Nazek Al Sabbagh worked as a civil engineer in the Dubai Government most of her life, but her passion was preserving Emirati traditions.
Her passion was translated in 2010 into a boutique shop on Jumeirah Beach Road called Malleh Gourmet, which she set up with her sister Zohra. The shop sells traditional salted fish and other products.
The shop has since become famous and was featured in 2014 on the Travel Channel series Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, an American show that roams the world in search of local delicacies.
Ms Al Sabbagh is the brains behind the ideas, but her sister is the food specialist.
“My sister and I thought of Malleh Gourmet because we wanted to have traditional food and each time we went to go and get something from the market we didn’t see anything that was to our standards in terms of hygiene, quality and the taste,” said Ms Al Sabbagh, who also runs her other business, Zari O’ Breesam, a fashion shop specialising in traditional Emirati dresses.
“We also wanted our traditional food to be in international menus, continental menus.”
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Ms Sabbagh also wanted to bridge the gap between fast food and traditional Emirati dishes.
Ms Al Sabbagh did not expect the shop to be such a success, although she took the risk of self-financing her project. She had planned to make returns on investment in three years. But profits have been growing since at a steady 11 per cent a year.
“When we came up with the idea of Malleh, we thought we would do 200 kilograms of fish in the first year,” said Ms Al Sabbagh, who retired from her government job in 2012. “Surprisingly, in 2011 we reached a tonne and then we kept that standard.”
Ms Al Sabbagh wants to launch two more shops in the UAE in 2017 and is thinking about opening a restaurant, but she wants to study each project thoroughly before proceeding with it.
She has taken training courses in hospitality and restaurant management to prepare herself for her next ventures.
To come up with the recipes for Malleh, Ms Al Sabbagh and her sister went to the seniors in her family, the ladies who keep secrets for traditional dishes close to their hearts. She wanted to get the approval of Emirati women before starting off with her new venture.
“Our flavours are original because we did take the specimens to our senior ladies to taste and get their approval before we launched.
“It is difficult to please them,” she added.
The gourmet shop sells a variety of salted fish, which long ago travellers used to eat on their journeys because the delicacy was easy to carry. Housewives used to have buckets of the fish because it was easy to cook. Malleh has to be dried in the sun before it can be preserved in jars.
There is Malleh, salted kingfish or tuna, which is cooked in a biryani, stew and other dishes. Sehnah is ground dried anchovies with spices, which can be eaten with boiled rice.
Mehyawah is preserved anchovy paste that is mixed with salt and traditional spices, and eaten with bread.
The shop also makes Mehwayah cookies, which have sprinkles of mini-sardines. Jashei are tiny fish with pastry.
“Fifty years ago if you drove near the beach you would find Jashei being dried on the sand, but this has changed now,” says Ms Al Sabbagh. “Now it is dried mechanically.”
One of the challenges she faces is finding the right amounts of fish, which tend to be caught seasonally. Prices of fish went up in 2014, so she had to hike her own prices.
Another challenge is keeping customers happy and launching new products. About 70 per cent of her customers are Emiratis, but she also has foreigners and Arabian Gulf citizens.
She also sells to hotels and coffee shops. Foreign travellers come to the shop to send gifts home.
“Usually after Ramadan, during Eid days, a lot of customers come because during Ramadan they have been eating meat and chicken and in our tradition we will have Malleh,” says Ms Al Sabbagh.
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