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  • Writer's pictureLiz Totton

Grocery Shopping: Abu Dhabi style: Emirates’ General Market & Al Mina Fish and Produce Ma

Emirate's General Market

Emirate’s General Market

It is VERY easy here in Abu Dhabi to believe that you are vacationing permanently in some really hot, dry European resort town, until you venture out to do the most mundane task of grocery shopping—on the cheap. I highlight the latter because it is more than possible to shop here in expat-friendly shops, never experience the “local color” and pay through your nose, but don’t ever ask me to do that! That’s not why I’m here. We are here to save money and have an adventure. Expat-friendly shops will not help us in either realm. I have to get amongst the locals, even if I am vastly unprepared and always too scantily clad (by Muslim standards).

Oh, and I was both today! We just moved into our new home, and it was Saturday mega-shopping day—whether we liked it or not. There were no more Staybridge breakfast and dinner buffets nor all you can drink espresso. There was also no maid’s service, so making beds, cleaning and all that crap was back on my plate as of this morning. I clicked my flip flops together: I am not at the Staybridge anymore, I am not at the Staybridge anymore, but there I was still in this crazy place—ridiculously out of my element!

Lulu coffee nescafé

Lulu Coffee is Knock off Nescafé and NOT for your drinking pleasure.

There I stood in the kitchen with a small jar of a Nescafé coffee granules—Lulu brand knock off, at that, and a family of hungry people that expected me to actually make breakfast for them?! My fantastic American espresso machine does not work here nor does my Starbucks’ grinder. F-U America for this stupid 110 voltage thing, and I mean that! Get with the world program! Appliances SHOULD work everywhere, damn it! You see what happens when I have not had a real coffee. 🙂

Arabic kitchen

Can you believe the size of this? All I wanted was a larger kitchen, and I got this?!

So let’s get back to my “working” place, i.e. kitchen. Would you all have a look at this Arabic kitchen? Could you cook in this? I thought not either, but I did. Breakfast was less than a success. Let’s just say knock off Nescafé neither fuels my cooking juices nor wakes me up. And it tastes like crap too! Pancake mix is very unusual here. Of course, I have a child, Lucie, who will only east pancakes for breakfast. She loves them: so light, puffy and syrupy. NOT! I bought the local “Golden Syrup” brand. I should have sprung for the familiar Hungry Jack. The pancakes were like deflated tires. I followed the directions, I think, but they were in metric and I didn’t measure so I could have done many things wrong. Maple syrup costs a mint here, so she had to eat them dry, which would not have been a problem had they not been like rubber. Eggs for Skye were uneventful. She’s easy. The yolk here is very orange though. I wonder why? I digress.

Egg yolk

Is this not like crazy, neon orange, or is it me? Arabian eggs.

No Expat shops were on our itinerary: No Abelas, Spinney’s, Waitrose and such (though I did wonder where on earth else I could find a half decent bagel in this part of the Middle East besides Spinney’s?). And, of course, we did not find them. Shockingly, it is rather hard to find a Jewish product in Abu Dhabi that’s any good ;).  Thankfully, we were in the market for less country-specific things today. A mop, for example, is way less political than a bagel–everyone uses them whether they want to or not. They are sold everywhere. That was our day.

We got lost. We always do when we are in the city. Even with your Garmin or exact coordinates, it’s very easy to miss a turn which sends you into a crazy, downward driving spiral—especially if you are a guy like Rob who likes and needs his road signs to be actually directive and traffic lights to NOT last over 3-5 minutes to give ample S   L  O  W walking time across the city street. Abu Dhabi city dwellers stroll leisurely across the city streets. Why not? They have 3 whole minutes to reach the other side. These people would not make it across a single NYC cross street! It would be like Human Frogger. Splat!


Hail the Butchery to your left. Hold your nose. Here goes!

We landed upon the Emirates’ General market, which I am quite fond of despite the smells and the halal animal slaughter, which takes place on the 1st floor in the Butchery. Yup, full service animal slaughter available at your local grocer! I am 99% vegetarian–sushi is my weird and VERY hypocritical weakness. I occasionally LOVE raw fish flesh. Sights and smells of places like this are really tough for me, but I am beyond aware that making the “choice” to be vegetarian-let’s say pescatarian in the interest of clarity, is much like making the choice to not vaccinate your children: #firstworldproblems. In many places (including here for the subordinate class), you eat whatever you can get your hands on because you are just plain hungry or malnourished. You don’t consult your conscience. 

