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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

My Ramadan: This cook spends all day preparing affordable Emirati dishes for low-income families

Emirati Fujairah resident Fatima Al Yamahi spends her holy month cooking signature dishes to sell at affordable prices at the local market

Fatima Al Yamahi, known as Umm Khamas, is cooking at her house on a Ramadan afternoon. Before the sun sets, she heads to the Fujairah Ramadan food market everyday to sell her popular traditional Emirati dishes. Reem Mohammed / The National
Fatima Al Yamahi, known as Umm Khamas, is cooking at her house on a Ramadan afternoon. Before the sun sets, she heads to the Fujairah Ramadan food market everyday to sell her popular traditional Emirati dishes. Reem Mohammed / The National

Surrounded by pots, spices and heat, Fatima Al Yamahi starts her Ramadan days by mixing, stirring and preparing a variety of Emirati signature dishes made to break the fast of many low-income families in Fujairah.

In the backyard of her house in a small town called Merbeh, and in the soaring heat, Ms Al Yamahi sets the fire under three large cooking pots and starts preparing assida, khabees – a sweet dish made of brown flour, rose water, sugar, saffron and commonly served for breakfast, especially at Eid – and harees – made from boiled, cracked, or coarsely-ground wheat mixed with meat or chicken and slow cooked – and various Emirati dishes every day during Ramadan.

“I prepare at night before Sahoor and in the morning at around 8.30am I start the cooking process by getting the fire going, preparing spices and heating the pots,” said Ms Al Yamahi, 50, who is also known locally as Umm Khamas.

Ms Al Yamahi spends around six hours each day cooking and preparing more than eight Emirati foods before taking them to her kiosk at Fujairah's Ramadan food market, near the fort.

Fatima Al Yamahi prepares chami, a dish similar to cottage cheese and made from laban, It will later be drizzled with pure cow ghee and eaten with dates. Reem Mohammed / The National
Fatima Al Yamahi prepares chami, a dish similar to cottage cheese and made from laban, It will later be drizzled with pure cow ghee and eaten with dates. Reem Mohammed / The National

“I learned to cook from my late father who used to prepare wedding feasts in the old days. I remember standing next to him in front of a large cooking pot filled with meat and rice placed on a pile of burning wood and sounded by small bricks. He used to prepare huge amounts of food to feed more than 300 people,” she said.

“And when I turned 10, he gave me the opportunity to cook my first meal and serve it to some people who were invited over for lunch at our house.

“The way he used to throw the spices over the meat and his unique style in mixing the food made me fall in love for cooking and admire our traditional dishes.”

Spices in Ms Al Yamahi's kitchen. Reem Mohammed / The National
Spices in Ms Al Yamahi's kitchen. Reem Mohammed / The National

Ms Al Yamahi mixes brown flour, water, rose water, sugar, cardamom, saffron, cumin and oil to create assida, a sweet dish with a consistency like a porridge, one of her best-selling Ramadan dishes. “My customers like all the food," she said, "especially assida, harees, luqaimat and sago”.

Luqaimat is a deep-fried dough soaked in date syrup that is a sugary comfort food often served during celebrations such as weddings and Ramadan. And sago is a sweet and spice-infused pudding.

Ms Al Yamahi is an Emirati single mother of five, two of her daughters are living with her as well as three granddaughters.

She first started selling food at the Fujairah food market five years ago, adding spices that "give the dish a taste from the past that people like a lot". The aim was to make everything affordable, with prices that do not exceed Dh20.

Apart from Ramadan, Ms Al Yamahi prepares feasts for weddings, festivals and sometimes for the royal family and Sheikhs in Fujairah.

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“It’s a great privilege and honour for me to be trusted enough to prepare a full set of well-known Emirati dishes for [the Sheikhs'] guests – it’s something I’m really proud of,” she said.

Ms Al Yamahi said that she had also managed to support the education of her girls and pay for their fees through her cooking skills.

“By practising my favourite hobby and using my cooking skills I managed to support my family and provide low-income families with high-quality food at low prices,” she said.

“Ramadan is the month of giving and forgiveness. It’s a chance to be there for each other and come together with family and friends, share a special meal and get closer to Allah.”