How has your mixed heritage and experiences of living in different cities shaped your cooking and personality?
I always jokingly refer to myself as a modern-day Bedouin; I was born to a Sudanese father and Iranian mother in London, raised in Vancouver, and have lived in Riyadh, Khartoum, Athens and London. Which means, I’ve always struggled to find my identity as someone who was neither Eastern nor Western, nor very traditional or modern. But the greatest blessing of living amidst these polarities is that I was raised to be respectful of people from different backgrounds and walks of life — the recipes in my book are a celebration of this value system.
What were you doing before pursuing your passion for cooking full time?
I was working as a research and risk analyst at Dubai Ports International and the plan was return to school to study law after working for a year — I had graduated in political science. But then I met my husband, got married and once I had children I chose to stay home and raise them, but I also wanted to stay engaged and connected with the adult world, which is how my blog started.
What has the experience of writing a cookbook been like?
This book is a passion project, which I can’t believe actually came to realisation. I set my blog up initially as an index for recipes that were a hit with my friends at dinner parties I hosted. As my readership grew, I started focusing on the kind of recipes I wanted to be associated with. The cookbook felt like the next step that I wanted to take.
When did you discover your passion for food and cooking?
I was six years old when I bought my first cookbook, called The Little Cooks, at a community fair in Khartoum; its illustrated recipes from all around the world and intrigued me to enter the kitchen to cook and taste those recipes. From a very young age I discovered that I was a feeder and nothing brought me more joy than cooking, eating and feeding people.
Tell us a bit about your foray into hosting cooking shows on television.
Instagram opened so many doors for me to work with different brands. It availed me the opportunity to engage with a wonderful, growing audience through a cooking show on My Dubai My City, an online platform, and MBC 3. I also had the opportunity of hosting the fourth season of a travel and food documentary called Maggi Diaries that featured the stories of women from different parts of the world, talking about food and their power for change. I travelled to Egypt, India, Spain, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.
What is the importance of home cooking in a time when families lead such busy and often separate lives?
Food is nostalgic, it is memorable, it is the simplest and easiest way to bring people to a table and create amazing memories. I love creating similar memories for my children through simple acts such as preparing their favourite dishes. The mere act of getting them to help with preparing meals is a great opportunity to teach them about responsibility and develop a strong bond.
Who is your inspiration?
My joy for cooking was initially nurtured by my mother. She is an amazing cook, hostess and food stylist. My sisters and my culinary journey began as the designated table setters and when we were older we honed our skills in the kitchen.
Social media, especially Instagram, dictates that food must look good more than it tastes good. How far have these trends influenced your cooking?
I am a true believer of the saying that we eat with our eyes, and that our food’s aesthetic is as equally important as the taste. That said, the food images and recipes I share are all healthy, quick and easy to make, and embody the ethos that presentation doesn’t have to be complicated — presentation can be elevated by the plates you serve food in or even using colourful garnish.
What is it about cooking that you find therapeutic?
I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer when I was 12 weeks pregnant with my third son. After the thyroidectomy and radiation treatment and the new baby, I found myself sinking into mild depression because of the post-traumatic stress from surviving cancer. Food was my therapy — I began healing when I resumed cooking.
What are some family recipes that are close to your heart?
It has to be my grandmother Zahra’s (whom I was named after) baklava recipe. As a child, I would watch her skilfully coat each sheet of filo pastry with clarified butter and sprinkle a generous amount of nuts between each layer — this process would leave me spell bound. The dish reminds me of my grandmother and all the beauty that defines her.
What is Dubai’s food culture like?
I think Dubai has a balanced food culture of people interested in eating out and cooking at home.