Welcome to The Dispatch, a new monthly column where we’ll share our findings on recipes, markets, products, ingredients and more from Dubai and Tucson. Our first dispatch covers a much loved seasonal farmers market in Dubai that’s more than a decade old.
On a late Saturday morning in mid December, I stood ‘haggling’ with the sabziwala or the vegetable vendor over some greens. I was at a farmers market in Dubai and the sun was just getting hotter. December is still not as cold as one would imagine it to be in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s not too difficult to imagine haggling when you are shopping at your local weekly bazaar in India but certainly not common in the sanitised supermarket produce aisles in Dubai.
The sabziwala had just finished weighing some greens, three different kinds of cucumbers and a softer variety of light green Karela or Bitter Gourd I had picked from his nicely arranged crate of produce.
I had never found such soft and tender Karela in Dubai earlier so it was very tempting not to buy. My selection included a bunch of Methi or fenugreek leaves, light green Armeninan cucumbers that reminded me of North Indian summer Kakdi, only with a much thicker wedged surface, crisp, long English cucumbers in the deepest forest green and the smaller everyday deep green Persian cucumbers that I always buy for snacking through the week. My total for this local organic produce weighing more than a kilo was around 10 dirhams (roughly 2.72 USD).
I had already bought a jar of nut butter, a spiced nut mix, some beautiful cherry tomatoes, seed potatoes to make chatpate chhote aloo and my bags were getting heavier!
The Unknown ‘saag’
The guy kept insisting I take a bunch of greens that I did not want! I had bought enough produce for the week.
“Yeh patta bhi le jao” (Take these leaves as well), he insisted in his broken Hindi/Urdu.
“Yeh kaunsa patta hai, mujhe nahi malum”(I don’t know what these leaves are), I asked him.
“Broccoli leaves” I was informed.
“Isko kaise banate hain” (How do you cook these?)
“Mere ko kya malum” (How would I know?) he laughed.
“Yeh free mein le jao, extra nahi chahiye” (Take them for free, I am not charging extra).
I was hesitant to try something new and feared I would just let it go waste sitting in the fridge. Not that he should charge me less, the guy was throwing in a freebie!
Organic and Affordable
All this organic produce at a regular Dubai supermarket would cost me at least 5 times of what the farmer was asking for. But at this farmers market in Dubai’s Business Bay district, the produce was fresher, and much cheaper. On top of that, sometimes the lovely people don’t mind giving you stuff for free without you even asking for it.
I decided to take the Broccoli leaves (which looked similar to curly Kale), with the resolve that I will cook with it this week. This is not the first time a sabziwala at the farmers market had given me new produce at the market to try for free. A few weeks ago I scored round shaped sweet red peppers that I now love to add to everything I make.
The broccoli greens went into the vegetable omelette made with duck eggs that I made as soon as I reached home. Later the same greens found their way in namkeen sewiyan upma and even in egg fried rice. They had a mild grassy taste, much more pleasant than Kale. They were nothing that my all too fussy co-habitant would complain about! I guess I might voluntarily pick broccoli greens up next time!
Saturdays are Market days
Every Saturday morning around 8 am, the open area near the park in front of the Bay Avenue mall sees a small group of farmers setting up tents and table. They unload crates from trucks parked nearby to place their brightly colored produce, fresh from their respective farms.
These farmers are joined by some local bakers and food artisans selling items like sourdough breads, sugar free date cookies, croissants, marinated labneh (a cousin of our Punjabi mathha/ chakka), speciality honey, Dukkah, pickles, dried limes, dairy free alternatives, nut butters and granolas and even olive oil.
One can even try freshly fried Luqaimat (Emirati dumplings drizzled with date syrup), Karak chai, homemade ice creams and of course speciality coffee.
Nearby residents and people from various residential areas slowly trickle in to browse and pick produce. You can find eggplants, yellow, orange, bell peppers, dates, eggs, honey, jalapeños, earns of corn, gourds, squashes, pumpkins, tomatoes, beets, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, marrow, cucumbers, radishes, beans and red and green okra.
