Recipe writer and food blogger Zahra Abdalla says her varied and peripatetic upbringing inspired her first book, Cooking with Zahra: A Culinary Journey of Traditional and Modern Middle Eastern Cuisine. Abdalla was born in the United Kingdom to a Sudanese father and Iranian mother; the family later moved to Canada, and she has also lived in Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Greece, before moving to Dubai.
“I was neither eastern nor western, and I was neither very traditional nor too modern,” she says. “My greatest blessing is that I was raised to be respectful of people from different backgrounds and walks of life. The recipes are a celebration of this value system, as well as culture and food from the East and the West.”
The book – which focuses primarily on Persian, Sudanese and Levant cooking – features a mix of dishes that have been handed down through the generations, as well as Abdalla’s own contemporary creations.
It’s clear that this was a passion project for Abdalla, who took an entirely hands-on approach to producing the book: she developed all the recipes herself and it was shot in her home by Dubai photographer Murrindie Frew. Consequently, a sense of quiet authenticity is felt throughout.
What Abdalla also does well is introduce a healthy, wholesome element to her cooking without allowing the tone of voice to veer towards the sanctimonious or judgemental. So while there are plenty of appealing vegan recipes – think roasted cauliflower and quinoa salad, and green lentil soup – you’ll also find more indulgent options, such as zaatar and cheese rolls, which can be baked or deep-fried; and mango kunafa cups that certainly don’t scrimp on the whipped cream.
Best for: Family cooks and keen entertainers, and anyone looking for healthy, nutritious Middle Eastern meals that will appeal to all ages.
Must-try recipes: Shishbarak (meat dumplings with a yoghurt-based stew); quinoa salad with roasted vegetables; and saffron chicken with freekeh.
Recipe: Saffron chicken with freekeh
“This is a wonderful, nutty and delicious fusion of two of my favourite traditional Iranian and Palestinian recipes,” writes the author. “As a child, my grandmother always made her favourite saffron chicken to accompany zereshk polo or baghali polo for lunch. My Palestinian-origin mother-in-law introduced me to freekeh, a healthy nutty grain that is typically high in protein and fibre, and is a great alternative to rice. This wonderful one-pot recipe has become a beloved household staple; be sure to top the dish generously with mixed nuts to give it an additional delicious layer of flavour.”
2 cups freekeh
8 chicken thighs
2 tbsp olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
1 cinnamon stick
2 cardamom pods
1 tsp minced ginger
1 tsp minced garlic
Pinch of ground saffron
1 tsp rose water
3 cups chicken stock
For the dry rub
1 tsp cinnamon powder
1 tsp seven-spice powder
1 tsp turmeric powder
½ tsp black pepper powder
2 tsp salt
For the garnish
1 cup mixed nuts
A handful of fresh parsley, roughly chopped
Soak the freekeh in water for one hour, drain and keep aside.
Prepare the dry rub by combing the cinnamon, seven-spice, turmeric and black pepper powders, as well as salt. Thoroughly wash and pat dry the chicken. Coat the bird with the dry rub and leave to rest.
In a large shallow cast-iron pot, sauté the onions, cinnamon stick and cardamom pods in some olive oil.
Fry until the onions turn translucent. Add the ginger, garlic and freekeh, and mix all ingredients together. Continue to stir until the freekeh is slightly fragrant and toasted.
Layer the chicken over the freekeh mixture. Add the saffron and rose water to the chicken stock and pour the liquid mixture over the freekeh and chicken. Bring to a boil, cover and leave to simmer on low heat for about 40 minutes or until the freekeh is fully cooked.
Once the grain is done, remove the pot off the heat, garnish with chopped parsley and toasted nuts, and serve with mint and cucumber yoghurt salad.