Every day, 8.3 million residents of the UAE bite into breakfast, lunch and supper without ever questioning the origins of a dizzying array of foodstuffs grown and shipped from every corner of the globe to the country.
By the time thousands of ingredients are served up in falafels, steak dinners and biryani at home, eateries or hotels throughout the country, 85 percent of the goods have migrated thousands of kilometres by air and sea to feed the hungry masses in a desert country working to boost local agricultural production to offset reliance on foreign imports.
As the country makes greater strides in the budding local farming and fishing community of 144,000 workers, the UAE must rely heavily on imported foodstuffs to feed an Emirati population of about 11 percent and the remainder, an expatriate mix from more than 180 countries.
Latest figures released by the Federal Customs Authority (FCA) show that in the first six months of 2011, the UAE’s imports of all products surged 20 percent to Dh285 billion from Dh236 billion in the same period the year before.
Of that total, 14.7 billion tonnes were basic commodities — including food shipments — worth an estimated Dh186.6 billion, according to FCA authorities. By commodity category, food imports tracked by the FCA ranged from Dh2.4 billion worth of meat products and Dh2.1 billion in dairy produce, eggs, honey and edible animal products to Dh2.5 billion in fruit, nuts and citrus fruit to Dh1.7 billion in vegetables, roots and tubers.
A further Dh3.4 billion worth of cereals were imported while Dh1.5 billion in coffee, tea and spices made their way into homes, cafes and restaurants across the country.
Much of the food entering the UAE arrives at Dubai International Airport and by sea at Jebel Ali Port and is monitored and checked for quality by the Dubai Customs Authority and the Dubai Municipality Food Control Department.
Latest figures released by Dubai Municipality for the first half of 2011 reveal that there were 335 import and export companies registered in the electronic trading system who logged as many as 20,158 types of imported products.
Khalid Sharif Al Awadi, director of the Food Control Department, said in a statement earlier this year that Dubai had received in the first half of 2011 as much as four million tonnes of imported food, 3.4 million tonnes of which were approved and cleared for distribution.
The municipality, he said, “has developed one of the best control programmes in the world where accurate statistics used in the development of strategies for food safety in Dubai can be obtained”.
Demand for imported food in Dubai and beyond has clearly mushroomed as evidenced by the increase in the number of licensed operations involved in food preparation and distribution. “The number of food establishments in the emirate rose by 17.1 percent in 2010 to 13,762 compared to 11,752 in 2009,” Al Awadi said.
Residents in the UAE like their food, suggests the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). In its updated UAE profile, the FAO said residents “have a robust 3,138 per capita daily caloric intake, of which 13 percent is protein”.
The collective appetite of one of the fastest-growing countries in the world is also robust based upon some of the top commodities imported. The top imported food by value, according the latest 2009 figures compiled by the FAO, is milled rice which accounted for $810 million of shipments.
At $470 million, chicken meat ranked as the second most-imported food by value in 2009. Wheat ranked third with $347 million followed by $327 million worth of crop and livestock goods. As much as $279 million worth of tea was shipped, making if the fifth top import in 2009, the FAO said.
As a country which produces less than 15 percent of its food domestically due to lack of arable land and falling fresh water reserves, the UAE is highly dependent on food imports to meet the appetite of a growing population. Everything from soup to nuts travel vast distances to reach dinner tables across the UAE where residents reportedly enjoy a 3,138 per capita daily caloric intake. Dubai alone, the Food Control Department affirms, received as much as four million tonnes of imported food in the first two quarters of 2o11, 3.4 million tonnes of which were approved and cleared for distribution.
Where’s the beef?
For those in the UAE who aren’t happy living the vegan lifestyle, select meats are the spice of life in all their delectable varieties, whether at home on the barbecue or at an upscale restaurant served on a sizzling skewer.
And chances are when sinking your teeth into a double burger at a fast-food outlet or savouring a succulent steak at a fancy eatery in Dubai, the high-quality meat may very well be the result of the round-the-clock workings of Food Source International based in Dubai.
The food distribution firm serves more than 100 upscale restaurants and hotels ensuring only the finest cuts of meat are served to customers, especially Western and Far East clients, with a proclivity for aged beef from reputable suppliers around the world.
Sacha Shatt, general manager of Food Source International, said, “We are specialised in high-end meat from Australia such as beef, veal and lamb. We also specialise in Canadian beef and veal as well as US beef.” The client list in Dubai comprises only “five-star hotels and gourmet restaurants,” he said. Shatt said the company receives weekly air shipments of top-grade chilled beef, for example, for restaurants with a demanding clientele.
High-end chefs “want chilled, not frozen” beef because some argue the flavour of fresh steak, for example, is better than frozen meat albeit steak cooked well over an open grill by any standard is a luxury in any country. Demand by hotels for better meats and for higher volumes is increasing following leaner times in the economic crisis, he said. Food Source International, meanwhile, imports three large consignments by sea of US frozen beef every year.
No BIryani without basmati rice
If there’s one true, tried and tested favourite pastime for Indian foodies living in Dubai, Biryani may very well top the menu. Available in a myriad of distinctly different recipes depending on a variety of spices, meat choices and side-ingredients, a basic biryani dish that appears to be a basic staple is one with basmati rice and chicken, given the latter’s affordability and availability. “Any biryani recipe will not do without basmati rice,” said Arshad Khan, general manager Middle East for KRBL Limited, an India-based company that produces 17 brands of rice from field to dinner table, including one of their best-selling brands, India Gate.
The India Gate brand has become one of the most popular basmati rices for use in biryani dishes in the UAE, Khan said, and is produced wholly from the northern regions of India.
An estimated total of 15,000 tonnes of India-grown rice is shipped to the UAE every year and makes up a large part of daily dishes served across the country, he said.
Khan noted that the biryani rice recipe can be augmented with any meat such as lamb, fish, or prawns but chicken is especially popular in the UAE. “There are only a very few small chicken farms here, none are huge commercial farms”, Khan said. Most of the frozen chickens weighing 800 grammes to 1.2 kg sold in the UAE are produced and shipped from Brazil or France.
Fresh chickens, however, produced in the UAE do make up a smaller segment of the agri-growing industry and are sold at local markets, meat shops and grocers.
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