Wherever I am, on top of the “to experience” list is the local food, whether it’s barbeque in Lockhart, mushrooms in Tallinn or coconut fish curry in Kerala. Sometimes the experience is not so great – the chicken dessert in Turkey comes to mind – but most of the time tasting local food is a great way to learn about a new place, a new culture. And attempting to recreate those meals at home is a real way to remember and savor a good trip.

When I decided to move to the U.A.E., I was looking forward to getting to know Arabian food and maybe take a cooking class to learn about culinary traditions here. I was surprised to discover that, in fact, Emirati food, as you might call indigenous food here, basically didn’t exist. You had your generic “Middle Eastern” food, which is really more Levantine fare: falafel, hummous, shish tawook. All tasty, but not really of the Gulf.

So I was intrigued to find out about Ali Salem Edbowa, an Emirati chef, who actually works in a kitchen and serves Emirati food. His restaurant, Mezlai, opened last year in the Emirates Palace hotel. For a profile in The New York Times, I met up with him and his staff and talked food, making your work something you love and what it’s like to be a rare Emirati cooking in the kitchen.



Thursday, February 3, 2011

A love for Bedouin cuisine earns a simmering respect for Emirati chef

He has pride of place in country where cooking is seen as menial labor


ABU DHABI – As an adventurous teenager, Ali Salem Edbowa discovered Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. He would spend entire summers there, loving everything about it  —  except for the food.

Tired of cabbage-and-potato stews and flavorless cuts of chicken and beef, he called home for guidance. Armed with recipes sent by his mother, the 18-year-old  started to whip up modified versions of Emirati comfort food. His friends in Bratislava told him the dishes were fantastic. ‘‘So every day I do something different. I just cook and cook and cook,’’ Mr. Edbowa said. ‘‘And from this time, I feel like I have something.’’

Cooking for friends that summer in 1992 marked the start of an unexpected culinary career, one that is helping to keep Bedouin culinary traditions alive. Today, Mr. Edbowa is the executive chef at Mezlai, at the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, a restaurant that is a rare culinary outpost focused on Emirati food.

Chef Ali speaks with his staff in the kitchen at Mezlai in Abu Dhabi.

The dining scene in the Emirates features a wide range of options, from five-star kitchens staffed by celebrity chefs to mom-and-pop nooks dishing out homemade Indian or Lebanese meals. Indigenous cuisine had long remained largely confined to home kitchens or ceremonial majlis dinners hosted by members of the royal family. Next week, Mr. Edbowa and Mezlai will host the ‘‘Emirati Royal Dinner’’ at the Gourmet Abu Dhabi culinary festival, an event that Mr. Edbowa hopes will elevate his profile and that of Mezlai while also spreading Emirati food beyond the Arabian Peninsula.

As the Mezlai  kitchen staff prepared for a lunch service one recent day, Mr. Edbowa prowled among them, tasting a pickled vegetable, checking on orders of lamb or reminding one of his  chefs to put on his white chef’s toque. ‘‘I am at home in the kitchen,’’ he said. ‘‘If you give me a thousand, million dirhams, and say you work somewhere in the office, I say, I can’t do it. I see myself in the kitchen.’’

Yet it took Mr. Edbowa more than a decade to pursue cooking as a full-time career. Cooking is generally viewed as menial labor in Emirati society, he said, something best left to staff.

He worked in the Emirati Army until 1996 when he decided to buy an existing restaurant in Hatta, his hometown on the foothills of the Hajjar mountains in eastern Dubai.     His brother helped him come up with the 20,000 dirhams, or $5,445,  to buy and convert the small eatery into an Arabian restaurant.

But he did not  tell people that along with owning the place, he chopped and poached the food alongside his staff. ‘‘I can’t say I’m working as a chef,’’ he said. Each night, he would change out of his smock and into traditional Emirati clothing. ‘‘I go home in dishdasha,’’ he said. ‘‘I put on perfume. No one knows I am working in the kitchen.’’

But he found Hatta, a small town located several hours away from the hustle of Dubai, an unsatisfactory place to launch his cooking career. After only a year, he sold the restaurant and took an office job, then within the Dubai municipality. From 2000 to 2003, he went back to the Army.

‘‘I cooked at home; I cooked for friends but I wanted to do more,’’ he said. ‘‘I put it in my mind: I’m going to be a chef.’’

A lobster dish

Securing his parents’ blessing was easy; getting hired to work as a cook in Dubai was not. ‘‘No one would hire a local in the kitchen,’’ he said.

So he went to his local Tanmia office in Dubai. Tanmia,  the National Human Resource Development and Employment Authority, is the organization charged with promoting locals in the work force. Emiratis are outnumbered nearly eight  to one by expatriates, who dominate the employment ranks from chief executives to construction laborers.

Tanmia connected him to a job at the Jumeirah Emirates Towers  hotel in  Dubai. ‘‘I would be chopping, learning how to do the mise en place, everything,’’ he said. ‘‘I needed to learn everything.’’

In 2008, he moved to the Burj Al Arab hotel but on his days off from both jobs, Mr. Edbowa began traveling around the Emirates on a sort of anthropological mission. Approaching strangers in a roadside restaurant or in the mosque, he would ask fellow Emiratis about the type of food from their villages. Inevitably, he said, he would be invited home to meet their mothers who eagerly shared their family’s recipes.

Traditionally, Emirati food consisted of nonperishable foodstuffs that could withstand the harsh desert climate. Wheat is a traditional base in many dishes, including harees, in which ground wheat and goat or mutton is cooked over low heat until creamy.

‘‘I started writing,’’ he said. ‘‘I went from 10 main courses to now 108.’’

Three years later, these culinary wanderings would become the foundation for Mezlai’s menu, including dishes like  humour machbous: fish cooked with onions and dried lime, seasoned with turmeric, cloves and other spices. The restaurant also serves whole roasted baby camel, a dish traditionally reserved for celebrations. ‘‘You can touch it with your hands,’’ he said. ‘‘It melts like butter.’’

From about 10 basic fish and meat dishes, Mr. Edbowa devised a menu of more than 100 items. Some infuse techniques from other culinary traditions. His fusion version of jisheed, a dish made of boiled shark meat that has been minced and sauteed with spices and onions, has been turned into a bisque. A lamb shoulder is slow roasted in balsamic with a portion of foie gras on the side.

His approach has raised a few eyebrows among Emirati customers who visit Mezlai. ‘‘They say, ‘My mother doesn’t do this. We don’t have crab stock,’ ’’ he said.

Still, convincing his compatriots to sample traditional food with a modern twist has proven easier than getting them to accept cooking as a valid job.

Once, dressed in his chef’s jacket, Mr. Edbowa said, he was approached by an Emirati who assumed that the chef was one of the ubiquitous Indians who furnish most of  the kitchen staff in Dubai.

‘‘When he realized I was a local, by my Arabic, he was surprised,’’ Mr. Edbowa said. ‘‘He told me, ‘Here, you take my business card. I will get you a good job, good salary. You should get a good job.’ ’’

He laughs at the memory. Though he appreciated the Emirati’s offer to help get him more gainful employment, Mr. Edbowa says, he tossed the card away.

5 thoughts on “Culinary anthropology

  1. I read this when it ran and really enjoyed it, and somehow overlooked the byline! Great piece!

  2. Yeah I’m an Anthropology student at SOAS uni, UK. Used to live in Dubai and found this piece so fascinating. I’m going back soon, definitely going to embark on my own mini-Anthropological mission!

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