The first rule of a cookbook club in Dubai is there are no rules. Not around conversation, anyway. Members can share everything, from culinary hacks to life stories.
At the Cookbook Circle's monthly gathering, recipes are traded in the form of a decadent potluck dinner. Members bring nearly finished dishes, each following the recipes from a selected book, to the hostess’s home and finish cooking together.
“We have celebrated with each other, but we've also cried and mourned with each other,” says Zahra Abdalla, author of Cooking with Zahra and one of Cookbook Circle’s oldest members.
The club was founded more than five years ago by Dina Yazbak, a food consultant and mum of three, when she realised her cookbook collection was becoming extensive and she needed an outlet with a purpose.
So she banded together a group of women, including Abdalla, plus Dalia Doghmosh Soubra, Rasha Itani, Marguerite Kiwan, Zeina El Zein, Yasmine Idriss Tannir and Merale Tourbah Elrabbat. Some of them already knew each other, and others were new to the crew, but each possessed an unbridled joy for cooking, cookbook collecting, eating and entertaining.
Most of the members are accomplished cooks, some with successful careers in food. In all these years, the format has not strayed from its original purpose. “While the purpose was simply to cook, it has now evolved as I wanted it to, with all of us coming together and the food becoming almost secondary,” says Yazbak.
Enthusiasts will concur that a kitchen is sacred territory for a cook. But for members of Cookbook Circle, it is the breaking of these very boundaries that binds them.
“We get our pots with us and finish cooking together. Then, we sit at the table with the food we have made for the first time and experience it collectively for the first time,” says Idriss Tannir, who is the creator of the Petites Choses blog and Instagram account where she shares recipes of her bakes.
Club members are diligent about meeting monthly, no matter what. Each takes turns to host and the hostess selects a new cookbook, sharing a number of recipes that follow the rhythm of standard three-course menus. Members opt for dishes they’d like to try in that format and a date for dinner is set.
Much like a well-loved recipe, the founding format of the club has been cemented after much trial and error. “At the beginning, we were a lot more lenient with following the recipe. If we felt like it was missing something, we would add it,” says Idriss Tannir.
Eventually, they decided the recipe must be followed exactly as it is written, for authenticity’s sake. This has led to many happy discoveries. “[Chef Yotam] Ottolenghi’s sumac-roast strawberries with strained yoghurt cream,” the group says in unison when asked for a firm favourite.
Members can now gauge what to indulge in and what to avoid. Some cookbooks, especially with famous names attached, have been let-downs, they say. Others, however, have worked their way into their daily repertoire, delighting and surprising this group of seasoned cooks.
“There are some recipes I would never think to try,” says Yazbak, adding sometimes the simplest recipes are a test of finesse and technique. She is admittedly the “food nerd” of the group, going to great lengths to track down authentic vendors for ingredients, as well as calling chefs who have written cookbooks for clarification. “There was one ingredient that didn’t show up at all in a recipe,” she says with a laugh.
The group has also cooked from a book written by one of their own. “It was the most terrifying experience,” says Abdalla, of the Cooking with Zahra session.
“It was a beautiful experience,” Idriss Tannir contends.
While the Cookbook Circle initially featured occasional appearances by husbands, partners and friends, they quickly reverted to the original format.
“Over the last five years, this has become a very safe space,” says Abdalla, “and that’s why I love this group so much.”