(CNN) — Gold is still big business in Dubai, despite reports of a 20-year low in demand for gold jewelry in the UAE. According to the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre, the emirate has cornered approximately 25% of global trade in the precious metal.
In a destination where symbols of wealth have become passé, perhaps it’s no surprise there’s a market for consuming gold in a literal sense.
One of Dubai’s prestige hotels, the Burj Al Arab, is embellished with approximately 1,790 square meters of 24-karat gold leaf. Some of it has found its way behind the bar too, blended into cappuccino foam or stirred into cocktails in Gold On 27, located on the 27th floor, 200 meters above sea level.

However, splashing gold everywhere isn’t necessarily tasteful. In fact, when ingested, gold has no taste at all. So why serve it, and why are guests lapping it up?

“Gold is synonymous with luxury, something which has a level of decadence,” explains Etienne Haro, executive assistant manager of food and beverage at the Burj Al Arab.

The hotel uses up to 700 grams of gold — sourced from Italy and India — each year for its food and beverage offerings.

Typically consumable gold takes the form of gold leaf, flakes or dust, as opposed to the solid gold used in jewelry. It is biologically inert and therefore safe to consume — albeit tasteless.

“Diamonds are a bit hard to chew, so gold is more adapted to integrate in cocktails,” jokes Haro.

Gold-infused items on the menu include white chocolate mixed with gold, a specially crafted pepper mill to grind “gold snow” on top of food or cocktails, gold sugar cubes for tea-inspired mocktails and a pure gold decorative spray.

The most iconic cocktail at the bar — named Element 79, after gold’s atomic number — consists of an alcohol-free sparkling wine with flakes of gold, food coloring mixed with pure gold and a golden piece of sugar. The result is a shiny tornado that never stops swirling.

Element 79, Gold on 27's signature cocktail.

Element 79, Gold on 27’s signature cocktail.

Gerry O’Leary

Besides being Instagram-worthy, each cocktail is specifically crafted to educate international guests about the history and vision of Dubai, explains Haro. Cocktails are arranged into three sections — Old Dubai, New Dubai and Future Dubai — with names like “Light Sweet Crude,” “The City of Gold “and “2020.”

“The gold is a bit like the thread that helps us tell this story because that’s something which is really inherent to the history of the city and the Emirates in general,” says Haro.

There is clearly an appetite for flamboyance among guests at the Burj Al Arab, as Haro and his team often have to deal with ambitious requests.

For example, each month a regular guest pre-orders a cake fully covered in gold and made according to her specific recipe, the manager says. Haro’s team has also concocted a cheesecake in the form of a giant golden donut and a golden five-course menu for an automobile company.

But Haro says on some occasions he has to draw the line.

“One guest recently asked us to create the most expensive cocktail in the world for him, to give the cocktail his name, and to make sure there would only be one,” he says.

Haro declined the request: “As much as we are a business, obviously we always want to make sure we keep a certain level of integrity.”

A rich tradition

While today gold is added to dishes as a means of flaunting wealth, in medieval Europe it was reserved for nobility, explains Barbara Santich Professor emeritus of food studies at the University of Adelaide, Australia.

During this period of history, gold was given particular properties — much like the Chinese believe oranges bring good luck, explains Santich.

“Because gold, silver and precious stones had virtues, if you cooked them in a broth that you were making, [it was believed] some of the goodness would flow into the soup,” says Santich.

“It’s a little bit of sleight of hand, and it’s all in the belief: if you think something’s doing you good, it will do you good.”

A confection designed by Gold in 27 at the Burj Al Arab.

A confection designed by Gold in 27 at the Burj Al Arab.

Gold On 27

Nowadays, Santich says gold adds nothing to the gastronomic merit of the dish: “It really is all in the mind.”

“Discreetly used gold can be very nice,” says Santich, referring to dates or chocolates with a sliver of gold. “But when every dish can come with gold on it, it’s just too much.”

24 Karat, an Italian restaurant in Dubai’s Marriott Hotel, offers an optional side of gold flakes across its entire menu — be it a burger, pizza, or salad.

Golden publicity stunt

The $2,700 pizza needs to be ordered 48 hours in advance and is topped with foie gras, two types of caviar, truffles and 24K gold leaves.

Then there are brazen publicity stunts. In 2012 a New York food truck unveiled its tongue-in-cheek $666 “Douche Burger” — a foie gras burger topped with lobster, truffles, caviar, champagne steam, and wrapped in gold leaf.

Dubai-based food critic Samantha Wood says she first spotted edible gold in the emirate six years ago when an overpriced gold cupcake made headlines.

“It’s a very Dubai thing to do something like that. They love superlatives and they love to focus on something that is a little headline grabbing,” says Wood.

“(Edible gold) might look good, but I don’t think it adds anything. If anything it makes a dish more expensive.”

Another Dubai-based food critic who calls himself Dan The EmirEATi has similar thoughts: “Dubai’s probably the right market for edible gold… I’d imagine there’s a good correlation to what car people drive to how much edible gold they like to eat in their food.”

But both critics agree that edible gold is not as prevalent as people might think.

“I think Dubai has actually moved away from that,” says Wood, “I think the restaurant scene has matured a bit more now.”