x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Emirati women rise early to prepare 100 iftar meals daily

The Khalifa Foundation project in Ramadan has local women cooking at home for workers every day of Ramadan.

Emirati ladies have spent Ramadan cooking, packing and then passing out food parcels to workers in Mussaffah. The Khalifa Foundation gives them the money to buy the ingredients to cook and the boxes for distribution. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National
Emirati ladies have spent Ramadan cooking, packing and then passing out food parcels to workers in Mussaffah. The Khalifa Foundation gives them the money to buy the ingredients to cook and the boxes for distribution. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National

ABU DHABI // Mahra Al Mansouri’s alarm goes off at 6am, just like it has every day this Ramadan, so she can wake up early enough to cook 100 biryani meals for Mussaffah workers.

At her mother’s house in Al Wathba, Ms Al Mansouri, a widow of 10 years, gathers her maids, her mother’s maids, her four children – and sometimes the driver – to help.

“We start cooking at 6.30am every day,” she says as she mixes huge quantities of biryani rice with herbs and spices in a large cauldron. “We will keep doing this until the last day of Ramadan.”

This is the third time Ms Al Mansouri has taken part in the Khalifa Foundation’s fourth iftar project.

By the end of Ramadan, nearly 1.76 million meals would have been provided to needy families and workers, and Emirati women will have been trained in how to run their own small businesses.

Although the foundation usually requires participants to be unemployed, an exception was made for Ms Al Mansouri, who is raising four children in her mother’s home.

To take part in the project, she takes her annual leave from Zayed Military Hospital during Ramadan so she can cook. “I first joined because I was eager to help,” she says.

But the idea of cooking such a large quantity frightened her. Three years ago, just two weeks before Ramadan, she had a test run.

“I wanted to see how many onions I would need, how many chicken pieces, how much everything, all quantities,” she says.

After a successful trial, the foundation gave her Dh57,000 to cover all her costs. Whatever she has left after she buys ingredients is hers to keep.

After spending an hour with her “helpers” peeling, washing and chopping up half a 70 kilogram bag of onions, she then washes 25 chickens and cuts them up and places them in a large outdoor oven. Then she washes all the rice. Herbs and Arabic and Indian biryani spices are prepared and mixed.

By noon, everything is cooking. An hour later, 100 boxes are packed with steaming hot chicken biryani, ready for a bus that arrives at 2.30pm. About two hours later, foundation officials distribute the boxes to the needy at a mosque near Mazyad Mall.

At the start of the holy month, Civil Defence visited Ms Al Mansouri’s kitchen to ensure there were no fire hazards. She has had three surprise inspections to check on cooking equipment, ingredients, cleanliness and to ensure hygienic standards were being followed.

“So far they have said nothing to me, they have even thanked me for my work,” she says. “They check also if we are the ones cooking, or if we buy the food from outside. Some people do that.”

She says every woman participating has a designated number to help differentiate the boxes; foundation officials take a random box from each batch and test the food at their homes for iftar.

“The number allows them to track down any problems, if workers didn’t like the food, or if they found the rice too soggy or something,” she says. “But my rice always comes out perfect, thankfully.

“By the end of the month, I manage to save Dh15,000 to Dh20,000,” she says. “But this year bus prices went up and so has the price of tomatoes in the market, which we use daily in the biryani. Some women save more by not putting in certain herbs, leaving the rice plain. I don’t want to do that.”

Although many have applied to join the foundation, not all have been accepted. “Not anyone can join though and they don’t trust anyone to cook,” she says proudly.

Ms Al Mansouri hopes the foundation will rethink its three-year maximum and allow her to take part next year.

“I am not doing this just for financial reasons,” she says. “But the feeling you have by helping and feeding so many people. It’s wonderful to know someone out there is praying for you.”

osalem@thenational.ae