Showcasing the Other Side of Dubai – Arva Saleem Ahmed
Last Updated March 26, 2018
Food tours can be found on every continent, aside from maybe Antarctica, perhaps! In the United Arab Emirates, the City of Dubai is drawing people from near and far to do business and enjoy incredible luxury. You won’t need to look far, however, to discover the real Dubai, thanks to our partner Arva Saleem Ahmed at Frying Pan Tours.
We’re wrapping up Women’s History Month with a trip to the middle east to meet Arva, and learn more about the incredible work she’s doing on her tours, social media, and beyond.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your company.
Frying Pan Adventures is Dubai’s 1st and only dedicated food tour company that was started by my sister and me in 2013. I wasn’t formally trained in food; after my schooling in Dubai, I went to the US to get my bachelors in finance and then my MBA. The goal was to work as a management consultant for a few years and then come home to join my father’s business – all of which I did, until I realized that food culture was my calling. It began with a food blog that I started in 2010 when I moved back to Dubai, and by 2011, the desire to grow beyond the blog became so great that I had to throw my heart and soul into taking people to the places I loved. That’s how Frying Pan was born, and my sister Farida, helped me realize the dream by joining and growing the business with me.
Our intention was to showcase the side of town that most people don’t see, the side of town we spent our childhood in – because everyone has this idea that Dubai is super opulent, very futuristic and has a ton of record-breakingly high buildings! It does – but there is a very different humble side, the side my sister and I grew up in, that brings you back down to earth amongst the diverse communities of the Middle East, Indian Subcontinent, East Asia and Africa that call Dubai their home. We aspire to tell the history and stories of those cultures through the foods they serve up in the city. Our team is a very small tightly run ship of 3 full time members, and 4 freelancers, all of whom are deeply passionate and creative about the experiences we curate.
Dubai has become a very popular spot for tourism and business travelers. Do you find most guests are from the region or elsewhere?
Most of our guests are from abroad – Australia, UK, Scandanavia, Europe, a few from East Asia and then other countries around the world. We do get a lot of residents as well, not just once but as repeat guests because they love getting under the skin of the city and tasting what the lesser known eateries have to offer.
Have you experienced any unique challenges running a business in the UAE? If so, how have you managed to tackle them?
I’m not sure if my challenges are unique – I feel like every entrepreneur has their horror stories, from spending a frustrating year trying to get a company license sorted to having a real estate agent fleeing the country with my down payment! It’s quite expensive to get guides licensed here and to set up a company, but I’m not sure what the standard is – I’ve never looked into the cost of operating anywhere else. To be honest, I feel really blessed to be where I am. My parents are in the same city and are incredible supporters of what we do. Dubai Tourism is simply fantastic at marketing Dubai to the world and bringing members of top notch global media to experience the city. I also feel that as a woman trying to start something, people have only been generous and supportive, always eager to spread the word for what we do. So for every challenge we’ve faced, we’ve been given at least triple the number of opportunities. I can’t complain.
What would you say to people who might be curious to visit Dubai, but haven’t been?
Book your tickets already! Make sure to visit during the cooler months, November to March, and stay somewhere central. I’m biased towards the old side of town, Deira and Bur Dubai where there are some interesting heritage hotels as well as other regular branded hotel properties – but if you can get a good rate, pick a place close to downtown by the metro. That way you’re equidistant from old and new, and everything is just a metro ride away. Don’t spend all your time in the malls, you can only appreciate the cultural side if you take the time to research and join the non-touristy experiences where you meet people invested in giving you an uncontrived experience. Oh, and please let us serve you the city’s best falafels!
Along with operating a tour company, you also co-host a podcast that focuses on food & tourism. One of your most recent episodes feature the #CookforSYRIA initiative. How did that partnership come about and have you always had a passion for activism?
We started the podcast to whet people’s appetites so that they feel compelled to visit us in Dubai! The podcast is called The Frying Pan Diaries and it’s available on iTunes/ Apple Podcast app on iPhone/Google Play Music/SoundCloud/Stitcher or simply at fryingpan.fm. We showcase food stories from the various communities living in the region, because you can travel and taste the Silk Road right here in Dubai.
What we did with #cookforSYRIA episode was not activism, it was the smallest insignificant act of fulfilling our duty as humans – I wish we could do more. We wanted to support the #cookforSYRIA program that started in the UK and that has now become a global movement across Australia, France, US, Hong Kong, and for a brief but beautiful window, Dubai! To be clear, we’re not partnered with them in any way, we are just hugely supportive and wanted to use the podcast as a medium to spread awareness about what they’re doing and how others from around the world can contribute – whether it be hosting supper clubs, purchasing the #cookforSYRIA cookbook, joining fundraising dinners, attending bakesales or simply spreading cultural awareness – to raise funds for the UNICEF’s Children of Syria fund. Irrespective of what one’s political stance is on the Syrian conflict, children regardless of their nationality deserve to have safe lives and bright futures – and #cookforSYRIA believes in using food, which is such a beautiful universal language, in rallying global hearts around this cause for the child victims of Syria. Dalia Dogmouch is a Dubai-based food personality who’s Syrian-German and who contributed to the #cookforSYRIA book curated by Clerkenwell Boy and Serena Guen. We’re really pleased that she brought the initiative to Dubai so that the community here can participate in this noble movement. Do check it out at cookforsyria.com.
If you could sit down for coffee with any experience operator in the world, who would that be and what would you ask them?
I’d pick two – Intrepid Travel and Culinary Backstreets. I’d love to learn about how they’ve grown over time. How did they select the geographies to play in, and how did they find the right people that the could trust on the ground to deliver an experience that meets their own global standards? And did they raise funds first to grow big, or did they do it incrementally, using retained earnings to keep upping their game? I think expansion is so scary – I’m not even thinking global, just expanding into new offerings, avoiding cannibalization, getting the right talent…coffee sessions are too short, how about a 4 hour Middle Eastern feast instead?!
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