24 October 2016Last updated

Features | People

In the UAE: How two Emirati women are taking their cuisine to new heights

Two Emirati women, part of Dubai’s new vanguard of local food enthusiasts, tell Esha Nag of their passion for keeping alive some of the finest aspects of the Emirati culinary culture

Esha Nag
9 Sep 2016 | 12:00 am
  • Maitha Al Shamsi

    Source:Aiza Castillo-Domingo/ANM Image 1 of 4
  • Chebab, khameer and balateet from Maitha’s café Mama Tani showcase Emirati cuisine in all its splendour and deliciousness.

    Source:Supplied Image 2 of 4
  • Nazek Al Sabbagh

    Source:Aiza Castillo-Domingo/ANM Image 3 of 4
  • Malleh or salted fish is a staple in almost all Emirati homes, and Nazek’s efforts have helped to make sure that this tradition endures.

    Source:Supplied Image 4 of 4

An abundance of sunshine fills Maitha Al Shamsi’s kitchen at her home in Dubai’s Al Aweer. She walks around the informal dining space, arranging and rearranging cutlery to make space for the food that’s been prepared. The lingering aroma of freshly baked bread and dihin khanin (locally made clarified butter) is both welcoming and comforting. The khameer (traditional Emirati breakfast bread) enjoys prime position at the table, along with the balaleet (sweetened and buttered vermicelli topped with pine seeds and strips of fried eggs) and chebabs (tender pancakes made of flour, milk, saffron and cardamom). Like a true Emirati matriarch, Maitha urges me to take the first bite. ‘Eat,’ she says, ‘guests invited into our homes are looked after and fed like kings.’

Maitha’s warm space that reflects true Arabian hospitality extends to the Mama Tani Café that first opened its doors in 2013 in Town Centre Jumeirah. She started it with her brother, Omar, with the aim of making traditional food from the Emirati kitchen a part of Dubai’s vibrant international dining scene. ‘The café is a tribute to my grandmother who we lovingly call Mama Tani or second mother. When we were growing up, her home was the place for comfort food – there was always something good to eat, there was love and we felt special. I wanted to recreate her recipes to give people the same feeling, of a taste of home.’

Mama Tani, Maitha admits, is a brand born of passion: a passion for food, a passion for society, and a passion for the Emirati culture. While studying law in Dublin, her frequent visits back home made her realise that Emirati food was not adequately represented in Dubai. ‘A lot of new food concepts were starting to come into Dubai in the 1990s. But people were not clear about Emirati food. They thought it was Levant food. So I wanted to take the Emirati food we traditionally enjoyed, its specific flavours, and turn it into something more modern. I wanted to showcase the food that was specific to the Emirati kitchen, like the salted fish or the dihin khanin, and make it more accessible to people who didn’t know where to go and eat it,’ says the lawyer by profession.

It, however, took some time for Maitha to give shape to her dreams. ‘After completing my studies in Dublin I returned to Dubai, worked, got married and had children,’ says the mother of three. She had her plate full, and it was only much later when her children were growing up that she paid close attention to what they were eating. ‘I started becoming more aware of the quality of food in outlets, about processed food, and what people were adding to food. I was interested in healthier options for children. As a mother I wanted to make sure my kids were eating right.’

It was over a casual discussion with her brother Omar, a banker by profession, that Maitha revisited her idea. ‘My brother wanted to set up kiosks that offered freshly baked Emirati bread with different dips such as honey or date syrup.’ She told him of how she too had plans to set up a classic Emirati restaurant. And Mama Tani was born. ‘For two years we only discussed the concept, the name, the brand and menu. We put an effort into what was going to be the first home-grown Emirati food brand. We wanted to be modern enough to compete with the international brands, and yet we didn’t want to lose the soul of our food.’

