Fresh twist for UAE diners as oysters thrive in warm waters

FUJAIRAH, United Arab Emirates — The waters of the Persian Gulf have long been home to pearl oysters, providing a valuable mainstay to Arab tribes that subsisted off its trade before the discovery of oil pumped new life into the Arabian Peninsula. Now, off the shores of the United Arab Emirates, a new type of oyster is thriving — the edible kind.

Long thought of as a cold water delicacy, edible oysters are being farmed in the warm waters of Fujairah, an emirate with a coastline that juts out into the Gulf of Oman. The local delicacy has made its way to tables in 12 different restaurants in Dubai, a cosmopolitan emirate east of Fujairah that is home to some of the Middle East's top-rated restaurants serving international tourists and residents.

Dibba Bay Oysters in Fujairah, established two years ago, produces up to 20,000 oysters a month. They grow inside multi-tiered, netted baskets submerged in the open water. At any given time, there are about 1 million oysters at various stages of growth. An oyster can take anywhere between 12 and 18 months to grow to full market size.

"With these local oysters, we take them out of the water in the morning, and then in the afternoon they're with the hotels, they're with the chefs, they're in the restaurant," said Dibba Bay founder Ramie Murray.

The UAE imports nearly all of its food due to its harsh desert climate, but being able to deliver fresh oysters within hours to restaurants has made the local delicacy an attractive menu item at some of Dubai's most popular and prestigious seafood restaurants, including the oyster bar at Dubai's Opera.

"Someone came to me and said: 'Hey, have you heard of these local oysters?' And I was like: 'No,'" said the bar's executive chef Carl Maunder. "It was sort of out of the blue because, you know, this was in the summer time, it was very, very hot and just the last thing I expected anybody to be producing or farming here in Dubai."

Murray plans to ramp up production to about 150,000 oysters a day in the coming years and expand to other markets in the region. The Dibba Bay farm claims to be the first of its kind in the Middle East.

Due to the warmer water temperatures, Murray says his Pacific Cupped oysters grow faster than they might in cooler climates.

The Pacific Cupped oysters, he said, "grow very well in the summer and their growth tails off in the winter, whereas here they just grow continuously because we have the warm weather the whole year round."

Just down the coast from the Fujairah farm is the Copper Lobster restaurant. There, chefs serve the locally grown oysters with a Japanese Ponzu sauce.

"Being in the industry for 15 years, I had a kind of stereotype as (might) any other chef that oysters can only be imported from Europe," chef Georgiy Danilov said. "In the middle of the year, I just got the business card of Ramie. ... I called him, and I was like: 'Are you real?'"

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This story has been corrected to fix the last name of the Dibba Bay founder from Murphy to Murray.

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