Deira, UAE: The way Dubai once was

There are celebrity chefs in Deira, for sure. Though they're perhaps not the ones you're thinking of.

There's the guy who makes falafel at Qwaider al Nabulsi. He's pretty famous. And whoever it is that makes the curries at Karachi Darbar. He should have his own show. Same with the guy who makes the Iranian flatbread at Sadaf Restaurant. Celebrities, one and all.

Though, of course, these chefs aren't actually famous. Not Dubai famous, anyway. Not world famous. They're not celebrities in the Gordon Ramsay mould: they don't have TV shows or their own line of saucepans.

They're just chefs. Talented. Hard working. With dedicated followings of loyal customers, many of whom queue up nightly for the pleasure of sampling their delicious cuisine. That's a form of celebrity, right?

And that's Deira, the city within a city in central Dubai; that's what sets it apart. Deira is like the rest of Dubai, but different. It has great restaurants – but they're not helmed by international superstars. It has tourist attractions, too – but they're not world-record breakers. And it has swish hotels – but they're not multinational mega-resorts.

Deira, the shabby and once unloved suburb just near Dubai's heaving airport, is distinctive. It has character. It has soul. If you're the type of person who thinks Dubai is a little too sanitised, a little too contrived, then Deira – scruffy, busy, noisy Deira – is for you. This is the real Middle East, lived in and loved.

It doesn't always seem like a place for tourists. Stroll the banks of Dubai Creek and you'll find that Deira is a working port, with boating supply stores where you might find restaurants, and old wooden ferries being loaded to the bulwarks for journeys to Iran, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Every evening, the empty spaces of Deira – the car parks, the disused lots – are commandeered by south Asian expats for makeshift games of cricket. Their cries mingle with the sound of planes taking off nearby, with the racket of apartment buildings being torn down and built up all around.

Some of those new buildings, you find, are hotels, part of the influx of trendy brands now establishing themselves in Deira. They're places like the new Rove City Centre, the Pullman Dubai Creek, the Flora Creek: upmarket lodgings that show how Deira is changing, how it's attracting tourists drawn by the area's culture, by its soul, and, of course, by the fact it's a five-minute drive from Dubai International Airport. This place is ideal for a flying stop, for getting a shot of Middle Eastern culture before being shot back into the stratosphere.

It takes only a little exploration to get under Deira's skin, to see its warm heart. Unlike much of Dubai, Deira is a place for walking, a lively suburb where you'll share the pavements with burqa-clad mothers dragging their kids around shops, with workers bustling to job sites, with migrants from around the world, Arabs, Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos and more.

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Deira has attractions, for those who seek them. There's the old Gold Souk, an arcade filled with all things glittering and pricey. There's the Spice Souk, a warren of dark shopfronts selling the traders' bounty.

The true centre of Deira, however, is a busy shopping precinct bookended by streets called Al Maktoum and Al Muraqqabat. This is where Deira's residents come to shop and to socialise, to enjoy the food and the culture of all of those immigrants who can be seen walking the streets.

The area's should-be-celebrity chefs reside here. They ply their trade at Qwaider al Nabulsi, a garish restaurant on Al Muraqqabat street that does some of the best hummus and falafel around. They work at Al Safadi, a Lebanese joint on Al Rigga Road that does amazing Levantine flatbread. They're on board at Sadaf, a Iranian restaurant on Al Maktoum that does some of the city's best shish kebabs.

Check out the queues outside these restaurants. To the locals who come here week after week, who enjoy the authentic, honest cuisine that sums up everything that's good in Deira, these chefs would definitely qualify as celebrities.

TRIP NOTES

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Traveller.com.au/Dubai

FLY

Emirates flies up to twice daily from major Australian ports direct to Dubai. See emirates.com/au

STAY

The Rove City Centre hotel is a stylish, modern space from which to explore Deira, with rooms from $121 a night. See rovehotels.com

Ben Groundwater travelled as a guest of Emirates Airline and Dubai Tourism

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