Long ago, before the days of black gold, air conditioning and running water, men and even teenage boys used to spend the long and steamy summers on board of dhows diving for pearls to earn a small income. While they were gone, for up to six months a year, their families used to travel with camel caravans from their coastal homes to the deserts of Al Ain or Liwa. It was cooler there. They would take with them the now famous maleh — fish preserved in salt that would keep for up to a year.
Back then, this was just staple food, but with the increasing interest in Emirati cuisine, the humble maleh is now brought into the attention of renown, even Michelin star chefs.
“My favourite, favourite, favourite dish is Tahta Maleh and that’s because in the past we didn’t have refrigerators or any kind of cold storage spaces, so we came up with this idea of preserving the fish with salt,” says chef Khulood Atiq.
The 33 years old Emirati, born and raised in Dubai, is UAE’s first female chef, best known for promoting Emirati cuisine at home and abroad.
“Tahta means layers and maleh refers to salty fish, so the dish is a layer of salty fish under rice, similar to Biryani, but different in some of the cooking techniques and some of the ingredients and spices used,” she goes on explaining.
To prepare maleh, the fresh fish has to have the heads and tails removed, then cut the stomach to remove the entrails without washing the fish, as water would spoil the preservation. Each piece of fish should be cut longways, but not all the way through, and pretty much covered in salt to help absorb any water from the flesh. Slices of dried lime, black pepper seeds and zaatar (Arabic thyme) may be added for flavour and finally place the fish in layers in a plastic container, which should be left in the sun for three months. When ready to use, the maleh should be washed and boiled to remove the salt.
“Like other Emirati dishes, Tahta Maleh can be quite heavy, so for the health conscious I have also created a maleh salad with a mix of green mango, Roca leaves, slices of tomatoes and a dressing made of Emirati pickles, Roca and olive oil,” says chef Khulood.
Emirati cuisine is fairly young and still barely known in the gourmand world. A century ago, when the UAE was still Arabia, tradesmen from the region brought home ingredients and recipes from India, Japan and Iran, and told their wives, mothers and sisters how they were used in dishes from those countries.
“That’s the first time we saw rice and spices,” she points out.
Khulood’s passion for cooking began from an early age, when she used to sit with her mother in her home in Dubai and tried to help with the preparation of lunch or special Ramadan and Eid meals.
“Once, when I was eight years old, I was sitting with my mother in the kitchen as usual. She was baking bread. I had some cooking utensils toys and I was pretending to bake some bread too. My mother gave me a small piece of dough to put it in my toy oven, but I noticed that she made 20 pieces of bread and my dough was still not baking, so I asked her what’s going on. She sent me to my room for a few minutes and when I came back my bread was done. My mother told me that it took longer to bake in my toy oven,” remembers Khulood.
Her first real cooking experience happened just a couple of months later. This time, it involved balaleet, the sweet vermicelli noodles with omelette, normally served for breakfast.
“It came out rather mushy, so my mother asked me how I did it and it turned out that everything was ok, except that I boiled the vermicelli for 15 minutes, just as normal noodles. Then my mother gave me one of the first lessons in cooking – vermicelli, since they are very thin, should only be boiled for three minutes. Few seconds more and they become too soggy.”
Since she is the only daughter in the family, Khulood benefited from lots of cooking advice from her mother and she grew to have a real passion for Emirati dishes.
When collage time came, she chose business, but soon realised it doesn’t satisfy her. She talked to her brother about it, and when he asked her what interests her most the answer was food. One day, a foreign visitor asked her “don’t you have an Emirati cuisine?” Back in those days, Emirati dishes were a rare find, and Khulood made the decision to change that.
She told her brother about her wish to become a chef and he contacted a friend in the Jumairah Group of hotels, who was delighted that an Emirati, particularly a woman, wanted to work as a chef.
Thus, in 2008 Khulood began her cooking career with Jumairah Group, starting at the bottom, first with Al Qasr Hotel, then Mina Salam. Eventually she established an Emirati kitchen, putting local dishes on the lunch and dinner buffets.
“My goal was to introduce Emirati dishes into menus across hotel restaurants. My dream was not easily fulfilled; it took me four years to get a real opportunity, during which I endured a lot. In the admission exam, the chef made me undergo several practical tests, many of which were challenging tasks, such as preparing seven main dishes in six hours”.
While being in male-dominated kitchens was not a problem since Khulood grew up with five brothers, she discovered that restaurant kitchens were a different ball game. She had to clock nine hours a day of hard work, and more on special events. This was unusual since women in the UAE have the right to refuse working more than eight hours daily and wouldn’t miss family gatherings, Friday lunches and Eid celebrations to toil in hotel kitchens. With the support of her family, Khulood kept pushing on.
Before moving to Sama Dubai TV, where she had a cooking show, Khulood got some time off to get married. She met her husband in a hotel restaurant she was cooking for, where he happened to dine one day.
“He liked the food I prepared and I was introduced to him. The rest is history!”
“I didn’t do the cooking for my wedding, but I did design the menu myself,” she recalls, smiling.
Unlike most chefs worldwide, though, her dream is not to open her own restaurant — although she likes this idea too.
“A restaurant would be nice, but my dream is bigger than that. I want to share the Emirati food with the whole world. I want it to be recognised as a cuisine of its own.”
Chef Khulood has now trained five-star hotel restaurants chefs and introduced authentic Emirati dishes in several such restaurants in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, she has published Sarareed, a cooking book of traditional Emirati coastal and desert dishes, and she is travelling the world, presenting the Emirati cuisine at international cooking and food events.