Dubai on a Dirham

A cup of chai, fresh-from-the-oven naan, and a boat ride back in time—the modest dirham holds substantial weight.  
Dubai on a Dirham 1
A ride across the Dubai Creek on an abra costs only a dirham. Photo by: Zhukov Oleg

Dubai isn’t exactly a city that comes to mind when one thinks of budget travel. A place of modern castles, where money means access to exquisite things, Dubai still offers a few cheaper thrills. Though a small unit of currency, the dirham (equivalent to Rs19) still holds substantial weight. Here are three ways to spend one dirham, and spend it well!

 

Savour a cup of karak chai

Coffee or gahwa, is beloved all over the Arabian peninsula. The one dirham coin even features a dallah—a traditional Arabic coffee pot. Ironically, that one coin won’t get you a cup of coffee, but it will fetch a steaming cup of chai. Karak or “strong” chai is perhaps India’ most notable contribution to contemporary Emirati culture.

From free-standing Malayali restaurants to dedicated franchisee cafes, some occupying prime real estate, chai is everywhere. While the proportion of ingredients and technique of brewing vary from restaurant to restaurant, cardamom, ginger, sugar, loose tea leaves and milk are the standard components. In the absence of fresh milk, milk powder or condensed milk is used, making the chai a tad thicker and a lot sweeter.

 

Devour freshly baked naan

Dubai on a Dirham

Naan, a flatbread eaten in India as well, tastes best when fresh from an oven. Photo by: Alexey Stiop/Shutterstock

Amongst the tightly packed shops in the old neighbourhoods of Satwa, Deira and Bur Dubai, look out for narrow store fronts, essentially just glass windows beside a door. On closer inspection, if you spot a bundle of white plastic bags hanging in a corner and a wood-fired oven in the background, stop right there. Though modest in appearance, the naan that comes out of those ovens is heavenly. The flatbread, which is eaten in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, is available in neighbourhoods where migrant workers live or work, and it costs a dirham.

Once a customer places an order, the bakers get to work, taking a ball of dough, rolling it out into a circle, brushing it with some water and then sliding it into the oven. In about a minute or so, the flat circle of dough comes out looking like the bumpy surface of the moon. Eaten plain, with chai, or used to mop up thick gravy, naan tastes best when devoured straight out of the oven, outside a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it storefront.

 

Cross the Dubai Creek in an abra

Join the bevies of seagulls and locals at the jetty in Bur Dubai, or on the other side in Deira, waiting to get on an abra to cross the Creek. The trip costs a dirham and takes all of ten minutes—and it’s an inexpensive, quick way to travel back in time. Before the discovery of oil changed the fortunes of the people that inhabited these lands, those living along the coast were involved in fishing, pearl diving and trade. Large wooden ships called dhows still bring goods from Iran and beyond to the landing bays along the creek. The abras, commonly used as water taxis, are smaller with open sides and covered roofs. Don’t bother vying for the best seat, as everyone has an equally good view. The driver sits in the middle of the boat surrounded by all the passengers.

  • Chaitali Patel is the former Associate Editor, Special Projects at National Geographic Traveller India. She's partial to nature, history and the arts. She believes that every trip is as much a journey within as it is one outside.

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