x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Shaikha Al Ali is an Emirati Nigella in the making

We sit down with Shaikha Al Ali, the Emirati teenager who already has a popular food blog and has ambitions of writing a cookbook and opening a restaurant.

Lgeimat, saffron flavoured fritters prepared by Shaikha Al Ali. Sarah Dea / The National
Lgeimat, saffron flavoured fritters prepared by Shaikha Al Ali. Sarah Dea / The National

Shaikha Al Ali comes beaming towards me and for a moment, I am taken aback.

From the quaint videos on her blog www.whenshaikhacooks.com and her love of traditional recipes, I was expecting a middle-aged housewife, perhaps with a couple of children in tow, or someone even older.

What I was not prepared for was the pretty, baby-faced teenager smiling disarmingly as she throws open the door to her home in Jumeirah, Dubai, and leads me to a kitchen laid with hot-pink place settings, a candy floss-coloured sideboard and lime-green painted chairs.

Those colours seems to reflect Shaika's effusive personality and it comes as little surprise that when the family had to renovate its tired, dark wood kitchen, she insisted on redecorating it herself with her own designs.

It was in the same kitchen that the 18-year-old Emirati - she'll be turning 19 on Sunday - first started filming herself cooking, complete with a Nikon D90 set on a tripod, and posting recipes and pictures online of her experiments with traditional family meals.

Unexpectedly, she has become something of an internet sensation. Her video of herself making lgeimat, those sweet moreish little doughnuts drizzled with date syrup, registered more than 15,000 views on YouTube.

And when she tinkered with the recipe for karak chai by adding vanilla bean, she was approached by Rainbow Milk manufacturers, who spotted her potential and asked her to come up with some more recipes using their products.

"I started cooking at a young age," says Shaikha, who is in her second year at Zayed University studying for a marketing degree. "I love learning new recipes and don't like to cook the same thing twice because there are so many new dishes to learn.

"Usually, I find recipes online and read a lot of versions of the same dish, then combine everything I have read and come up with my own recipe."

She may be a home chef dabbling in social media for now, but don't be fooled: Shaikha has ambitions to be the Emirati Nigella.

"I want to open my own restaurant, publish a cookbook, have my own TV cookery show and bring out my own range of cooking utensils," she says. "I want to do everything, but not until I learn exactly how it is done properly. Once I finish university, I want to travel and get a diploma from an institute such as Le Cordon Bleu."

Shaikha first became enthusiastic about cooking at 13, when she would bake cakes for friends in the school playground.

She first started blogging at 16, writing on her Tumblr page called When Ninjas Cook and posting pictures and recipes on Instagram.

When she began to develop a following - on Tumblr, she had 700 fans while she attracted 5,000 on Instagram - she decided to start her own blog three months ago.

Her speciality is rooting out long-forgotten recipes from different cultures and recreating them for the camera.

"The food in restaurants is so repetitive but these are dishes you will never see anywhere," she says. "I will research ancient Brazilian and Aztec recipes, for example."

Largely self-taught, she learnt how to gut a fish for Lebanese sayadieh, a hammour and rice dish, whipped up Moroccan beghrir pancakes and persuaded her grandmother Amna Al Farsi to teach her how to make maasoob: bread fritters with bananas, sugar and cardamom.

Once, when she spotted her Mecca-born grandmother making the Egyptian soup mulokhiya, she tiptoed up behind her with her camera to film the process - then posted it online complete with instructions on how to make it.

Whenever she films either herself or a relative cooking in any of her 10 videos on the website, she focuses on just the hands.

No faces are ever visible to preserve cultural sensibilities, while the sepia-tinted filters and out-of-focus shots she sometimes uses gives the films the rustic quality of home videos from the 1970s.

Many of her recipes are inherited from her grandmother: "As a child, I was at my grandmother's all the time and used to watch her cooking.

"We are really close. There are traditional Saudi dishes only she can make.

"During Ramadan, she will sit on the floor where she will make a big tray of her special meat and vegetable sambousas and during Eid, she will make dibyaza [a sweet syrup made from cooked peaches, nuts, dates, water, cinnamon and sugar], which we eat with bread."

Her family, says Shaikha, is her biggest motivation to cook. She starts in the kitchen most days at 7.30am before leaving for university and shares the responsibility for feeding her parents and three siblings with their Indonesian maid.

At weekends, she tries out new dishes at a family breakfast. And when her birthday or a special occasion comes around, her family knows the only thing she wants is a new set of saucepans or cupcake cases.

The island in the centre of the family kitchen is a no-go area for everyone but Shaikha and is filled with the spices, dishes and food decoration she has picked up on her travels. There is a vial of gold leaf flakes, some freeze-dried roses, Spanish fleur de sel and an ornate tea tray from Morocco.

Arabic websites and magazines have been quick to spot her potential. Her recipes have appeared on the website banatzayed.com and in the magazines Khaleejesque, Ara and Emirates Diaries.

Meanwhile, she has been approached by Sama Dubai TV and asked to appear on a cookery series during Ramadan with other Emirati chefs.

She turned down the offer on this occasion while she completes her studies but says: "I think everyone should learn to cook.

"When someone tastes your food and likes it, it is such a good feeling. I always feel better when I cook."

 

Lgeimat

Ingredients

2 cups flour

cup Nido milk powder

2 tbsps instant yeast

1 tsp baking powder

tsp cardamom

1 tsp sugar

1 tbsp oil

1 cup water

1 egg

 

Method

Mix all the dry ingredients together. Follow with the wet ingredients.

Mix vigorously to incorporate all the ingredients.

Cover and allow to rest for an hour.

Drop pieces of the dough into a deep fryer until golden brown.

Drizzle with date molasses and serve.

 

Rangina

Ingredients

3 cups whole-wheat flour

150gms butter, melted

1 cups normal sugar

tbsp cardamom

2 cups pitted dates

cup chopped walnuts

cup powdered

pistachios

 

Method

Place the flour in a pan and cook over a medium to high heat until slightly browned (about 10 minutes).

Remove from heat and allow to cool.

Add the sugar, cardamom and butter and mix.

If it is extremely crumbly, add some more butter until it reaches a slightly held-together batter that is still slightly crumbly but not dough-like.

Line a baking tray with baking paper and press the mixture into the bottom.

Put the dates in the microwave for about 30 seconds to soften them.

When cooled, press the dates above the mixture and then sprinkle with the walnuts and pistachios. Press the walnuts and pistachios slightly into the dates so they stick.

Place the tray in the fridge for about 2-3 hours (or overnight if possible).

Cut into squares and serve with yogurt and Arabic coffee.

 

www.whenshaikhacooks.com/2010/12/04/rangina/

 

artslife@thenational.ae