Breathlessly making for the centre table behind Diana, our Georgian guide for the day at Deira, I am surrounded by thousands of spectators staring down at me from the walls enclosing this mad arena of multiverses manifold. The very busy Majid Ansari brushes aside my clunky introduction, escorting me to my table instead: I am to sit smack-bang in the middle of Bur Dubai’s cult-favourite kebab eatery that is famously said to serve both “shoeshiners and sheikhs”.
Entombed between the glass top and the wooden base of my table are currency notes from Madagascar, Pakistan, Peru, Belarus, Kenya, Oman, Iran, and, of course, India. This group of banknotes is just a fraction of the thriving compendium of memory that is Al-Ustad. The aforementioned spectators are contained in hundreds of snapshots plastered all over its walls. All these are travellers and gastronomes who have at different times in history congregated at this meeting point, leaving behind banknotes, photographs, telephones and cell phones, and relics sundry—all of which are now displayed without discrimination around the restaurant. One of the bigger telephones is supposed to be worth 40,000 dirhams (₹ 8.5 lakh approximately), Ansari will later tell us.
Panning my viewfinder across the breadth of the joint, I stop to press the shutter at the end of the wall, where a massive portrait of Mohammad Ali Ansari, the man behind Al-Ustadi, hangs. The late proprietor and beloved local business baron who arrived in Dubai in 1941 as a seven-year-old, died in 2015 in Shiraz. Today, Dubai teems with blue-collar and white-collar professionals from close to two hundred countries, but this once-humble Arab port maintained particularly close links with Iran—the Bastakiya neighbourhood a few minutes away was originally a Persian settlement named after the southern Iranian town of Bastak.
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“Al-Ustad Special Kabab, next to Al-Musallah Tower, Bur Dubai,” Ansari announces as if warming up for the chat he has walked up to our table to have. Dressed in a crisp white shirt and wearing rimless glasses and a soul patch, he is a veritable thespian who has chosen the stage of the humble food and drink establishment for his craft. “Before he started this restaurant, my father was trading for the Iran government, dealing in electronics, perfume and the like. One day, Iraq and Iran suddenly went to war, and all money was gone,” Ansari recounts, I imagine, for the hundredth time.
The restaurant remained shut until 1982. “God closes one door but opens ten. But you have to trust yourself always. My father cooked and my mother did, too. In Iranians, men and women both know how to cook well,” says Ansari, who runs the establishment along with brothers Talil and Abbas. The restaurant continues to be frequented by Bollywood stars—with Ansari reserving special mentions for Salman Khan and Sanjay Dutt—apart from celebrities from U.A.E and Iran. This constant exposure to emissaries of pop culture has rendered the Ansaris true world citizens, one imagines. “The food is good, but we respect the people and they respect us. No nationalities, we’re all one,” he says.
To my left is the entrance to the Al-Ustad kitchen, out of whose sauna-like belly waft the beguiling, aromatic vapours that have made this iconic kebab joint the phenomenon it is. The delicate creaminess and tanginess and exquisite crust of their kebabs have their favourite ingredient to thank: yoghurt. Having run this operation and seen kebabs marinated with yoghurt every day for decades, one expects Ansari to feel at least a little bit jaded with the word yoghurt—but he isn’t. He would happily give us a tour of his kitchen, had we but world enough and time.
“The yoghurt [kebabs] are the bestsellers here. The Arabs and the Ajams (Iranians), eat the yoghurt, number one. When they get married, they make their [yoghurt-marinated] barbecue mutton and chicken first… then they make their [other] barbecues,” he shares, adding, however, that the Indian and Pakistani regulars at the grill prefer the seekh and zafran versions owing to their sourness-averse palates.
“Is it the harsher heat of these parts that makes the Arabs take to tang?” I proffer as an unremarkable Indian with only a limited tolerance for sourness. Ansari differs slightly, choosing to ascribe this predilection completely to good taste, and probably the fact that the sourness afforded by lemon doesn’t quite match up to the consistent and creamy sourness of yoghurt. Laban, as it is known in the Middle East, has been a ubiquitous condiment and ingredient in the region for centuries. And I can see where Ansari is coming from—even after having cooled down a bit in the air-conditioning, the kebabs we’ve ordered are incredibly succulent. The marinade has well and truly consummated its marriage with the joojeh kebab, and the platter suddenly is starting to look more within our reach.
Bur Dubai is a happening gastro-hub for palates craving a break from the fancy fine dining of the business and leisure districts, and homegrown hole-in-the-wall establishments specialising in mandi, a slow-cooked rice-and-meat platter with its origins in Yemen. I wonder aloud if Ansari would ever want to expand to other locations within Dubai or internationally. “No, no, no, no. One god, one wife, one shop. More than enough. Trust yourself,” Ansari answers, to a rousing reception from his freshly impressed clientele.
Our lunch halt at this iconic grill which has now spent 22 years each on either side of the turn of the century, is supposed to be an in-and-out operation. I cannot, however, help but go through the menu to check if I’ve missed out on something. The Sultani Dinner—mutton tenderloin kebab and minced kebab with rice—at AED 50 (₹1,056), is the highest-priced item. All kebab platters come with either rice or bread (papery naan that we don’t have the time to try), and a vegetable salad platter to complement the smoky tenderness of the kebab with a fresh crunch. Old Town insiders reckon they also do a mean tahdig (a traditional Persian dish that’s basically a layer of fried rice from the bottom), even though it is not on the menu.
Midway through the conversation, we realise the polo (rice) we got is without the zereshk. Deep red and raisin-like, barberries are integral to traditional Persian cuisine, especially rice preparations, probably also for the extra hint of tartness that this fare demands. Mildly disgruntled, we turn to our left, where they are piled up in a receptacle like candies. Ansari promptly turns to the counter on the left to grab a handful, and tops the rice, smoothly showing off his customer appeasement skills as well as his Hindi with the following closing remark: “Wo kya bolte hain, der aaye toh durust aaye (better late than never).”
Our visit to the restaurant was organised as part of the Dubai Food Festival 2022.
Where: Al-Ustad Special Kebab is located on Al Musallah Road, a short walk away from the Sharaf DG metro station (Green Line)
What to eat: For lunch and dinner, try the Kabab Khas (AED 35/₹740; available as chicken and mutton marinated in yoghurt and barbecued) or the Joujeh Kabab (AED 35/₹740). Or try their mix platters with some zereshk polo (AED 40/₹845). To try other Iranian specials such as tahdig or ghormeh sabzi, request in advance.
When: Open all days from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. except Fridays (6 a.m. to 1 a.m.)
Prannay Pathak dreams about living out of a suitcase and retiring to the island of Hamneskär to watch films in solitary confinement. He is Assistant Editor (Digital) at National Geographic Traveller India.