• LOCATION 5 | Tales of the Past: Tracing Dubai’s origins in Deira

    Dubai Spice Souk

    This is the entrance to the Spice Souk. You probably smelt it before you saw it.

    Stop here for a moment while we explain the history of this especially fragrant market, and point you in the direction of the treasures within.

    The Spice Souk might not look that old, but it’s almost as old as Dubai itself! That’s because it’s actually part of the largest and most important market in Dubai, which used to be called Souk Al Kabeer, aka “The Big Souk”.

    The Spice Souk was built inside Souk Al Kabeer more than 160 years ago and it’s where locals and travellers have stocked their shelves ever since. It’s been refurbished over the years, and this has added up to something of a transformation, but there are still lots of vendors here whose shops have flourished for generations.

    Dhows still bring in their wares to market as they would have many years ago, by crossing large expanses of ocean from India, Iran and beyond, and you'll find just about every spice you can think of here. Its colourful sacks are brimming with ingredients like cardamom, turmeric, and dried fruits for cooking, jasmine and ambergris for perfume, and even medicinal herbs.

    Look out for interesting things like alum - which is traditionally used as a natural deodorant – or bright red saffron, the world’s most expensive spice, which is a flower carefully harvested by hand. You’ll find some of the most expensive types of saffron in the world here, imported from Persia and Afghanistan, where just a few hundred grams can sell for several thousand dirhams.

    Spices are the backbone of Emirati cuisine, and it’s still incredibly popular to visit the souk to buy goods in bulk, at wholesale prices.

    Do you know what spices are typical of Emirati cuisine? The best way to explain is why by telling you about a few popular local dishes. We’ll start with lamb machboos.

    But first, let’s start walking again.

    Head on in, down the main souk’s main passageway. Breathe in deep as you go - it's an aromatic delight!

    Have you tried lamb machboos yet? This stew is one of the most traditional dishes in the UAE. It’s usually made with a meat like lamb, and it’s often served on special occasions. It’s a melting pot of spices too, relying heavily on turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, curry leaves, bezar spice and saffron.

    What about tahta samak? Have you come across it yet? This Emirati dish is made with spiced fish and rice, and it’s popular in coastal areas. Loosely translated, it’s name means “rice above fish”.

    There’s a lot of turmeric, coriander, and saffron in tahta samak too, plus a healthy amount of chilli pepper.

    Have you been stopped by a shopkeeper yet, passionately asking you to peruse their goods? If you haven’t, don’t worry – you will, and by all means, take them up on the offer. There’s such a wide array of treasures in the souk that it’s almost impossible not to spend a while shopping and exploring.

    The vendors are incredibly knowledgeable too. Some even consider the souk one of Dubai’s best language schools - so don’t be surprised if they speak to you in German, French or even Italian. They have a long history of chatting to tourists from all over the world.

    Take a few minutes to walk around, then go out underneath the wooden arch ahead of you. Can you see it?

    You'll hear from me again just past that exit.

Tales of the Past: Tracing Dubai’s origins in Deira