So, I hold my nose and avert my eyes past the butchery. We get to the grocery aisles. There are SO many reasons that I love to travel and live abroad and days like today are a huge part. I love seeing strange things that I have never seen before in other languages. Things so common to people here are so very fun and foreign to me. I could spend a day easily in just the grocery section, taking pictures and examining things, if they would let me, if Rob would let me…

turmeric root

Turmeric root!

Example: we eat mostly what you would call “ethnic food” in the states. I love to cook. I am uninspired by so-called American food–you know, meat and potatoes with no flavor.* I love spices. I love spice shopping even more. I relish the hunt for an unusual ingredient. If I see an ingredient in a recipe that I have to google, that’s it, I am making it, even if I have to mission all around to find it! So this market has every weird ingredient that I have travelled to distant cities for or bought online in every aisle just like in America you’d find white bread and canned corn.  Frozen paneer? Check! Turmeric root? Check! Za’atar? Check! Fresh Curry leaves? Check! Looking for bagels or goldfish crackers? Nope, don’t come here!

Rob patiently endured my spice aisle meandering—let’s just say this is my Heaven! I filed that shopping cart nearly half way with all my favorite spices. I had to throw out or give away my extensive spice cabinet back in the US before we moved to the UAE. Apparently, spices trigger customs officials to inspect your stuff, and you don’t want that. I did this with such great sadness. I knew there were some things that I would have trouble finding here, but rebuilding my spice collection is not a bad trade-off. I cannot wait to visit a spice souk in Dubai. I imagine it to be just like it was in the days of Marco Polo when the Middle East was the crossroads of the spice route. It’s probably nothing remotely like this in reality, but I am going to stick to my vision because my idea of the way things should be here keep me sane.

Spice Souk

Spice Souk in Dubai we plan to visit over Eid.

We get to the frozen aisle. I spotted our favorite vegetarian staple paneer and darted over to it. We are both giddy with excitement at the prospect of frozen, bagged paneer! Crazy, I know. A small, cloaked Muslim lady was standing near us acknowledged my excitement over this grocery item. I heard her laughing and looked over. We made eye contact, and she gave us a nod and a big smile.  We snicker here at all the unusual things we see people do, so it’s fine to let them have a laugh at my expense. This probably was a silly thing to get SO excited over, but it was sometimes very hard to find in the states. I had to travel far for it, often to find that the little Indian grocer I am used to going to had packed up and moved in a weeks’ time to God only knows where! I found out months later that he was now operating out of a gas station. I hopped in my car and drove right over there. I plopped my month’s supply of paneer on the counter next to lotto tickets.  He barely acknowledged me. I said, “How long have you been here? I have been wondering where you went” with a bit of frustration. He shrugged, rang me up and said, “I don’t know maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months.” I kind of took that whole episode personally. He could have at least left a note, right?! Yes, in Olympia, my Indian grocer bought a Chevron station. Inside he peddled paneer and parantha alongside Red Bull and Red Vines—weird, but true. You get my point. Sometimes the things I really wanted and needed in the US were not all that convenient to purchase if I could find them locally at all.

Olive shopping in Abu Dhabi

The Olive selection is wonderful everywhere in Abu Dhabi!

The Emirate’s General market more than sated my weekly fix for local ingredients and color. The produce at the General Market left something to be desired as did the fish there. The olive market was amazing as they are everywhere here in Abu Dhabi! But, there were still more items not checked off on our list.

Off we went to find the Abu Dhabi Produce Market and Fish Market!! Coordinates entered into the Garmin. Let’s see if we can make it without getting lost. Wish us luck.

* I am generalizing here. In fairness, I don’t know that many people my age still who ascribe to that quintessential 50s American diet that I referenced.  Most of my friends were quite omnivorous and many of them were trying to find meat alternatives. Still, I am not a fan of American food. Don’t miss it at all.

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