Tiffany Eslick spoke to Dr Kaltham Kenaid and Fatma Saifan, the mother-daughter duo behind Vanilla Sukkar café on Al Wasl Road, about Emirati cuisine, their favourite local ingredients and customary recipes to which they’ve given a contemporary spin
How would you describe Emirati cuisine? And are there any misconceptions about this?
DR KALTHAM: Traditionally, it is very simple. But today, because the UAE is a melting pot where so many cuisines come together, you will see fusion in our recipes with influences from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, India, the Levant… It is thought that dishes like machboos, biryani and sometimes even shawarma are typically Emirati, but they’re not. In my opinion, I’d say our cuisine is ever-evolving.
What do you remember eating as a child?
DR KALTHAM: My mother used to make khameer in a mekhbaz over an open wood fire as well as saloona – a broth-like, light stew. It can be made with meat, chicken or fish and doesn’t require many ingredients. Fresh tomatoes are used, too – although those were not always available. Not many spices are used, just enough to elevate the food – which I believe is how spices should be used.
Are there specific spices which are used more often than others in Emirati cuisine?
DR KALTHAM: Cumin, coriander, dried lime powder and turmeric are all popular, but because of our culinary influences, we use a variety of spices.
Would you say that each Emirate is known for a specific traditional dish? Or are there vast differences in the food culture between the Emirates?
DR KALTHAM: I think you find similar dishes in each emirate, but perhaps the ways in which they are prepared differ. In saying that, on the coast, seafood is obviously going to be popular and traditionally we’d just eat cooked white rice and grilled fish with ghee. In the mountains, you’ll see meat being slow-cooked in an underground oven, or tanour. Interestingly, we find some of the best fish inland, on the way to Masafi. It makes no sense as to why this is!
FATMA: Yes, it’s so funny! My father likes to travel all the way to Al Dhaid to buy fish. The fresh fish market in Umm Al Quwain is also a good place to go. Get there for around 8:30am on the weekend when the boats come in.
DR KALTHAM: I actually don’t like eating fish – but I have learned to tolerate it as my husband enjoys it! I can handle small portions, cooked simply.
Are there any Emirati restaurants which you can recommend?
DR KALTHAM: I would never leave my house to eat Emirati food – I’d always cook it at home. But, Khaled Huriah Public Kitchen in Sharjah is famous for good, authentic dishes.
FATMA: There are many local businesses on Instagram selling spice mixes, sauces or certain Emirati foods. Look out for @bharat_umaya, @curcumia.ae, @bait_mamaty, @pure.bzar and @bzar_hasawi.
Tell us about chebab and the recipe you’ve shared with us for this.
DR KALTHAM: Chebab is our version of the pancake. It’s versatile and is commonly eaten at breakfast or for the fuala – an afternoon tea that we serve to guests before sunset. In winter, we like to eat chebab covered in date molasses to keep us warm.
The recipe we have shared is based on a traditional one, which uses a dough made from flour, water and saffron which is proofed overnight in the fridge. The only difference is that we’ve used a sourdough starter. You can cover the cooked chebab with any sauce; we like to use honey supplied by a local friend of ours.
Despite Dr Kaltham not liking rice, you’ve shared a delicious recipe for muhammar – what goes into this dish?
FATMA: This is a good example of Emirati flavour combinations. Muhammar is rice cooked with burnt sugar, caramel or date molasses that’s served with a spicy fish stew. I chose to use date molasses as it’s healthier than sugar. And instead of stew, I chose to oven bake fish fillets coated in a sourdough and pistachio crumb. The latter is my signature ingredient. These can be served alongside or atop a bed of fragrant rice with rocket, quick-pickled onions and fresh lime on the side.
You created an innovative ravioli dish for Spinneys magazine using two key Emirati ingredients and one that is close to your heart. Tell us more…
DR KALTHAM: Yes, we decided to create a dish using chami – which is made from laban (buttermilk) – and ghaf tree leaves. Usually, chami is drizzled with ghee and eaten with dates, and ghaf leaves have a strong flavour so they combine well with the cheese. I love to make pasta, especially for family gatherings – in fact I think my pasta machine is older than my daughter Fatma! So, I thought, why not make sourdough ravioli with ghaf leaves and a chami stuffing? We’re passionate about sourdough bread at Vanilla Sukkar, hence that addition. Should you try this recipe, you’ll see the pasta has bubbles and doesn’t look like regular ravioli. And be careful when adding the ghaf leaves to the pasta sheets – you need to place them gently. We drizzled the pasta with a spiced ghee sauce. Every Emirati home makes its own version of this using its own home-made bzar spice mix. When plating, we suggest topping the pasta with thinly sliced or shredded dates. I believe this dish reflects our Emirati culture and shows how we are open to other cuisines – we’ve used outside influences to make something of our own.
Vanilla Sukkar café opened in 2019 after Dr Kaltham Kenaid and Fatma Saifan – social media celebrities in their own right – decided to bring their sought-after creations to the public on a wider scale. Follow them on Instagram @drkalthamkenaid, @fatmasaifan and @vanillasukkar