Painting Abu Dhabi Through Food

Grace Shieh’s love affair with exploring little food gems in Abu Dhabi started in her first year.

Abu Dhabi to me is a city of colors. In every spice, taste, and smell, there is a different color. In every block and neighborhood, there are layers of hues. Arriving two years ago to study at NYU Abu Dhabi, the times I had spent walking in the city exploring cuisines with friends continues to be one of my most vibrant memories.

My first encounter with regional desserts was during a city walk with five friends from the class The Outsider in my first year. Walking down Salam Street in the Tourist Club area, a sugary aroma saturated the sidewalk as we walked into Al Aqssa Sweets, a shop of kunafa, baklava, and other Arabic pastries. Behind the counter, huge circular pans of orange and golden brown kunafa topped with green pistachios struck our eyes. The six of us huddled around a table, our spoons busying over a plate of kunafa.

Kunafa, an Arabic dessert. Illustration by Grace Shieh, NYU Abu Dhabi Class of 2023.

At one point, it became impossible to determine where the warmth was coming from on that cool November night. Was it from the cheesy crunches melting in my mouth, the camaraderie of six hungry first-year students enjoying their food, or from the baking of pastries in the background?

There is great joy in walking down the streets on a weekend night, on the lookout for a new favorite space or the return to a familiar place. For me, this is the essence of Abu Dhabi: the distinctive tastes and atmospheres paint the city into an interweaving collage that no maps can justly represent. With travel restrictions still in place for many countries, I'm grateful for the vibrant neighborhoods of Abu Dhabi and its diverse cultures and cuisines the communities have created locally. From African to Asian, dishes were eaten and memories were made. 

Ethiopia — Bonna Anne

A couple of steps from Al Aqssa, Bonna Anne is an Ethiopian restaurant of a homey vibe and a regular dining place of mine. Famous among NYUAD students for their Bonna Anne Special, the dish starts with a huge circular plate in which injera—a foamy, soury crepe-like bread—lays. 

Between the chatters and clinkings of cutlery, portions of gravy, meat, and potatoes are scooped by the waiter onto the bread. It was on these tables that I had finalized course selection plans, done impromptu photoshoots of friends, and spent too much time looking at public bus schedules that would take me back to campus.

Nepal — Vansha Ghar

NYUAD students come from all around the world, and this means that an unfamiliar dish for one may be the home food for another. Vansha Ghar, a Nepali restaurant near the World Trade Center has witnessed my first try of Nepali food and my gradual increase in spice tolerance, while providing a sense of comfort for schoolmates who are missing home. Between my friends and I, we call this “momoing” — the act of getting delicious momos on a Thursday night.

Nepalese food, momo. Illustration by Grace Shieh, NYU Abu Dhabi Class of 2023.

Scattered across the city elsewhere, some of my other favorites include Dragon Bao Bao, a Chinese restaurant known for its noodles and Chinese steamed buns called baozi, and the Art House Cafe, one of the many pre-pandemic study-friendly and artsy cafes in the city.

Dine in the Time of Coronavirus 

During my winter break, a friend and I dined at Bait el Khetyar, an Arabic restaurant, completed with social distancing, reduced seating, and a choreographed ritual of hand sanitizing. Located close to the World Trade Center, its falafel kaakeh, foul, and fresh out of the oven manousheh were tantalizingly good, momentarily taking me away from this new way of eating out.

Grace Shieh, NYU Abu Dhabi Class of 2023.

Sometimes late at night, I would sit in front of my easel and canvas, imagining myself strolling through the streets and blocks of Abu Dhabi with different friends, at various times. Floods of colors, smells, sounds, and tastes would fill my palate. Though the pandemic has added another hue to the way I explore food in the city, it does not stop me from appreciating this culturally diverse city I call home now.