Dubai Food Festival: Food for thought, and action

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Their presence at the Dubai Food Carnival, which marked the beginning of the three-week long inaugural Dubai Food Festival on Friday, was more logical than it first looked, with plenty of options for the notoriously hefty athletes to keep their bulk up.

The two-day carnival, which concluded on Saturday, featured more than 100 food and drink retailers, as well as a host of celebrity chefs offering cooking demonstrations, a food blogger forum, circus performers, comedians, musicians and cooking challenges for the public.

Udaya Kumar Shanmugam spent several hours at the event on Friday evening with his wife, their two young children and friends.

“Of course it’s a good idea, it’s opening up so many avenues for people to go (and) experience different cuisines.” He said the highlights had been some of the entertainment, such as Brazilian dancing, which had been interactive for children who were invited to join on stage. The South American theme carried through much of the entertainment, with members of Dubai-based Latino Circus clowning around with their large feet and impressive feats.

Manager Miguel Angel Polania, a juggler by trade, said the group did all sorts of entertainment but focused on “circus skills”.

Polania’s retinue included acrobats, unicyclists and stilt-walkers, who also performed in a stage show. The performers, who hail from countries like Brazil, Colombia and the less-Latino nation of Morocco — where all the best acrobats come from, according to Polania — also incorporate dance elements of salsa and samba into their performances.

The opening day had gone well, he said. “It’s good, we like these kind of things, festivals, (where) many different things are happening. It’s something very special and for us (we) walk all around the grounds.”

Polania, who can juggle seven balls at one time, said one of his company’s hallmarks was that performers interacted with visitors by approaching them directly — particularly kids. “They enjoy it. The kids are so naughty and they sometimes push you.”

But Polania should spare a thought for the Sumo wrestlers, who were attacked by children using all their might during several interactive demonstrations at a central ‘Sumo Ring’ at the event; not that they stood much chance of shifting the friendly giants.

Dubai Calendar director and Food Festival spokeswoman Sally Edwards said she was “blown away” by the number of visitors at the event after the first day, which were in their thousands. “As a new event, the turnout is really fantastic and I guess it shows the language of food is an international language.”

Edwards said the festival was intended to highlight the multitude of cuisines Dubai had on offer, owing to its populace made up of more than 200 nationalities. “We have got all these cuisines and we want to celebrate what we have got on offer…those of us who live here know that Dubai has got amazing food, but we also know from our research that people don’t associate Dubai as a gourmet destination.”

While the first year of the new festival was intended for local visitors, Edwards said the over-arching goal is to make it an international event, similar to the Dubai Shopping Festival. “This year is very much about engaging the local community…and in the future years, we’ll use it to market internationally and drive people (to Dubai) through the food festival time.”

Dubai, sitting at the centre of the world, is uniquely placed as a food destination. “We’ve got all these international brands in Dubai, but at the same time we’ve got all these local home grown restaurants.”

But it is important that international brands keep standards up, as opposed to launching restaurants with big international teams and then allowing food quality to drop off. “From a tourism perspective, it’s really important that people experience quality of an international standard, which is evolving here.”

The entire Food Festival was the “public facing” version of Gulf Food, the world’s largest international food trade show, which kicks off today at the Dubai World Trade Centre.

The Dubai Food Festival includes 50 different events, such as masters’ cooking classes in various restaurants, a ‘Big Grill’ next weekend featuring ‘80s band UB40, and food-related events in major malls. More than 300 restaurants have prepared menus specially for the occasion. Edwards also hinted of some surprise events that will be taking place at Dubai beaches, including Kite Beach, Jumeirah Open Beach and Sunset Beach.

Back at the Food Carnival, Shanmugam had some suggestions for organisers, before they launch the event internationally next year.

“The food is good, but I would have preferred…if they had made a buffet system with plenty of items that people can taste…we still really don’t know much of the food that is on offer.”

Shanmugam cited the price of some dishes as prohibitive, with some restaurants selling appetisers for as much as Dh30.

Despite the entertainment, he also recommended more games for kids. Some of his friends’ children turned a “Media Hub” into a makeshift playground, by opening up beanbags to form a Winterland out of the small white polystyrene balls.

Watching the children wrestle one in another in the polystyrene paradise, the question had to be posed: Are these kids in training to take on the sumo wrestlers once more at next year’s carnival?

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