Features 5 minutes 17 January 2023

How Spicy Tuna Became Dubai’s Most Loved Dish

What makes spicy tuna so appealing to Dubai gourmets? We get MICHELIN restaurants around town to weigh in.

Dubai Michelin Guide Dubai raw fish spicy

Home to tens of thousands of restaurants, Dubai has grown to become a gastronomy hub where world flavours and cuisines meet. While food from every corner of the world is on offer in this vibrant city, a modern Japanese sushi menu staple — spicy tuna — has become the go-to for many of its residents and tourists.

A Brief History Of Spicy Tuna

The spicy tuna roll traces its origin back to the United States of America and not Japan. After World War II, more and more Japanese businesses were opening in the US. American gourmands took then an interest in Japanese cuisine, especially sushi, to satisfy their cravings. Sometime during the 1980s, this dish was invented by the country's oldest Japanese restaurant, Maneki, by Japanese chef-owner Jean Nakayama, in the heart of Los Angeles, California. She created it by mixing tuna scraps with chilli sauce and rolling them into sushi with sheets of nori and sushi rice. These days, spicy tuna is made from diced sashimi-grade tuna, spicy sauce, and some optional ingredients for seasoning, such as green onions and sesame seeds.

A Decidedly Dubai Spin

Over the years, this dish has gained popularity all over the world, and the Middle Eastern cosmopolitan city of Dubai is no exception. Among the plethora of popular dishes you can find in Dubai, spicy tuna found a way into the heart of this city’s culinary community, and many are the reasons why the city has a penchant for it.

Restaurants across say that the dish’s widespread popularity among both residents and visitors to Dubai makes it a compulsory addition to their menus.

“Spicy tuna is definitely Dubai’s favourite sushi, it’s something we all grew up eating week in and week out and something that we wanted to tell the story of in our restaurant,” says Dubai born-and-raised chef Solemann Haddad of Moonrise and the inaugural recipient of the MICHELIN Guide Young Chef award.

“In a city where no one used to eat raw fish 15 to 20 years ago, spicy tuna was the perfect introduction to sushi and raw dishes,” adds Haddad, who has been serving his take on spicy tuna ever since his restaurant’s opening in September 2021.

Although simple in terms of ingredients, this dish is rich in flavour and freshness, made more memorable with its subtle kick of heat.

“This region loves spicy food,” explains Reif Othman of Bib Gourmand-recognised REIF Japanese Kushiyaki. The popularity of this dish rides on the love of heat and tang that people in this region are accustomed to from a young age, and spicy tuna offers the perfect hit of nostalgia and familiarity to which many can relate, according to the restaurants.

“Tuna is a red-fleshed fish, which means it’s a predatory species with a flaky texture and is rich in oil content,” says CÉ LA VI Executive Chef Howard Ko. As a result, the fish meat is the perfect vessel for taking on more robust flavours and spices, as well as fat-based condiments such as coconut vinaigrette and coriander oil to create more inventive combinations and mouthfeel.

Not only is spicy tuna perfect for Dubai palates, but it also has plenty of health benefits – something that many people in Dubai are on the lookout for, many chefs say. Fresh tuna offers a great nutritional bang, being low in calorie and packed with protein. It contains significant amounts of omega-fatty acids, a Cleveland Clinic article shows. Since this dish is also spicy, it can boost your heart health and metabolism. According to Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), epidemiological studies suggest that the consumption of spicy chilli food is associated with reduced risk of all-cause as well as heart disease-related mortality.

The simplicity of this dish gives it a versatile aspect and allows chefs to unleash their creativity and add their personal touch to it. This versatility reflects how Dubai as a city welcomes a variety of ideas and contributions and gives everyone a platform to be creative. As the emirate evolved, it has also witnessed the evolution of this dish. Over the years, many have fashioned their own unique takes on this celebrated dish or add to their menus creations inspired by it.

Here are nine Dubai restaurants that serve spicy tuna, dishes inspired by it, or a different take on it.

Spicy Tuna Maki Roll - 3Fils - MICHELIN Guide Dubai 2022.jpg

3Fils - Selected

This harbourside restaurant serves Asian fare heavily influenced by Japanese cuisine.

Its fantastic Spicy Tuna Maki Roll is made with bluefin tuna, ssamjang sauce, wasabi mayonnaise, and Japanese sushi rice rolled around in homemade furikake. This dish is also one of their menu favourites due to its freshness, the slight spicy kick, and its overall flavour profile.

Atun Picante Maki - Amazonico - MICHELIN Guide Dubai 2022.jpg

Amazónico - Selected

Blending Brazilian and Spanish cultures, Amazónico is the place to try an array of Latin American dishes from fresh raw seafood to carefully sourced grilled meats. Among their specialties is the Nikkei-style spicy tuna maki roll called Atun Picante, consisting of spicy red tuna tartare, cucumber, green apple, and chives. For a more luxe spin, the Atun Okinamasu con Caviar is served on a seaweed cracker topped with coconut and caviar.

