Jessie Kirkness Parker has adored the region's 'rustic' cuisine since moving to the UAE 32 years ago. The chef-turned-journalist tells Helena Frith Powell how her award-winning cookbook aims to help preserve traditional dishes in a rapidly expanding fast-food culture. When Jessie Kirkness Parker moved to the UAE 32 years ago, she was determined to change her career. In Cape Town she had trained and worked as a chef. But what she really wanted to be was a journalist.
"When I saw how much sand there was I thought I might have miscalculated," she laughs. "Where on earth was I going to find a newspaper to work for?" Parker, a dynamic and likeable woman, describes the Dubai she and her husband Kevin moved to as "barren". "But I absolutely loved it," she adds. "In fact it was love at first sight. You could see the dunes right there from the city. Being South African, I borrowed a four-wheel drive and got right into them."
One day she was driving on the Sheikh Rashid road when she saw a shed being built with the words "Khaleej Times Newspaper" on them. "I drove over a sand dune, parked up and happened to meet the editor. I introduced myself and explained to him I wanted to write about food. He basically told me to get lost. 'Just because you can taste food doesn't mean you can write about it,' he said and told me to go away and write something."
She wrote an article about her experiences as a chef and on the strength of that was hired to train as a photojournalist. "I also negotiated a food column and so became the Middle East's first food columnist." From Khaleej Times, she moved to Gulf News, where she stayed until 2003 when she departed to set up her own food-styling consultancy and write a cookbook. "By then, I had reviewed a lot of cookbooks, interviewed a lot of top chefs and been asked to write a book a few times," she explains. "It had got to the point when I really saw, due to the spread of multiculturalism, that a great treasure of the UAE was on the brink of disappearing, and that spurred me on to finally write a book of my own."
The book she wrote was A Taste Of Arabia, which was published three years ago and has sold more than 7,000 copies. In July it won a Gold Gourmand in the best Arab cuisine cookbook category at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Paris.
Recalling the drive to the ceremony in the Comedie Française theatre, located next to the Louvre, she says: "I was thinking, 'This is a much bigger deal than I expected.' It was a lot like the Oscars. There were thousands of people there. We were seated right in the middle of the row. I noticed that the winners were seated closer to the aisles. I told my husband, 'We can take that smile right off our faces.' Then the category came up and my book was the winner. I had to push past all these people to get to the stage, it was such fun, the best feeling in the world."
Parker, who has homes in Abu Dhabi and France, says her love of Arab food began when she arrived here and was introduced to a cuisine that was still quite simple. She has always had a great respect and love of rustic food. "I found as a food writer, the higher up the totem pole you go, the more foie gras you eat. I was brought up on rustic cuisine. My mother never bought anything. It strikes a deep resonance with me."
She remembers a particular meal in 1977 with the governor, or wali, of Hatta that particularly impressed her. "We arrived at a very unpretentious house and sat down. We were served oranges on a huge round platter, followed by chickpeas and broad beans, which we ate with a pinch of cumin and lime juice. We were given bowls to wash our hands in and we prayed to God to bless the meal. The wali segmented the orange and passed it around. It was so simple, a snack really, but the ritual of it turned it into a banquet. I loved the whole approach and style of the meal. It also brought home to me how precious oranges would be to a desert community."
She says A Taste Of Arabia is her way of trying to help preserve traditional approaches to food and eating in the face of a fast-food culture that has become so prevalent. "Their rustic cuisine is a national treasure," she says, "rather like the sand dunes and the marine life. It needs to be protected and cherished, it needs to be preserved."
But how do the locals feel about a South African championing their traditional cooking methods? She laughs. "I have had nothing but positive feedback. At the Abu Dhabi Book Fair last year I did a cooking demonstration and at the end of it I had about 60 women there kissing me and rubbing my nose. I asked them if they minded the fact that I was foreign. 'No, you can talk for us,' they told me. 'We have no voice, your food gives us a voice; you tell people our food is beautiful.' I think food is a way of communicating on a deeper level, without prejudice and with an open mind. If something tastes good, you smile."
Parker has just finished writing a children's book, based on one of her daughter's struggle to enjoy reading. "I got a bee in my bonnet about writing outside my genre," she says. The book is aimed at six- and seven-year-olds and is with her publisher now. There are also two more cookbooks in the pipeline.
"But I can't tell you about them because I'm not sure how they will turn out," she laughs. "After all, it did take me 30 years to get this one off the ground."
A Taste Of Arabia is published by Jerboa Books, priced at Dh85, and available at Magrudy's and bookshops throughout the UAE.
The sun-drenched, sandy farm plots of the Middle East raise bright green, crisp, mild and mustard-flavoured rocca leaves that, when showered with lemony rouge sumac, have unbeatable vibrancy. Called variously rocca, rocket, arugula or gir gir, which is its Arabic name, its soft, dark leaves grow close to the sandy soil, so they require careful, repeated washing and rinsing in plenty of fresh, cool water. Choose an extra virgin olive oil with soft grass-green hues that complement the bite and zest of the rocca. Alternatives to rocca are the feathery leafed mizuna leaves with their mild mustard flavour.
