You don’t stumble upon your heritage. It’s there, just waiting to be explored and shared. ∼ Robbie Robertson
The last time I went on a Frying Pan adventure, the tour duration lasted 4:23:01 hours and I have been burning calories ever since. Although it’s taken me two and a half years to hop on another adventure with them (blaming it partly to the dairy of the Z-Sisters), all the different tastes and flavours that I tasted on my first trail are still intact. This time my adventure was to Sharjah, an emirate that is very close to my heart. By Dubai standards, that means literally another continent – hence the lure of a discount and the comfort of a Careem car transfer to those booking into the tour! With a city where each geographical pocket is so segregated and unfamiliar to the residents living in another locality (Karama seems like a journey to the moon for a Marina resident, or a Bur Dubai dweller wilts trying to figure out where Muraqabbad street is in Deira), the #savourSHJ trail organized by Frying Pan Adventures in collaboration with Heart of Sharjah, is a gorgeous eye opener to the heritage and tales of the glorious past that has shaped the Sharjah of today. It is also an opportunity for the beckoning tourist or the resident to discover more of what the UAE has to offer, apart from the glamourous tourist spots flickering on travel channels. This is the first part of my journey – not a short one if you look at it, considering that it must have been at least two and a half hours of walk through 200 years of history!
Heart of Sharjah is the largest historical preservation and restoration project in the region. Planned over a 15 year period, to be completed by 2025, it seeks to revitalize the heritage district as a vibrant cultural destination by unraveling a glorious past – restoring historical buildings, constructing new structures following traditional Sharjah architecture and transforming them into hotels, restaurants, cafes, art galleries and markets, where the current generations and the future generations can experience Sharjah’s cultural and social fabric.
And… Frying Pan Adventures seek to uncover and share the rich and authentic fabric of culinary experiences that Dubai has to offer by walking you through the back alleys and feeding out of delicious and tasty eating holes.
The culminating result? A 5-hour long incredible visual journey into the bustling alleys with bricks of history and explosion of my senses with mesmerising tastes and colours. Tales of people, tales of places, tales of nostalgia. We were led by the storyteller extraordinaire – Arva Ahmed, the founder of Frying Pan Adventures who has spent her childhood in Sharjah. She was joined in by Fatima Salim Al Shuweihi, a local born in the very Heart of Sharjah and who has seen the changing face of the city like no other. We started on our journey at the Discovery Centre with our newly acquired knowledge of the area – how a reverse urban planning (almost) was about to take place with the demolition of high rises that surrounded the historic area and rebuilding and restoring of the entire area with buildings and structures that reflect Sharjah architectural heritage.
Majlis al Shaabi: Our next stop was Majlis al Shaabi, a traditional majlis cum recreation club for the elderly where dominos and cards were the only things that were meant to be given any form of attention, followed by kadak chai! The little conversation that we had with the gentlemen in the majlis was interesting and strewn with nostalgia and sadness that engulfs in remembering a bygone era. Dr Hussain Al Muttawa, one of the regular visitors to the club and a retired professor now with a doctorate from Michigan State University in USA, lamented how things had been so different before. He spent most of his mornings here ‘discussing things’ and went home only for lunch, sometimes staying upto late at night. ‘My wife is also old, so what can I do at home? So I come back to my friends here.’ A non-stop flow of over sweetened kadak chai provided these men with the energy and vigour that was probably needed for winning the rounds of cards or dominos. Losing wasn’t really an option here, as we soon realised when a ‘loser’ broke into a conversation that exceeded all acceptable decibel limits!
Al Omani Sweet Factory in Souq al Asra: If there was one place in this trail where I wouldn’t have minded being left behind, was our stop at the Al Omani Sweet Factory. An intoxicating aroma of ghee, cardamom and rosewater filled up this small room where four halwai experts sat by the gigantic clay oven with copper vessel – the mrjni, churning out Omani Halwa in equally gigantic proportions by stirring continuously. Four other men acted as assistants in this sweet act – an act I soon realised was a very laborious process. Omani Halwa epitomises festive celebrations – whether it is Eid, Ramadan or traditional weddings and also provided comfort at times of sorrow. It is very different from its namesake from the subcontinent. This is more like a thickened jelly and each pot churns out almost 50 kgs of Halwa. The process of halwa making starts by stirring in water, sugar, flour and ghee. Caramelised sugar, infused saffron, rosewater are added gradually while ladling in the ghee or clarified butter, almost continuously. Once the heady sweet concoction thickens, rich garnishes of apricots, cashews, sesame seeds are folded in amidst further stirring. Ashkar, one of the halwai experts from Kerala, explains, ‘You have to keep on stirring until the Halwa thickens. It is a very hard work as it may take upto 2 hours of continuous stirring to get the right consistency and one has to be always alert as the halwa may burn at the bottom if left without stirring, even it was for a moment.’ I probe further and he tells me the exact proportion of the ingredients that goes into the making of 50 kgs of halwa! Arva intersperses her chats with interesting fillers – like the Omani Halwa that is made for the palace – it is sweetened with figs instead of sugar and tasted ‘heavenly’!
