Dubai has gone quiet. With the festivities of Eid al-Fitr over and mercury levels rising (to nearly 104 degrees Fahrenheit at the time of writing), the summer exodus of expatriates feels palpable. Yet a visit to Al Farwania Restaurant at close to midnight on a Tuesday suggests otherwise. A line of cars, each swankier than the last, slowly inches forward. No one is honking in annoyance; all are waiting patiently to refuel at this modest cafeteria that’s been up and running in the upscale area of Jumeirah since 1981 — nearly unheard-of in a city notorious for its fickle diners.
Anywhere else in the world, the word “cafeteria” conjures a spacious venue where students or office workers serve themselves, choosing from food items on display before walking over to a cashier. In Dubai and the wider Gulf region, it’s almost the opposite. These cafeterias are no-frills, takeout-only concepts offering window service to a steady stream of customers who pull up to dine in the comfort of their cars, usually SUVs such as Nissan Patrols or Range Rovers with tinted windows. Coming alive at night, they’re staffed mostly by Keralites (from India) who not only speak fluent Arabic but also Urdu, Hindi, English and even Russian on occasion. And what do their repeat customers swear by? The ubiquitous Chips Oman sandwich.
At Al Farwania, like many of its peers, this unofficial national dish is made to perfection and wrapped in wax paper in under 30 seconds. A scattering of crushed Chips Oman, a generous layer of processed cream cheese (Puck and Kraft are key contenders) and a splash of Excellence Hot Sauce are enveloped in a flaky parotta flatbread, resulting in layers of texture and a touch of spice. Healthy, not so much, but certainly wholesome. And though its exact origins remain a mystery, the Chips Oman sandwich wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the multitude of South Indian migrants to the Gulf in the 1970s and 1980s; parotta is a staple in the Indian state of Kerala, where it’s used to mop up spicy curries.
The carb-laden creation is sold daily in the hundreds at countless nondescript cafeterias across the United Arab Emirates (UAE), for as little as 4 dirhams ($1.09). But its price tag, while budget-friendly, is a negligible part of its allure for some. Dubai is, after all, a city riddled with opulence and unapologetic about it — gold vending machines, 23-karat edible gold sundaes and otoro-and-kaluga-caviar toast cater to a collective penchant for all things over-the-top. In contrast, the hero ingredient of the cheap, cheerful sandwich is the humble Chips Oman, a brand of potato chips that debuted back in 1983 and is widely dubbed Oman’s greatest export, at least by those who associate it with their childhood.
Admittedly, the chips are seemingly unremarkable, and a glance at the list of ingredients — potatoes, palm oil, paprika, chili powder, salt — confirms this. Yet the flavor profile (an initial hit of heat, leading to sour and smoky notes) is accentuated by a hefty seasoning of nostalgia; Chips Oman existed long before the UAE’s facelift and the gourmet food stores that followed. Even the packaging and its primary colors remain essentially unchanged after 40 years. Al Jufair Food Industries, the manufacturer, goes as far as to declare it “the most popular product of its kind in the Sultanate of Oman and the entire Gulf region.” It can be argued, however, that it’s most beloved in Dubai — especially if the prevalence of these wafer-thin chips on menus is any indication.
At Yummy Dosa, the chips are paired with vegetables and coriander chutney in dosas — savory South Indian pancakes — for added tang. And at Moshi, they star in the Cheesy Chips Oman maki rolls, offering an approachable alternative for those who are squeamish about eating raw fish. They infuse a satisfying crunch into The Arbab (“The Boss”), a bestselling chicken burger at Burger28, where ’90s memorabilia reigns. And the chips are inevitably drenched in butter in the Chips Oman Popcorn at VOX Cinemas. Even Boston Lane, a cafe owned by Australian expatriates and inspired by Melbourne’s laneway coffee culture, turns Gulf Arab when UAE National Day rolls around, offering the Chips Oman Toastie. On the sweeter end of the spectrum, mini doughnuts at Donuts Time and churros at Churros Cone Cafe are both topped with the chips.
Each iteration showcases not only their ability to seamlessly take on the role of supporting character, but also Dubai’s diversity; the city is now home to more than 200 nationalities coexisting peacefully. One dish in particular, regag, reflects the fact that Iranians are among the UAE’s earliest settlers. It has been served at Walid Mohammad Bakhit Bakery in the backstreets of Jumeirah since 1976. Adopted as the local take on crepes, this Persian export comprises soft, sticky dough spread on a searing pan until it’s paper thin and crispy, then filled and folded into a triangular shape. Casually name-dropping in an interview with Emirati food vlogger Peyman Al Awadhi, the owner Ali Ashgar counts members of Abu Dhabi’s royal family among his customers.
As with the Chips Oman regag sandwich, it didn’t take long for Chips Oman to be reborn as the iconic Chips Oman regag. In this case, alongside eggs, it features processed cheese, hot sauce and mahyawa (a fermented fish sauce that hails from Iran) — another case of a snack that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Other variations, meanwhile, include zaatar or Nutella. The YouTuber Mark Wiens famously raved about the savory versions, while Peymal Al Awadhi simply described it as “one of the best sandwiches in the world.” At both Al Labeeb Grocery and Walid Mohammad Bakhit Bakery, the Chips Oman regag is traditionally washed down with Laban Up, a watered-down yogurt drink that has also stood the test of time.
Incidentally, the drink and Chips Oman regag are now frequently combined; an obscure juice spot by the name of Just Fresh recently divided Reddit users after topping frozen Laban Up with crushed Chips Oman, which resulted in an unexpectedly tangy soft serve. “Whoever made the Chips Oman combination deserves a spot in hell,” reads one comment. And yet, both YouTube and TikTok are littered with videos of people literally pouring laban directly into a bag of Chips Oman before snacking on them. They’re also the subject of so-called ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) videos ranging from 8 to 21 seconds in length, with creators sharing the irrationally satisfying sound of shiny polymer being crinkled before working up to that first crunch. Elsewhere, they appear in eBay listings, priced up to $109 for a set of 24 bags. For context, one costs 60 fils (16 cents) in Dubai these days.
