Real Melting Pot in Dubai is at this humble Fish Shack

Bu Qtair Restaurant in Dubai
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Bu Qtair Restaurant in Dubai

Melting Pot in a Rainbow Nation.

The UAE is perhaps the real “Rainbow Nation”, a coming together of people from 200 nationalities, race, color and of course food tastes. But does the term “melting pot” (a concept referring to a heterogeneous society becoming more homogenous with the different elements “melting together” into a harmonious whole with a common culture) really describe UAE? At the work place, most definitely. But socially, people do tend to nest within their own communities and enjoy simple things like conversing in their own languages or talking about monsoon in their home countries.

So, when you first hear about a seafood restaurant Bu Qtair that basks under the shiny reflection of the squeaky clean glass facade of the Burj Al Arab, you would think of Dubai’s typical high priced places, where women would spend more time in their makeover to get there than actually having dinner, and where you need to be careful on how to savour the designer food & the portions on offer will leave you hungrier than before.

But that’s not Bu Qtair. This is a “fish shack” that peddles simple seafood and fresh fish cooked in its famous “secret recipe,” attracting some of the city’s highest rollers to its modest surroundings.

“Some of the tourists who visit us stay in the Burj Al Arab,” says owner Matar Al Tayer. “But they tell me they prefer the taste of the fish here over anywhere else in the city. It is the flavor that has remained the same for 30 years.”

Lightbulb Moment

Al Tayer opened his first fish shack overlooking Jumeirah beach in the 1980s to cater for the growing expat population flooding in from South Asia and the Middle East when oil boom money was starting to transform the UAE.

His prominent Emirati family once made a tough living through fishing and pearl diving, living alongside fellow fishermen on the then-undeveloped stretch of coast. As the outsiders poured in, the local Bedouin and fishermen who’ve always been the masters of this arid land, found themselves sharing it with others.

That’s when Al Tayer had his “lightbulb” entrepreneurial moment.

“There was not a single café or restaurant dedicated to those fishermen, so I thought to fill that gap by opening a small shop in which I serve Indian chai karak and paratha,” he says.

Sweet water

The young Al Tayer opened a small kitchen serving special Indian tea and bread on an empty yard overlooking the beach near the fishermen’s dormitory.

He named it “Bu Qtair,” a local term Emirati pearl divers used to name the spots where sweet water gathered naturally along the coast, and where they used to wash themselves after a rigorous day of diving. Al Tayer’s venture, however, proved to be an utter failure.

“For four years, I did not attract any customers. Fishermen were used to preparing their food themselves,” he says.

It all changed one day when he asked his part-time Indian cook Mousa to prepare food for his family’s fishermen after a long day at work. Mousa, who worked in the kitchen of another local family, took some of their fresh catch and served it to the hungry fishermen.

Neither of the men would have guessed that would be the start of Bu Qtair’s journey to stardom, firstly among Indian expats, and later among all of Dubai’s residents.

Unpretentious Location

Despite its growing reputation, the restaurant remained in its unpretentious location for more than three decades as the entire area around it was swallowed up by the desert megalopolis.

The fishermen’s dormitory was rebuilt, the fishing boats started sharing their docks with luxurious yachts, and Jumeirah became home to luxurious landmarks, such as the opulent sail-shaped Burj Al Arab, the man-made island Palm Jumeirah, Dubai’s only Four Seasons Resort, and myriad other exclusive hotels and boutique cafés and restaurants.

Nonetheless, Bu Qtair was able to keep and expand its fan base, becoming a tourist destination with dedicated pages on websites such as Zomato and TripAdvisor.

In the area around the restaurant, it was not uncommon to see Range Rovers, Mercedes and other sparkly SUVs parked up while their owners sat on plastic chairs on the sandy lot out front to enjoy the same few menu items it’s been serving since 1986.

Diverse crowd

A few years ago, Bu Qtair moved to a bigger premises, with a lit and air-conditioned indoor area.

It remains, however, close to the fishermen in Jumeirah, who are now only a fraction of the diverse crowd that goes there to enjoy the fried fish or prawns dish, with a side of paratha bread or rice and curry sauce. Its reputation has garnered extensive coverage by local and international media, including American TV chef Anthony Bourdain, who featured it in one of his gastronomic trips.

 Bu Qtair is a minnow, but worth its weight in pearls 

The only real change today is that the fish does not come straight off the boats.

“Today we cannot buy fish straight from fishermen,” says Haroun Rasheed, Mousa’s 36-year-old nephew, who joined his uncle in the UAE in the early 2000s and has been managing the restaurant for the past 15 years.

“The municipality requests from us buying it from the fish market in Deira (in old Dubai).”

The restaurant, however, remains true to its origins, unmoved by the city’s transformation around it and still fiercely protective of the “secret recipe.”

Bu Qtair is a minnow, but worth its weight in pearls.

With inputs from CNN.

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Kiran Borkar

Having been part of the Internet Industry since the late Nineties, he believes Nostradamus goofed up by not predicting how the World Wide Web would change the world.

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