Maitha started experimenting first with the khameer. ‘It’s extremely versatile, attractive in both its sweet and savoury forms. It can be eaten alone, with simple sides of sidar (honey) or sweet cream or even with different meats, cheeses like feta and labneh, mint, rocket and parsley,’ says Maitha, who opened the second outlet of Mama Tani in World Trade Centre Souk in Abu Dhabi in 2015, and is currently in the process of relocating the Dubai café to Downtown Dubai.

At a time when being modern in the UAE has been synonymous with embracing an international outlook, Maitha has been part of a new generation of Emiratis who are rediscovering their roots. For her, being modern is not opposed to being Emirati. A lot of young Emiratis, Maitha says, are coming forward and reclaiming pride in their national identity. ‘We don’t want to get lost in the different cultures, we would rather take the best out of them and apply it in our design and ideas.’ For her it has been a matter of immense pride to showcase the importance of food in Emirati culture.

Maitha traces her passion for Emirati food to the Fridays of her childhood. ‘At my grandmother’s house, my personal favourite was the regag, a thin crispy Emirati bread, and I got to choose my topping – it could either be egg and cheese or just cheese, or better still, some ghee. It was almost like a personalised crepe sandwich.’ Even to this day Maitha admits that her children will have none other than Mama Tani’s regag.

The food at her cafe – from the salads to the khameer sandwiches to even the quinoa biryani – features local ingredients and spices from the Emirati kitchen: cinnamon, cardamom, saffron, black sesame, mint, parsley, cilantro and of course, pistachio and pine nuts. ‘The Mama Tani breakfast offers you the khameer bread with a choice of dips, a choice of eggs, the chebab and the balaleet with a nice cup of karak chai,’ says Maitha. For lunch you could choose the popular date and walnut salad, a labneh, basil and walnut sandwich or even the Omani khameer that has taken the fancy of the younger generation. ‘It has a stuffing of cheese and Chips Oman [a special brand of spicy potato chips] with the traditional Emirati hot sauce.’ Dinner gives you options such as the melted cheese and pepperoni khameer, cheese and zaatar khameer or even khameer sliders.

In the past, the head of an Emirati household would often choose to honour his guests by slaughtering a goat or a sheep. ‘When you sacrificed your assets, it meant that you held your guests in high regard. We have always been very generous with our food and hospitality and this is reflected in my café,’ says Maitha. And keen to connect with her community, she has used Emirati talent wherever possible. ‘We have used the services of Emirati designers for our interiors, local talents for our marketing initiatives, sourced our honey from Emirati firms, and have offered free catering in the community from time to time. This helps to keep our bond with the community strong.’

When the doors to the café opened, Maitha had thought the majority of customers would be expats who’d come to taste something that they don’t find in Dubai so easily. ‘But I was surprised to find that 80 per cent of my customers were Emiratis.

‘So the fact that they chose to eat our food when they could have the same thing in their kitchens only meant that we were doing something right. It meant that we were serving something authentic.’

The new generation of Emirati women, Maitha explains, know how to cook traditional fare, but don’t have the time. ‘Earlier there were larger families and cooking was a collaborative effort. Now the women come and tell me that their husbands would love to eat this kind of food but they don’t have the time for it and neither have they been able to teach their cooks. So they thank me for serving these traditional dishes.’ A lot of Emirati families, Maitha feels, now go out for Friday breakfasts and dinners. ‘Earlier we all met each other in our grandmother’s house. But now I go to Mama Tani café with my kids, my brother will come over, and so will my parents and my cousins with their kids. So the place of meeting might have changed but the bonding over food has remained.’

There are two occasions that Maitha describes as her moments of glory: when her octogenarian grandmother came visiting her in the café for the first time and second, when her father, initially sceptical about her plans, finally realised her vision and embraced the idea. ‘Mama Tani, known for her hospitable nature, thinks of the café as an extension of her home. So anyone who walks in receives a big welcome from her when she’s around and most often ends up getting a complimentary meal. That’s her charm, with her food she also gives away a slice of her heart.’