It’s clear that newcomers across Dubai’s dining scene will continue to experiment with Chips Oman (with varying results) in a bid to create social media buzz and attract brand loyalists, but it’s the longstanding cafeterias that will prevail. Reflecting the city’s evolving social fabric, they’ve not only survived but also thrived during the restaurant boom — without the need for gimmicks. And it’s not just fast food and fast cars that congregate at these streetside eateries. Between affordable prices and accessible locations, the average Dubai resident — regardless of income level — is never too far from a carb-heavy snack.
South Asian taxi drivers and food delivery workers, for example, make up a sizable proportion of the city’s economic migrants, juggling the pressures of rising living costs and sending remittances home. For them, the inexpensive sustenance offered by such establishments is a rare opportunity to participate along with the privileged in an ongoing dining tradition. Al Ijaza Cafeteria is a favorite and was set up by a fruit vendor from Kerala on the then-deserted Jumeirah Beach Road, 33 years ago.
Today, its customers queue up in their cars as late as 3 a.m. to choose from a menu of wraps, multi-storied sandwiches, and over 100 juices with quirky names like “Vaccine” and “Versachi.” Jamshad, assigned to the shawarma stand, whips up an estimated 2,400 shawarmas over the weekends. Bashir, meanwhile, recommends the signature Hassan Mathar sandwich with a smile — it will set you back 8.50 dirhams ($2.31), he says. Regulars are greeted by name and their orders are customized, which only adds to the sense of community fostered by such neighborhood joints.
When eagle-eyed audiences spotted Al Ijaza in the UAE’s first big-budget film “City of Life” in 2009, crowds swelled. Seven years later, Dubai’s Crown Prince Hamdan bin Mohammed posted a photo of Al Ijaza on Snapchat, drawing even more diners to the legendary snack shop. Still, Soopy Ak, the late owner’s nephew, remains as humble as the institution he has run since 1990. Amid the cacophony of yet another busy evening — plates clattering in the kitchen, hurried conversations in Malayalam as multiple orders are juggled — he repeatedly expresses gratitude that his team’s sincerity and hard work have paid off, asserting that the quality of ingredients used is key. “Despite serving food that practically anyone can afford, this is an area we’ve never compromised on. I personally do all the buying and only select the best. That’s what makes our food delicious,” he beams.
The formula behind the staying power of Dubai’s cafeterias, according to Soopy, is simple: friendly service that creates a sense of homeliness. “When customers come to my cafeteria, it’s as if they’ve come to my home for dinner,” he says. And the city’s third-culture kids echo his sentiments. While a QR code menu and Al Ijaza’s presence on Instagram are signs of the times, the place is still a time capsule of sorts, preserving the version of Dubai they were raised in, before it was blanketed with its glitzy facade. Born to expatriate parents who migrated from the likes of Iran, India, Pakistan, Egypt and Syria in search of a better life, they’ll never be UAE citizens — birthright citizenship is not granted to those born in Gulf Cooperation Council countries.
“Home,” therefore, remains an elusive concept, one that takes shape through Chips Oman and the cafeterias responsible for the fame of its eponymous sandwich.
“I’m what you would call a ‘geriatric millennial,’ so these chips and I go way back,” says Asma Khan, a Pakistani-Canadian doctor who was raised in Dubai. “Like a lot of third-culture kids, I have a tendency to romanticize them because of what they represent: simpler times.” While her Canadian friends invariably associate Dubai with the nouveau riche depicted on reality TV shows like “Dubai Bling” and “The Real Housewives of Dubai,” she says it was another world altogether during the 1990s. “Some of my best childhood memories involve going on long drives after a cafeteria pit stop to pick up Chips Oman sandwiches, both of which remain unchanged all these years later. We had less back then, but we were content in a way that now feels unattainable.”
The Dubai-based influencer Haifa Zakaria Arora, who is of Indian and Iranian heritage, also lives between worlds. “An upbringing like mine can be confusing, but whenever I think about Dubai’s cafeterias and other old restaurants, I miss them and end up there soon after. I was just at Al Ustad Special Kabab last week, in fact,” she says. “People unfamiliar with Old Dubai are missing out on all these really authentic flavors. I also grew up eating Chips Oman regag, and if you were born in Dubai like me, you know the importance of Excellence Hot Sauce in one’s life. No other brand compares because of all the childhood memories that come with it — we’d pour it all over our Chips Oman as an after-school snack. And now that I’m pregnant, I find myself craving that combination.” Her nieces don’t get it, she explains with a laugh. “The younger generation can’t understand the obsession because there’s a new restaurant in Dubai every week.”
To the outsider, a lot of this hype around Chips Oman can feel unwarranted, but UAE residents have gone as far as sporting its logo on their fashion accessories — clutches and phone cases included. The Emirati visual artist Fatma Almulla, who blends pop art with Arabic traditions in her creations, is also quick to wax lyrical about their nostalgic appeal. “Chips Oman was always a part of our childhood, so I wanted to design a product that can incorporate the pop culture aspect and just how much this brand means to me and a lot of people in my generation,” she says of the maxi dress she designed, which featured illustrations of Chips Oman packets. Part of her Throwback Wayback collection, it not only celebrated a culinary icon but also made many a wearer feel closer to home. It’s been six years since the dress sold out. Almulla is still eagerly awaiting an official collaboration call from Chips Oman.
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