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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 February 2019

Bahraini chef Tala Bashmi calls for a culinary renaissance in the Arab world

'Every cuisine from the United States and most countries in Europe have all had their renaissance. I think this is a time for us as Arabs,' she says

Emirati sea bass tartare is part of chef Tala Bashmi’s one-off dinner menu at Boca, DIFC. Courtesy Boca
Emirati sea bass tartare is part of chef Tala Bashmi’s one-off dinner menu at Boca, DIFC. Courtesy Boca

Creating nostalgic culinary experiences is what ­Bahrain-born, Swiss-trained chef Tala Bashmi is all about. As a young girl of six, Bashmi would go with her father to the local markets, and watch and listen intently as he taught her the secrets of home cooking. These encounters sealed her passion for food. Today, as the chef de cuisine at Fusions restaurant in the Gulf Hotel Bahrain, Bashmi takes what she’s learnt about the Gulf island’s cuisine and turns classic dishes into contemporary culinary triumphs, using local ingredients melded with European-style cooking techniques.

On February 12, foodies in the UAE will be able to get a taste of what Bashmi has to offer in a one-off dining experience at Boca in Dubai International Financial Centre. She will present the four-course Taste of the Gulf menu in collaboration with the European restaurant’s head chef Matthijs Stinnissen.

Ahead of her visit, she tells us about her cooking style and what we can expect from the Dubai meal.

How would you describe your style of food?

Contemporary Middle ­Eastern. Mainly I would say it focuses on reinventing traditional Bahraini dishes.

How similar are Emirati and Bahraini food?

There are definitely quite a few dishes that overlap. For ­example, in most Gulf countries, you’ll find balaleet or machboos. Some desserts ­overlap as well, but every country in the Gulf puts its own touch on each recipe.

What are some of your signature dishes?

I do a Bahraini bouillabaisse. Obviously, it is actually a French soup, but I take that idea, add Bahraini flavours to it and use that stock to cook my risotto rice. I also use local seafood. The second dish is harees – it’s that beaten gross ­porridge thing that most people don’t like. It’s very traditional [laughs]. Some from the younger generation here have moved away from this as it’s unappealing to them. I want them to better understand their culture and enjoy it in a modern way. So what I do is take the cracked wheat and I cook it separately from the meat, and I serve it with a cut of, let’s say, American rib-eye. I use something that people are familiar with, along with our traditional ingredients in a different way.

What do you want people to feel while they’re eating food you’ve prepared?

Honestly, I try to appeal to every audience from every country, in a sense of bringing them back to a state of nostalgia. One dessert I recently put on the menu is called aseeda, which is ­Saudi-Bahraini, and I think even Emirati. It’s sweet, made with dates and roux, and it’s served warm and eaten normally in the winter when people are in the desert and it’s cold. I base it on my mother’s side of the family, which is Saudi, so I add black pepper, which is their twist. In every culture and every country, people go camping and you sit by a fire – so I add an element of that aroma that everybody can relate to. It gives a sense of when you’re camping, in the desert, in the woods, by a fire – something to tie everybody together in a way.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I just want to make a ripple in the food industry. Every cuisine from the United States and most countries in Europe have all had their renaissance. I think this is a time for us as Arabs, as people from the Middle East, to go through our culinary renaissance and put ourselves on the map. Whether it’s inspiring people or putting a smile on someone’s face when something is served to their table, that’s my goal.

Do you mean in terms offine dining?

Yes, fine dining to start, but I don’t want it to be pretentious. Some of my dishes, like my quail dish, I tell people to eat with their hands. Because that’s also part of our culture.

What can diners expect at the meal in Dubai?

We’ll be using local ingredients and bringing in some inspiration from traditional dishes. It’ll give people a hint of the possibilities that exist locally. And, for me, working with chef Matthijs will also be very interesting because his style is similar to mine.

If you could have a chef cook a meal for you, who would it be?

Oh, this is so tough. It would be between three chefs: Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal and Grant Achatz. They all have the same mentality. So Grant Achatz doesn’t think about how food tastes alone – he’s not trying to just satisfy your stomach, but also stimulate your mind. One of his dishes is a sugar balloon filled with flavoured helium, which you hold and inhale – he appeals to your sense of nostalgia using modern techniques and creates an all-out experience.

Is that what you aspire to do as well?

Yes, yes, yes. I’m doing what I do because I love it and I want to show off Bahrain. I’m proud of my country and our cuisine, and that’s what makes it unique. You can’t do European food and be unique as an Arab.

Taste of the Gulf is a one-off dinner event, taking place at 7.30pm on February 12 at Boca in Dubai. The meal costs Dh295 per person; call 04 323 1833 or email hola@boca.ae to book

Updated: February 10, 2019 06:56 PM

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