Fatima bint Mohammed on her quest to keep Emirati cuisine alive

We meet an Emirati who has made it her life’s work to preserve regional dishes and, in so doing, help to keep modern families together.

Emirati men eat food together during the Liwa International Festival near. Christopher Pike / The National
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Sometimes the most important discussions take place over a shared meal.

For as long as she can remember, Fatima bint Mohammed has had a passion for cooking Arab food. For the Emirati, preparing a meal means bringing families together. Her kitchen, as she puts in, is her kingdom.

“It’s the place where I enjoy spending a good time,” she says.

In her kitchen in Khalifa City, Mrs Mohammed remembers how her culinary journey began.

“I got married at the age of 17,” she says. “I had to cook for my husband.” In those days, in the 1980s, women were expected to cook and do all the household chores. The 17-year-old was on a mission to master her cooking skills in Khaleeji and Emirati food, but she had another challenge to overcome.

“I was disappointed at the lack of sources available,” she says.

“Back in the 80s, the internet was unheard of, so I couldn’t do my own research,” she says. It was during this time she thought of doing something to protect local dishes from dying out.

“When I visited family or friends, I would seize the opportunity to get their basket of recipes from all the dishes available on the table,” she says. She would go home and write down the ingredients in her notebook. Having a wide circle of friends from countries such as Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iraq added further to her stockpile of recipes.

“My mother and grandmother were my primary references. They knew a great deal about local food items.”

Soon, she began to cook the newly learnt recipes from the comfort of her home and took photos of them and recorded them in her notebook.

After a while, people began to borrow recipes from her and try them for themselves.

“I always had people asking me about Emirati and Khaleeji dishes, so I thought, why not turn my ever-growing notes into a book?”

Now 50, Mrs Mohammed might not have a university degree, but her years of experience have won out over higher education.

“I took some computer courses that helped me greatly to communicate with others and share recipes and keep the tradition alive,” she says. “For healthy recipes, I also sought advice from doctors and did my own research.”

In 2004, she published her first book, entitled Easy Cook, which contains more than 200 recipes of Emirati food and was a hit among family and friends. Today, she has five books published about Arab food. Many people have thanked her for helping to preserve a fading food culture. Not only have her recipes helped local cooks, but they have also made their way on to expat dining tables. "When I published my second book, Easy Cook 2, some people requested an English version of it," she says.

“My main mission behind compiling all the recipes and archiving them was to first protect the history and second to help the future generation get acquainted with Arabic food,” she says.

Emirati students abroad have tried her recipes, she says. Usually students have little time to cook, so she put together some easy-meal suggestions. Mrs Mohammed is also targeting the young generation via social media. “I have opened an instagram account [@cooking.fatima] where I post pictures of Middle Eastern dishes and some background information about it, including health benefits,” she says.

About 30 years ago, she remembers, mealtimes brought the entire family together and long conversations took place. Grilled fish sprinkled with lemon was a popular dish in her household. “For lunch, for example, we would all eat from one plate without any cutlery on the mat. In our youth, eating out never crossed our mind,” she says.

When the practice of hiring domestic staff grew in the 90s, she says, it slowly began to fracture family norms. “Some wealthy people would bring Indian and Sri Lankan servants and they’d cook their style of food.”

Mrs Mohammed is proud of her books about local and Middle Eastern dishes. “Today, people have less time to eat together and our mealtimes last less than a few minutes,” she says.

Although modern life might have changed family norms and gatherings, Mrs Mohammed has a simple message for women.

“Don’t rely on servants. Try to enter the kitchen and cook food. Learn it for yourself, not for others,” she says.

Asmaa Al Hameli is a features writer at The National.