Gulf Antiques and Turath Tobacco Shop in Souq Al Asra: This is the oldest and the most popular souq in the Heart of Sharjah with a strong history behind it – this was the Asra or the courtyard surrounding which traders from Persia and India traded retail goods that they brought in their boats to the adjoining harbours. Pearl diving had been one of the most important activity in the olden times and this is where the pearl divers met and exchanged notes on their haul. The alleys inside the souq are lined up with shops selling antiques, artifacts and souvenirs. Fatima and Arva lead us to the Gulf Antiques where Mohammed Nassir Al Zaroni, also known as the ‘Antique Man’, has a reputation for stocking genuine antiques, some of which he has no intention to sell. And clearly not to media people like us who overlook the ‘no photo’ posters stuck on the front door and start clicking inside! Set in 1964, this shop is one of the oldest and genuine. Fatima and Arva warns us that the souq is full of shops claiming to sell genuine antiques and one has to be wary of the fakes. Next, we halt at Turath Tobacco shop, one of the first tobacco shops set up in the region. While Abdul Ansari, the owner isn’t around, Ali bin Ali Al Muslin manages the show now and explains how the strong dokha or the tobacco is that go into the traditional smoking pipes called midwak. Ali ascertains very proudly that the midwak isn’t like the western pipes and how he only sells very good quality of tobacco, the price of which could go as high as Dhs 90/kg!
Archaeological Findings Room, Dukan Namlet, Ratios Coffee in Souq Al Shenasiya: As we walk around the reconstructed Souq al Shenasiya, we are shown around the different types of shops, both modern and old that grace the souq. These are shops selling traditional abayas, kharaz or the traditional beads, perfumes, jewellery and even households like traditional homeware, pots, decorative pieces and dallahs. This souq forms the most interesting piece in the jigsaw puzzle that connects the old Souq al Arsa and Souq Saqr. The Archaeological Findings Room gives a glimpse of the original foundations of the souq that were excavated after His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohamed Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council, Ruler of Sharjah, commissioned a non-intrusive radar survey of the area. Our next stop is Dukan Namlet – and this stop initiates an interesting thread of conversation. The young people in the emirate are coming back to their roots and opening up stores that connect them to their tradition or childhood nostalgia, but in a modern way. For example, Namlets – the flavoured drinks in the British Codd-neck bottles, were very popular drinks when Fatima was growing up. The word lemonade got transformed into Namlet and she recalls how they would mimic the sound of a pop and a fizz while eagerly pushing down the marble that was used to protect the fizz. The salted preserved fish at Maleh Al Dar is another example. Preservation of salted seafood is a part Emirati culture – a clever way in which the seafood could be enjoyed even after the end of a fishing season season. And interestingly, the maleh in its new avatar is also appealing to the modern day Emiratis, thanks to modern packaging and creative branding.
The validation of the above emotion can’t be felt more than at Ratios Coffee, a new wave cafe serving specialty coffee owned by Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi. Overlooking the Sharjah Creek, the space is modern yet cozy and what gives it the smell and feel of wisdom is that all the wood that has been used in this space has been recycled from a dhow that has sailed the seas for more than 60 years! It is interesting how coffee preferences are slowly changing in the UAE and people are more conscious of specialty coffee, the various types, the roasting method and also how and from where its being sourced. After all, a small dose of quality caffeine never did anyone harm!
Arva led us through Souq al Saqr towards Bait al Serkel, the 150-year-old building which served as a Missionary hospital in the 1960s. Fatima’s excitement at this stage was really palpable – yes, this was the place where she was born. Places hold memories and that’s the only reason they become special in people’s hearts. Both the storytellers seemed to have been reliving their childhood memories and we continue on our journey further, regaled with their tales. While so far we had been having our cultural halts refuelled and hydrated with beverages like kadak chai, Namlet and a coffee (apart from spoonful of the divine Omani Halwa), what followed in the next half of the trail was clearly an assault on the gastrointestinal juices and our overstretched abdominal linings. We soon left Heart of Sharjah to explore more of the city and to dig into the divine tastes of…
… well, TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 2. All I can say right now is that when Sharjah beckons you… please do savour it and follow your heart!
Unblogging it all… Ishita
You can book into #savourSHJ trail from Frying Pan Adventures
Next Dates: Saturday, January 16 & Thursday, January 28
Duration: Approx. 4.5 hours
Price/Guest: AED 299.00 inclusive of 8 stops featuring 1 restaurant for brunch, 1 old-time sandwich cafeteria, 3 sweet stops, 1 bakery & 2 beverage stops
Disclaimer: I had been a media guest along with my favourite foodie companion Sally Prosser of My Custard Pie and others in this trip with the transport provided by Careem. The subject, story, opinions and views stated here are my own and are independent. None of the outlets mentioned here have sponsored this post. While you enjoy reading the posts with visuals, please do not use any material from these posts. And do join me on my daily food and travel journey on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.