Atun Okinamasu con Caviar is served at Amazónico
Atun Okinamasu con Caviar is served at Amazónico
Lightly Torched Balfegó Bluefin Tuna - CE LA VI - MICHELIN Guide Dubai 2022.jpg

CÉ LA VI - Selected

Nestled on the 54th floor of Address Sky View Hotel, CÉ LA VI is serves contemporary Asian cuisine. One of its signatures is Lightly Torched Balfegó Bluefin Tuna. It consists of otoro tuna, the fattiest part of the fish, seasoned with togarashi yuzu kosho powder, served with coconut vinaigrette, and topped with sliced fresh cucumber for freshness to cut through the fat. The coconut vinaigrette is made from coconut cream, young coconut water, and yuzu juice, and broken with coriander oil. The mélange of coconut vinaigrette and coriander oil is the restaurant’s modern replacement for the Japanese mayonnaise typically used to season the spicy tuna rolls.

Atun Chifa Ceviche - Coya - MICHELIN Guide Dubai 2022.jpg

Coya - Selected

Serving contemporary Peruvian dishes featuring intense contrasts of texture and flavour, Coya offers Atun Chifa Ceviche as its Chinese take on spicy tuna. This dish consists of yellowfin tuna, sesame seeds, rice cracker, and soy. Its spicy kick comes from the spicy ceviche tiger, made in house from red chillies, garlic, ponzu, lime, sesame, and Chinese chilli oil.

Goldfish - Bib Gourmand

This modern sushi and yakitori neighbourhood restaurant prepares vibrant, modern Japanese dishes, among which is Spicy Tuna Maki Roll. Instead of using a regular spicy mayonnaise, Goldfish seasons this dish with Korean soybean paste and coats it with homemade spicy furikake that’s mainly made from tempura crumbs, seaweed, and sesame. For this eatery, the addition of spicy tuna is also a great way to reduce waste by using off-cuts of the fish that might otherwise not be used for a regular nigiri due to its odd shape or size.

This Spicy Tuna Maki Roll can be found at Goldfish
This Spicy Tuna Maki Roll can be found at Goldfish
Spicy Hamachi - moonrise - MICHELIN Guide Dubai 2022.jpg

Moonrise – Selected

At this 8-seater rooftop omakase restaurant, you’ll find refined dishes blending Japanese dishes with Middle Eastern flavours. Since its inception, Moonrise reinterprets spicy tuna by replacing tuna with Hamachi, a species of jack fish, and Japanese spice with Shatta (Syrian fermented chili).

Spicy Hamachi consists of Hamachi tartare, Shatta yuzu dressing, black truffle caviar, and nori tempura crackers on the side.

Tuna Tataki - Netsu - MICHELIN Guide Dubai 2022.jpg

Netsu by Ross Shonhan - Selected

This Japanese steakhouse offers an array of Japanese dishes to sample, including two spicy tuna dishes that are the restaurant’s best-sellers: Tuna Tataki and Spicy Tuna Maki Roll. Tuna Tataki consists of tuna, pickled red chilli, garlic chips, and ponzu. It’s a demonstration of traditional Japanese warayaki cooking technique of grilling food using dry straw instead of charcoal to give it higher cooking temperature resulting in unique flavours, whilst also having the spicy, sweet, and sour elements that are a hit with Dubai diners.

As for Spicy Tuna Maki Roll, it has tuna, pickled cucumber, chilli mayo, and shichimi pepper. This dish is flavourful and merges spicy, sweet, and sour tastes with the crispy crunch of the fresh pickled cucumber and the soft texture of the MSC-certified tuna.

Netsu's Spicy Tuna Roll
Netsu's Spicy Tuna Roll
Spicy Tuna Maki - Nobu - MICHELIN Guide Dubai 2022.jpg

Nobu - Selected

Set in Atlantis The Palm, the first outpost of Nobu in the Middle East specialises in Japanese dishes with South American influences, and one of its signature rolls is Spicy Tuna Maki.

This item consists of nori, sushi rice, creamy spicy, and bluefin tuna. For Nobu Head Chef Damien Duvau, people like this dish for its simplicity and light spicy hint.

Spicy Salmon - REIF Japanese Kushiyaki - MICHELIN Guide Dubai 2022.jpg

REIF Japanese Kushiyaki - Bib Gourmand

This unconventional Japanese street food eatery offers far more than just grilled skewered meats and vegetables. Every dish REIF Japanese Kushiyaki develops boasts an unconventional twist, and their Spicy Salmon Maki is testament to that. Their spin on the spicy tuna staple is a maki made with wild-caught Scottish salmon dressed with cucumber, gochujang mayonnaise, and crispy salmon skin and shaped into a parcel to differentiate it visually from its culinary forebear.


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