning.

I was in Abu Dhabi to investigate first hand a bizarre rumour I had heard from a fellow foodie. According to her, the capital of the United Arab Emirates was in the throes of a revolution—an organic food revolution no less! My nosing around resulted in my first pit stop of that day, the Abu Dhabi Organic Farms in the outskirts of Abu Dhabi. Slap bang in the middle of the desert, this farm is an oasis, where everything from the juiciest of tomatoes and grapes to free-range chickens and herbaceous goodies like coriander and parsley are grown and nurtured with oodles of TLC thrown in for good measure. Set up a few years ago in line with the directives of Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the President of the United Arab Emirates, this organic farm was established as the first and only organic farm in the UAE.

The farm’s Operations Manager Suraj Shreshta, who is originally from Nepal, explained the organic philosophy of the place, which is to create a holistic production management system that avoids use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, plant growth regulators and genetically modified organisms. Their aim, he said, was to minimise pollution of air, soil and water, while at the same time optimising the health and productivity of interdependent communities of plants, animals and people.

Feeling all warm and fuzzy with all that ‘feel good’ talk of sustainability and giving back to the environment, I decided to see for myself if the denizens of this city of steel actually paid any attention to the organic way of life. And what better place than an organic produce retailer? The Mazaraa outlet in Abu Dhabi’s Al Mushrif area is a treasure trove of all things that have cute little tags certifying them as ‘carbon-neutral’ or ‘free range’. This organic food retailer stocks fruits, vegetables and dairy products that are locally grown and sourced. But the zinger for me at the end of my visit was that most of the organic products available at Mazaraa were priced at an affordable value—something that is not very common in the world of ethically produced food. This, I was told, was due to the outlet’s endeavours to reduce the carbon footprint, by reducing the waste [and cost!] caused by logistics of importing and then storing the agricultural products from abroad. No great surprise then, when they claim to run out of supply by 6pm every evening, as shoppers descend on the place in droves to fortify themselves and their families with the healthy stuff.

Another such haven for organic food is the Organic Foods and Café, located in the glitzy Masdar City, a brand new satellite city of Abu Dhabi. Gluten-free bread, cakes, muffins, milkshakes made from soy milk and shots of wheat grass juice—one can get them all here under one healthy roof. And while one’s at it, one may as well throw in a few organic skincare and household cleaning products available here, into the shopping basket.

Excruciatingly famished, I headed back to my hotel The Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi Hotel and Villas on Saadiyat Island, which itself whole-heartedly supports Abu Dhabi’s latest love affair with organic food. My hunger pangs would have to wait for a while to get placated, I was told. The hotel had organised an organic cookery class for me and my tutor was going to be The Park Bar & Grill restaurant’s Chef de Cuisine, Maik Lilienthal. I was to learn the art of rustling up the perfect organic Lobster and Tuna Carpaccio using local seafood and vegetables and herbs from the Abu Dhabi Organic Farms I had visited earlier that day. Chef Maik also let me in on a little secret. The dish I was to make would also serve as my appetiser course for the special three-course sustainable dinner I was later to indulge in at the twin-levelled restaurant.

But dismissing any thoughts about dinner, I got down to observing the technique of blanching the perfect lobster. This was followed by searing a loin of coriander-rubbed tuna fillet for all of one minute and dicing—or to use the French culinary term ‘burnoise’—a tomato and a cucumber. To finish off the dish, Chef Maik deftly sliced the lobster and tuna into minuscule, paper-thin slivers, which he then arranged on a square glass platter, spooning over them the tomato, cucumber, fresh coriander and cress leaves along with a dressing of rice vinegar and olive oil that was jazzed up with salt and pepper.

Dinner that evening was an organic trio of dishes that included the aforementioned Lobster and Tuna Carpaccio, a Lamb Rump with Mashed Potato and Mushrooms for mains, and a ‘gimme-more’ tasty Arabic dessert called Halawa Bil Jebin made up of semolina rolls, strawberry and rose water salsa dressed with—what else—but organic honey! Every bite of that meal was filled with the goodness of nature. Unforgettable.

Wanting to give a fitting end to my tryst with Abu Dhabi and its organic bounty, the next day I sauntered down to the original organic repository of the city—the Spice Souk at the Central Market. Having traded in spices and other food products for hundreds of years, during an age when the word ‘organic’ was not a fancy term, but just a natural way of life, the souk was filled with goodies a foodie like me couldn’t get enough of. Exotic Arabic spices like the lemony sumac, za’atar and the all-purpose Middle Eastern spice mix called baharat jostled for space with other familiar ones like cardamom and cinnamon quills, as treats like local camel milk ice-cream and the rose water soaked baklava tempted me. But what I couldn’t resist was a glass of steaming hibiscus or karkade tea, whose tart, yet refreshingly natural taste dances on my tongue to this very day. Yes, that’s the beauty of going organic… and Abu Dhabi of all places taught me that!

FACT FILE

HOW TO GET THERE
Abu Dhabi is one of the seven Emirates and the capital of the United Arab Emirates and can be reached from India by several airlines, with return air tickets starting at approximately `20,000.
WHEN TO VISIT
The comfortably pleasant winter months from early November to late February are the best time to visit Abu Dhabi and the rest of the UAE.
ACCOMMODATION
One of the best things about the UAE is that there are a whole range of accommodation options available to suit every taste and budget.
WHAT TO BUY AT THE SOUK

  • Boxes of baklava sweets
  • Exotic Arabic spices like sumac, za’atar and baharat
  • Dried karkade flowers for tea
  • Dates in their many varieties.

This was first published in the May 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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