ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — You're on Paradise Beach overlooking a crystal-clear turquoise sea. The gentle breeze rustles the fringes of palmed ramadas and there is the smell of tortillas wafting under your nose.
No, no, no. We're not in Mazatlan. We are in Abu Dhabi, 12 time zones from Los Angeles--a world away. And somewhere, back in the kitchen at the Abu Dhabi Sheraton, which stands on Paradise Beach, somebody is cooking Mexican.
Abu Dhabi, you might already know, is the capital of the United Arab Emirates (often referred to as UAE), which consists of seven sheikdoms or states in the southeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula. Here, 2.4% of the world's oil is pumped.
The land is desert-bare, the color of mustard as far as the eye can see, but there are some of the cleanest streets in the Arab world, and the most progressively modern architecture exists in major cities such as Abu Dhabi, a city of glass and steel built in a day, so to speak, after a millennium of desert sleep.
At night, modern hotels and wealthy sheiks' villas cast shimmering lights along a coastline overlooking the Persian Gulf, where some of the best gulf shrimp, lobster and hammour, a white fish indigenous to gulf waters, are caught.
The local cuisine of the UAE, which consists largely of dates, lamb and rice, is eclipsed by the culinary diversity spawned by the heavily heterogeneous immigrant population that makes up the major work force in the growing metropolis. Pakistanis, Indians and Sri Lankans, who form the largest work force, dominate. But there are Lebanese, Egyptians, Palestinians, Sudanese, Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans, Britishers, Italians and other European groups, among almost every other nationality around the world, who have helped, within the last 10 years, to double the population of the small sheikdom to its present 1.1 million in an area about the size of Indiana.
Whatever native cuisine there might exist is usually found in Arab homes and a few small local cafes, where foreigners rarely go, partially because of the language barrier and also because of the lack of alcoholic beverages in restaurants outside of international hotels, in adherence to restrictions of the Islamic religion.
The land known today as UAE was already being fought over during the time of Alexander the Great, which was centuries before the spread of Islam to the area more than 1,000 years ago.
Portugal, which controlled much of the trade routes to the Far East in the 16th Century, set up several military forts in the area. By 1617, the British East India company had staked its claim and Britain dominated until the 20th Century, when the door on colonial rule was finally slammed shut. Nomads who inhabited the desert lived by the rules dictated by nature in their quest for food and comforts. The staples of survival remained simple--dates eaten for sustenance, while meat and rice and fruit remained luxuries.
The discovery of oil in the area after World War II brought with it the new waves of culinary influences from around the world, providing inhabitants with as much diversity of dining possibilities as one might find anywhere in the United States.
Most hotels in Abu Dhabi offer a variety of cuisines to suit the influx of international businessmen and women who work year-round on the peninsula. It is the practice of foreigners away from home to while away lonely hours by hopping from hotel restaurant to hotel restaurant, from one bar to another.
For instance, you might start out with white cheese and olive appetizers at the Hotel Meridian's Lebanese restaurant, then progress to the Hotel Intercontinental for some French appetizers from the French restaurant, then to the Hilton Hotel for some Japanese sushi, and end up at the Sheraton for an authentic Chinese meal prepared by chefs imported from Shanghai or, more likely, at El Sombrero for fajitas and guacamole.
El Sombrero at the Abu Dhabi Sheraton is one of the most popular eating spots on the peninsula, not because the food is exemplary, which it is, considering that every scrap of food except fish and dairy products must be imported, but because of its easy, friendly atmosphere; it's a place to let go of a hard day away from comforting family and friends.
Business at the cafe is its briskest and bawdiest after 9 p.m. A singing group of Filipinos croons Mexican ballads in English accents not quite authentic. The hard drinkers never make it to dinner, but the lighter drinkers settle down to a table for conversation over appetizers, guacamole and ceviche, or a good, hearty Mexican carne asada . Others may choose the specialty of the house, the Sombrero Club Steak, in which marinated grilled steak is topped with onion sauce and served with deep-fried onion rings.
The Sheraton's Mexican kitchen, in fact, was developed by the wives of local businessmen commissioned by the chef to come up with standard dishes as well as the decor.