As the season progresses, they soon add limes and lemons, tomatoes, potatoes and lots of greens like coriander, mint, parsley, different kinds of spinach, amaranth leaves, kale, chard, rocket, lettuce, kadi patta or curry leaves, spring onions, basil and of course broccoli leaves. The market is a delight for anyone who loves to cook at home.
Most people associate dates as the quintessential fruit from this region and it is indeed full of date trees, even in residential areas. There are more than 40 million date palms in the UAE. Dedicated date farms in areas like Al Ain produce most of the harvest. While date palms love the heat of the Arabian desert and date back to 5110 BC in the region, other crops need more work.
The UAE or the United Arab Emirates is a desert and it is hard to believe that all this can be grown in these sandy soils. As surprising as it may sound, the UAE does grow a wide variety of produce.
The growing season for most vegetables in farms starts in September and lasts until April, when the weather is less harsh and comparatively cooler. Greenhouses are common at most farms to protect crops from the sun and pests. The desert climate and lack of fresh sweet water poses a challenge to farmers in the region. This has led to innovative methods like indoor vertical farming and hydroponics.
In a country that uses desalinated water for everything and has no river sources, it seems far-fetched to imagine that it can sustain itself without food imports. But UAE is gradually working towards changing that. A visit to a local farmers market in Dubai reveals that a variety of produce can be homegrown, at least for some months of the year.
The OG farmers market in Dubai
Started in 2010, this market was first organised by a local cafe in Souq al Bahar, situated under the famed Burj Khalifa. The cafe, Baker and Spice, finally took a step back in 2020 after the pandemic. In its current avatar, the market is managed and organised by local farms in the UAE with Integrated Green Resources (IGR) at its helm.
The market has since found a home in Business Bay, close to the happening Downtown Dubai. Every weekend morning in the winter, the garden in Business Bay’s Bay Avenue comes alive with the freshest local produce. And if that was not enough, all the farms that participate in this farmers’ market are certified organic by ESMA (Emirates authority for Standardisation and Meteorology). This means using only sweet water to grow crops and using only seeds that are approved amongst other standards.
The prices are not bumped up because the participating farms are not charged a fee at this market. There are several al fresco markets in Dubai and in the UAE that also sell products by small businesses and artisans. But as much as Dubai residents enjoy going to al fresco markets, it is important to know that not all these markets are real farmers markets. A real farmers’ market has farmers directly selling local produce to customers and not through middlemen or a corporate entity.
Talk to a farmer
Over the years, I’ve seen more kinds of winter greens and vegetables added to the list of produce at this market. I remember asking several farm shops for mustard greens to make sarson ka saag and it was a rarity. Now most of the farms carry not just mustard greens but many others like malabar spinach. I sighted goosefoot or bathua for the first time this year. Another recent find was Ajwain ke patte or greens from the carom seed plant. These leaves are used in chutneys and pakoras.
The concept of Farmers Markets are common in many parts of the world but it is somewhat new in Dubai. For most expats, these market are a refreshing change from buying imported vegetables from far away without exchanging any words with the seller.
It is also reminiscent of produce markets in most Asian and Mediterranean countries that have vibrant open air markets. There are no price stickers, you are greeted by the seller and sometimes you even try to haggle a bit. Go a few times and they’ll even recognize you! After ordering groceries on apps during the COVID pandemic, one particularly values the human element of being amongst other people and having a conversation.
An organiser at the market once shared that most of the unsold produce cannot be used beyond a day or two. Such produce is used as compost by most organic farms. Some of the bigger, more established farms supply their produce to major supermarkets and restaurants throughout the year. But even then harsh climes pose several challenges.
Plucking your own vegetables
Unfortunately, due to extreme weather conditions in the region, the growing season for farmers here is small. In winter months, many farms invite visitors with prior appointments.
I visited one such organic farm in Dubai in early 2020. They grew a majority of their vegetables like tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers in greenhouses. Winter vegetables like carrots, beets, cauliflower and cabbage were grown out in the open and we were invited to pluck our own. I remember coming back from the farm with a small bag of veggies I’d picked on my own. Since they were barely a kilo, the farm let me take it for free.
Ask farmers about their hardships and they’ll tell you how lack of rains in the UAE makes farming a challenge. But sometimes (if you are nice!) they will still insist you take something for free so that it does not go to waste!