Maitha is not alone in the world of Emirati hospitality. Nazek Al Sabbagh is another woman who is a part of Dubai’s new vanguard of local food enthusiasts. Early this year when Andrew Zimmern, creator and host of Travel Channel’s popular series Bizarre Foods, came visiting Dubai, he made it a point to visit her home for a taste of malleh or salted fish, a staple in almost all Emirati homes. Nazek, who sources the fish, mostly tuna, from the Arabian Gulf, follows the ancient Arab tradition of soaking the fish in salt and preserving it under the sun for at least a month before packaging and distributing it under the brand name Malleh Gourmet.

‘Even today there will be malleh in every Emirati household because you might not always get a good catch,’ says Nazek, a civil engineer from Boston, Massachusetts, who launched Malleh Gourmet in 2010 in Jumeirah Beach Road. Her line of fish products include the malleh (salted fish fillets), mehyawah (a dried salted anchovy paste mixed with lemon and traditional spices), jashei (dry, salted anchovy fillets with no bones and heads) and sehnah (fish powder that can be sprinkled on rice and had with ghee). Nazek’s malleh comes straight from home, packed in superior hygienic conditions, and her sister constantly monitors its quality. ‘She is a food science expert and never compromises on ingredients. This means you can come after 10 years but the taste of our products will remain the same,’ says Nazek.

Taking a piece of salted fish that was part of the traditional Emirati kitchen and elevating it to an international luxury standard required a good amount of work. The traditional method of drying fish on the open beach under direct sunlight was not always safe as the fish could get contaminated with dirt, bacteria or insects. ‘Also the fish almost always smelled,’ says Nazek. ‘Our products have no smell at all, and we package it well for the next generation to have the appetite for it. We are definitely more expensive than what you would buy from the local market, but then you pay for the quality.’

While the retail part of the business is taken care of from the quaint boutique in Jumeirah, Nazek’s manufacturing unit is huge. ‘We have separate units for storing, cleaning and preserving. There are almost 5,000 jars that I need to store. We’ve to be very cautious of how we do it in order to protect the malleh from insects.’ Several times during our conversation, Nazek reiterates the importance of hygiene while dealing with the fresh fish.

In her line of business, the type of fish and the time of the catch play an important role. ‘I prefer tuna because its flesh can take in the salt and it doesn’t have the fishy smell,’ says Nazek. She has a buyer who gets her the premium stock and her team of men work with clockwork precision to ensure the catch is salted when it is fresh and then preserved under the correct temperature.

The idea for Malleh Gourmet came about in 2008 when Nazek was working as managing director of Dubai Ports, Customs and Freezone Corporation. ‘I was increasingly noticing that my kids didn’t want to eat the traditional form of fish. My sister and I didn’t want international chains to overtake our food culture. We wanted our children to appreciate malleh,’ says Nazek, who believes malleh is most appreciated after Ramadan when people are quite tired of eating meat.

‘My mother and my mother-in-law grew up eating malleh, so did we, and I couldn’t imagine why our children wouldn’t eat it.’

Today Nazek has several reasons to be happy. Packed in specially made degradable plastic bags from Germany and placed inside wooden boxes, Nazek’s malleh now appeals to the younger generation who buy her boxes of salted fish to gift to friends and family. ‘My greatest moment of pride was when my 24-year-old son gave his friends some of the products,’ she says. And Nazek’s clients are not just Emirati families – there is also a sizeable chunk of international customers who appreciate her gourmet preparations.

‘Having Andrew Zimmern visiting me from New York was a sign that the international market is curious about us,’ says Nazek.

During the recording of the show, Zimmern asked her what the real Dubai was like? ‘He asked if it was the $1,000 leather bags that you get in Downtown Dubai, or was it sitting at home enjoying a traditional meal?’

‘And I said, it’s both. I can’t do without the leather bag and I can’t do without malleh. We have to greet the future of Dubai by holding on to its past.’

Esha Nag

Esha Nag