4 bunches, or about 6 cups, of loosely packed rocca leaves
4 small halved or quartered tomatoes
1 large sliced red onion
1 tsp ground sumac powder for garnish
For the dressing:
2 tbsp apple vinegar
1 tsp sugar
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp ground sumac powder
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp boiling hot water
Wash the rocca leaves until clean; slice off the stalks. Fill a large bowl with cold water and add some ice cubes. Place the leaves in the water for 10 minutes to crisp. They bruise and crush very easily and need to be drained with care; shake the excess water off gently or pat dry with a paper towel. Wrap loosely in cling film and place in the fridge to keep crisp. Mix the dressing ingredients together; set aside. Just before serving, place the crisp rocca leaves in a large bowl together with the onions and tomatoes. Pour over the dressing and toss gently. Transfer to a serving bowl and sprinkle with ground sumac powder over the top for garnish.
Aromatically infused soft white beans thicken this exquisite tender lamb stew. Deep, juicy flavours and aromas fill the house - aromas that come only from slow cooking and tender loving care. The hot garnish perfumes the dish superbly. Don't be put off by slow cooking; preparation takes just 15 minutes and 75 minutes of cooking will leave you free to do something else. I like sliced small neck fillets of lamb on the bone; if they are unavailable, use a mixture of stewing lamb and small lamb loin chops. Hot pitta breads, basmati rice or couscous are good accompaniments. Serves 10 as main course.
1 1/2 cups or 225g dried white beans
1.5kg lamb cubes on the bone
1 tbsp mild biz'har
1 tbsp roughly broken cumin seeds
sea salt to taste and freshly ground black pepper
3 tbsp olive oil
5 cups or 1.25 litres water
2 cloves mashed garlic
1 tbsp butter or olive oil
4 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
2 medium chopped red onions
5 mashed garlic cloves
5 large or 1kg tomatoes, peeled seeded and diced
3 cups water or stock
2 bay leaves
2 loomi, broken or cut in half
6g or about 8 fresh zaatar or thyme leaves
Soak the beans in five cups of water overnight or for at least 12 hours. Place the meat in a mixing bowl. Rub the biz'har, cumin, sea salt, freshly ground black pepper and one tbsp of the olive oil into the meat and leave to marinate, covered, in the fridge, also for at least 12 hours. Drain the beans; bring to the boil in five cups of water. Boil briskly, partially covered, for one hour; set aside. Meanwhile, begin to cook the meat stew by heating a tablespoon of the olive oil in a large, heavy saucepan or casserole. Add the meat to the pan in batches and stir-fry on a high heat until well-browned, careful not to burn the spices on the bottom of the saucepan and adding a tablespoon or two of water to the pan if it seems too hot. Remove to a bowl and set aside. Quickly add the onions to the saucepan and stir-fry until soft, transparent and well browned. Add the garlic; stir-fry for a minute, then add the bay leaves, loomi, za'ataror thyme sprigs, and tomatoes; season with salt and pepper and stir-fry together for a couple of minutes. Return the meat to the pan. Pour in the stock and bring to the boil; immediately reduce to a low heat and gently simmer, partially covered, for one hour. Stir in the beans and the cooking water. Simmer for 15 minutes. If serving later, leave to cool, covered; when needed, reheat by simmering for 30 minutes. To make the warm garnish, heat the olive oil in a frying pan on a medium heat. Add the garlic, remaining zaatar or thyme and coriander; stir-fry for one minute and stir into the stew. Serve immediately.
Smooth and sweet, muhallabia is creamy and chilled, a perfectly indulgent break for those hot days. Scented with rose water essence, this cornstarch pudding is a traditional favourite that never fails to please and is easy to make. I make it like pannacotta, reducing the milk and cream, and with a minimum of cornstarch. For variation, add 2-3 tbsp each of lemon juice and the zest of one orange; or half a cup each of chopped dates and desiccated coconut, topped with pistachios and a drizzle of dibbs; or two tbsp of pomegranate syrup and half a cup of crushed almonds stirred into the mixture. Serves 1-2 in small glass dessert bowls or 1-2 Moroccan tea glasses. Ingredients: 3 tbsp or 30g cornstarch 3 cups or 750 ml milk 3 cups or 750 ml cream 1 cup or 200g white granulated sugar For garnish: 3 tablespoons or 45 ml rose water 2-3 tbsp or 30g crushed pistachios Method: Mix the cornstarch to a smooth milky consistency with 1 1/2 cups of milk and set aside. Heat the remaining milk, cream and sugar in a large, thick-bottomed pan on a medium high heat, stirring all the time to dissolve the sugar and to bring it to a boil for about four minutes. Immediately reduce the heat and let it gently simmer, uncovered and without stirring, for 25 minutes. Quickly whisk in the reserved cornstarch and milk mixture to prevent it from becoming lumpy. Add the rose water and additional flavourings if using. Simmer for a further 5-7 minutes, stirring all the time until the mixture thickens. Remove from the heat, let it settle for a couple of minutes, then pour into individual serving bowls or glasses; cover surface with non-pvc cling wrap. Chill for three hours; when ready to serve, remove the wrapping and decorate with crushed pistachios. If using any of the variations above, top with additional lemon rind, almonds, coconut or dates. Recipe extracts from A Taste Of Arabia