When Mohammad Orfali talks about food, his language doesn’t drip with buzzwords and unctuous descriptions. Instead, he references history, spirit and heart, respect – and progress.
He’s a specialist of ancient Aleppian cuisine, acting as a guardian of the style while at the same time being unafraid of developing it.
‘As Arabs, we have a limited outlook of our cuisine, especially within recent history,’ he says.
‘We consider Arab cuisine as a traditional cuisine, one we shouldn’t change or develop dramatically. We like to eat hummus with tahini and nothing else. But the problem isn’t with the ingredients, it’s with us!’
When he returns to Taste of Dubai, the food festival now in its tenth year, at Dubai Media City Amphitheatre from March 9-11, he’ll cook two dishes that remind him of his childhood, but that also tell the story of the cuisine. By preserving its memory, it can then be adapted.
‘No one thought of studying the nature of this rich cuisine or documenting its progress and how it blossomed into what it is today,’ says Mohammad, the head of culinary content at Fatafeat, the Pan-Arab cooking channel, where he’s become known for using modern technology in cuisine, including molecular gastronomy techniques.
Unlike their ancestors, modern Arabs did not care so much for the culture of food and drink until recently, he tells Friday. The idea of ‘developing’ recipes meant ‘updating and altering the very identity of our cuisine’.
‘But the truth is, Aleppian cuisine hasn’t been faithfully preserved. With no new developments or additions for many years, it has instead experienced severe neglect.’
Mohammad’s two dishes for Taste of Dubai – which he will cook on the main Chef’s Theatre stage, and in a culinary contest for those who want to showcase their own skills – are a response to that neglect and fear of change. He says he is freely rebuilding Aleppian cuisine, ‘but without sacrificing any of its spirit and heart’; cleverly, he couches his developmental approach in terms of knowing the classics.
‘It is not a rebellion against what came before it. Modern cuisine wouldn’t even be possible without understanding the fundamental bases and classic techniques of traditional cuisine.’
A dish, therefore, isn’t simply a piece of meat or a meze; it’s a tale. Firstly, there’s ‘All The Ways Lead To Aleppo’, a recipe inspired by kabab bel karaz, or cherry kabab – ‘the signature kebab of Aleppian cuisine’.
Or the evocative ‘Roots of my Backyard Forest’ - labneh with muhammara and roasted baby carrots.
It’s impossible to discuss Aleppian cuisine, its history and future, without being conscious of the ongoing battle for the city, and the destruction that the Syrian war has wrought on lives, property and thousands of years of preserved memories.
Mohammad takes us there – you can almost smell it - as he talks about why he chose to specialise in Aleppian cuisine. ‘Growing up in Aleppo and living in the midst of a great ancient city has to leave its mark on you,’ he says.
‘The centuries-old market with the aromas of spices; laurel soap and Aleppian za’atar; the vibrantly coloured and remarkable hand-embroidered fabrics; the call for prayer emanating from the Umayyad Mosque on one side and only the best music the city has to offer (muwashah, qudud, and mawal) on the other. These images and memories create a rich and deeply emotional portrait of a city and civilization.’
His family, he says, was influential; ‘my father, an engineer, and my mother a teacher, both... played a significant role in Aleppian pride.’ He did too - beyond everyone’s expectations, he says – when he chose to focus on the centuries-old culture in a cooking show and a book, “I Am Aleppian”, as he turned 30.
‘The Aleppian people, including myself, did not know how to describe our cuisine in a manner that clearly resonated with other people.,’ he says, describing the curiosity that drove him.
‘Although the details were not clear to me, I have always imagined an extraordinary plot of civilizations and characters, cooks and traditions, ingredients and techniques spread over seasons and centuries.’
Does cooking Aleppan cuisine make him feel closer to home?
‘Syria is in war and our amazing Aleppian cuisine is at risk of falling into extinction. Now is the right time to understand, explore, document and spread its rich and beautiful history.’
Catch Mohammad Orfali at Taste of Dubai in the chef’s theatre on March 10 at 9.30pm and at 8.30pm on March 11, cooking alongside chef Tarek Ebrahim. The duo will also be in the culinary challenge tent on March 10 at 7.30pm. Tickets for the festival are on sale now, with a discount for Friday readers who enter GNTOD at the checkout on Platinumlist.net.
What’s next for Orfali?
What’s on your plate at the moment in terms of TV, books and career?
This year I have to film The Fundamental II for Fatafeat ICCA Online Academy and a new digital show, Where the Chef Loves to Eat, supporting most of the brands that are created in the UAE.
You’re head of culinary content at Fatafeat. What does that entail? Are you looking to include more GCC food content in the channel’s line up?
This year we have a new mindset as I am trying to change and go for a 360-degree approach to produce new content for Fatafeat. Also, we are growing our video database with 700 new videos of easy and short Arabic recipes for Fatafeat.com to drive more traffic to our digital platform, as well as supporting our TV channel.
Are there plans for culinary competitions like Chopped or Bake Off to be made here for the channel?
I can’t disclose much about this, but all I can say we have many surprises up our sleeve for a big competition show from Discovery that will air here in the Middle East.