Dubai: admittedly not the most obvious budget destination. Best known as the go-to spot for perma-tanned WAGs and the ‘nouveau riche’, its very reputation (or lack of) is built on a predilection for big buildings and bling. But exploring the opulent desert city on a shoestring is in fact the finest – or perhaps even the only – way to see the culture beyond the clichés.

“But Dubai has no culture.” I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard this phrase. No doubt a product of too much time spent in its soulless shopping malls and hotel bars, it’s true Dubai can come off a bit sterile. The city’s garish gimmicks – diving with sharks in shopping malls, world’s biggests and tallests, a ‘seven-star’ hotel – are fun but ultimately shallow. But slash the budget and you’ll be forced to dig a little deeper.

By doing just that, I find I have never encountered such a diverse cultural melting pot as the one overflowing in Dubai. Perhaps the greatest indicator of this is Dubai’s budget food scene – a grossly overlooked treasure trove of culinary treats.

While the likes of Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Gary Rhodes and Nobu Matsuhisa happily charge a few-hundred-quid-a-head in their Dubai eateries – and even fashion icons Georgio Armani and Roberto Cavalli have chosen here to launch fine-dining affairs – I discover the real top tables are found in its tucked-away neighbourhoods.

Walking down the bustling, neon-soaked streets of Deira, a largely Indian area near Dubai Creek, I duck inside Al Bayt Al Baghdadi. Among a strip of restaurants on Al Muteena Street, its simple canteen-like set-up includes a huge cauldron. Fresh fish is cooked over coals the traditional Iraqi way. Served with a mezze of Arabic sides, a feast fit for four sets you back no more than $7 each.

Similarly, if you wander as I did to the Umm Suqeim Fishing Village – not 10 minutes from the infamous seven-star Burj al Arab – you’ll find a cabin bearing the neon sign Bu Qtair. A cross-section of Dubai’s expat communities – Indians, Filipinos, Aussies and Brits – clamour to order fish caught that day, bathed in Indian spices and paired with rotis. A particularly quirky touch is that the staff bring out my table with my food (the cramped cabin makes the experience necessarily al-fresco). I spend no more than a few dollars. Another unexplored ‘hood’ is International City, where a largely Pakistani, Afghan, Filipino and Chinese population dwell. Divided into 10 clusters of apartment blocks, each is named after a country, and bears architecture reflecting that theme.

On the outskirts of the city, it is a million miles from the polished villas of inner Dubai – a friend describes it as equivalent to ‘the projects’ in the US. This is low-income housing, Dubai-style: still gimmicky, but not quite so plush.

The China cluster boasts the decidedly offbeat Buhaiwan Chinese restaurant. Its shabby mauve décor has seen better days, and my Mandarin-speaking companion has to do all the ordering because no one speaks English. However, there are lots of smiles, and the food – an obscure cuisine from the Uyghurs, a Turk ethnic group that has primarily settled in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (western China, bordering Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) – is like nothing I’ve ever tasted before. Strange concoctions involving kebab meat, potatoes, seaweed and lots of chilli are surprisingly tasty, and set my tongue a-tingling. I spend about $6 on two huge dishes.

But perhaps the most sublime foodie finds are in independent Indian restaurants, most of which are spread throughout Dubai’s working-class Karama and Satwa.

More than half of Dubai’s population is Indian, producing a plethora of authentic cuisine from all over the sub-continent. If you think you’ve had good curries before, let Dubai serve you some better ones.

Probably my favourite discovery is the thalis at Madras Vegetarian Restaurant in Mankhool Road, near Satwa roundabout. The sweet staff are elated to see a couple of tourists come in, and set about showing us how to eat with our hands. Luckily, we’ve stumbled in on a Friday, when an all-you-can-eat supply of curries, chutneys, poppadoms and rice is served up on a giant banana leaf for – I kid you not – $3.

February 13th, 2012