Zahra Abdalla / “My food is a representation of my identity”

We dare you to find an Instagram profile that makes you hungrier! Learn all about food fusion and modern Middle Eastern cuisine from food stylist and blogger Zahra Abdalla

Zahra Abdalla Photo: Supplied

By Omar Ali Talab

Food 14 February 2018

Zahra Abdalla has one of the most interesting and visually appealing Instagram profiles we’ve come across. It’s almost impossible not to get hungry scrolling through her photos and videos and then somehow finding yourself on her website, wondering if her recipes will taste and look as good in your kitchen as they do in hers. Only one way to find out, right?

This is what we love about Zahra. It’s all about the food. Nothing else but the food she cooks, inspiring us to get in the kitchen and try it for ourselves.

Zahra is half Sudanese, half Iranian, grew up in London, has a Jordanian husband and lives in Dubai – a melting pot of different cultures and different food choices. Food fusion has obviously found its way into your kitchen. Helping to develop the ever growing, delicious looking and tasting idea of modern Middle Eastern cuisine, it’s no surprise that her followers a predominantly on the younger side (25 – 35 year olds) who are trying to fuse the traditional meals they grew up eating with ingredients and food trends that are popular.

For many Arabs especially, we know that any attempts we make to cook something our mothers, grandmothers (and in some cases our fathers) cook so flawlessly, we will most likely come up short. Arab food is home food and home cooking has always seemed to be serious business for Arabs. Even if you don’t cook or are intimidated by the process of it all, Zahra makes it look so easy. And what’s more interesting is Zarah’s flair for taking those traditional meals we all grew up with an adding her own modern twist to it.

Food fusion, food passion and men in the kitchen – nothing was off the table with Zahra.

How would you describe what fusion cooking is and what wonderful discoveries and meals have you created as a result of it?
Having lived and travelled to different parts of the world my recipes are influenced by my Iranian, Sudanese, Jordanian, European and Asian flavours. I love the fusion of sweet and savory flavours – a lot of my recipes have fresh or dried fruit to give a wonderful balance of flavours to my dishes. My food is a representation of my identity – a balance of Eastern and Western flavours and a range of traditional and modern recipes. I love to make traditional recipes such as broad bean and dill rice with slow cooked lamb shanks (an Iranian recipe),  Musakhan (traditional Palestinian Recipe) or Waraq Einab & Koosa Mahshi (Levantine Recipe) – these are wonderful, comforting and traditional recipes that are a representation of our traditions and roots. I enjoy making these traditional recipes for my children to introduce them to our roots and to instill a love for our heritage through food.  Simultaneously, I like to introduce my children to new and delicious flavours such as kale, quinoa, mong beans and develop fun, flavourful and colourful recipes that they will enjoy.  These are the recipes I like to cook for my family and share with my followers.

How do you come up with recipes?
I usually develop recipes in my mind before I create them. Recently I developed a new Vegan recipe, I opened the fridge and found some leeks and decided I would make a leek soup but with a healthy and Asian twist. I added sweet potatoes instead of regular potatoes, coconut milk instead of cream and a bit of chili pepper for some heat, a squeeze of lemon juice to elevate the flavours and after I blended all the ingredients together I added some fresh kale to add some texture to the soup.  In my mind, I had already imagined how the soup with taste and that process made the recipe development process very easy to execute.

Many people can feel intimidated when it comes to cooking traditional Arab food. What’s a good way to ease people’s fears when they want to start cooking?
I think that anyone that doesn’t allow themselves to venture into the kitchen and make mistakes will never overcome the fear of cooking.  My policy with everything in life, and a lesson I teach my children, is that you only become good at anything with practice – practice makes perfect. Traditional Arabic food can be daunting but you would be amazed to see how easy it is to make once you try. I wouldn’t say Arabic food is difficult to make but that it’s time consuming.

 

Here’s one of our favourite recipes by Zahra

Lamb Kofta Sandwich, arugula, zaatar & onion mix and tahini sauce Recipe below! #cookingwithzahra #foodblogger #maggiarabia @maggiarabia #sandwiches #recipe #food #recipedeveloper *********************************************** For Kofta: • 500g lean lamb • Maggi Shawerma Mix • 1 egg • ½ cup bread crumb • 2 tsp. minced garlic • olive oil For pita sandwich • 1 bunchof fresh zaatar (thyme) • 1/2 small red onion, finely sliced • 1/8 cup olive oil • 1/2 tsp sumac • 1 Lemon, juiced • pepper • 1/3 cup tahini • 5 tbsp. water • 6 – 8 small pita breads 1. Pre-heat your oven at 250 degrees Celsius. Kafta Mix: In a medium size bowl combine lamb, Maggi Shawerma Mix, egg, bread crumb and garlic. Thoroughly knead ingredients together and keep aside. Form into mini kofta patties, brush with some olive oil and bake in oven for 20 to 25 minutes, or until patties are well browned 2. In a medium sized bowl mix onions, 1/8 cup olive oil, zaatar, sumac and salt. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and leave the ingredients to sit for about 10 minutes. Uncover bowl, add zaatar leaves and half a lemon juiced. 3. In a small bowl whisk tahini sauce, half a lemon juiced and water Layer the zaatar and onion salad on the base of the pita bread, then add 3 to 4 mini kofta patties, and add a drizzle of the tahini sauce on top. Wrap and serve the sandwiches.

A post shared by Zahra Abdalla | زهرة عبداللًّه (@cookingwithzahra) on

 

How would you describe what Modern Middle Eastern Cuisine is?
Modern Middle Eastern Cuisine would be a fusion of traditional and modern flavours. For example making recreating a traditional tabbouleh salad and making it with kale and quinoa instead of parsley and burghul. I follow the school of thought that there are not absolute rules in the kitchen, recipes can be altered, methods can be simplified and flavours can always be heightened with simple changes or twists. One of my favourite recipes to make is my parsley and pomegranate salad, this salad is made with very traditional Middle Eastern flavours in a non-traditional way – sliced onions are marinated with pomegranate molasses, olive oil and apple cider vinegar and mixed with fresh parsley and pomegranates – the end result is a magnificent and flavourful salad that is a perfect side with steak, roast chicken or to be eaten on its own.

You’re a mother of three young boys. Do they have an interest in the kitchen, do they ever help you cook?
My boys love coming into the kitchen with me.  My four-year-old is a master smoothie maker, he loves combining berries, avocado, spinach, a banana with almond milk to make his smoothie – what’s cute is that after learning how to make a smoothie with me he always wants to make it for himself afterschool as a snack.  My seven-year-old is an avid foodie and always brings back a cookbook from the school library to make some recipes at home.  My nine-year-old has a wonderful and developed palette and loves trying our new flavours and dishes, he is always open to trying new recipes and loves helping me prepare his favourite desserts.

Do you think more young Arab or Middle Eastern men are cooking now than they used to? If not do you think they should be?
I definitely think that there are more men Arab and Middle Eastern men cooking. I grew up watching my grandfather, father and uncles helping out their partners in the kitchen or with meal preparations. I think cooking is actually a very fulfilling and therapeutic process and nothing is more humbling than knowing that your loved ones have enjoyed a meal that you have made.

Omar Ali Talab likes to eat. End of discussion.

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