Whether it's a time-tested stew, special-occasion cake or piping hot bowl of soup, the food of our childhood sparks nostalgia like nothing else. In light of UAE and UK Mother's Day this month, six foodies share their dishes and food memories they most associate with their mums.
Lily Hoa Nguyen, head chef and owner of Vietnamese Foodies in Dubai’s JLT, has lived and travelled all over the world, but says it was her childhood experiences and mum’s cooking that influenced her approach
"My mother raised four girls almost by herself. My father was a sailor and was away at sea for long periods of time, so her meals were practical and quick, but at the same time full of flavour. Vietnam is blessed with tropical weather, and where we lived in the south it was warm all year round, so our daily meals were full of greens. Mum would make wonderful crepes with a crispy batter and fresh shrimp filling, which we would dip in a savoury nuoc cham sauce. For a treat, she'd prepare juicy grilled duck sausages in aromatic betel leaves.
"We had a small farm away from the city, and she took us there every weekend. I spent my summers learning to tend to plants and animals, and it was on the farm that I discovered my passion for nurturing and experimenting with food. Even though I was only nine, I was responsible for cooking all the meals because everybody else was busy planting crops or taking care of the stock."
Gbemi Giwa, founder of West African restaurant Catfish, grew up in Nigeria, where she spent hours cooking and preparing food with her mother
“From my mum, I learnt the art of loving through food. Cooking at my house was often centred around my father’s enjoyment. ‘The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,’ mum would say, as she set his dinner tray down with the utmost precision and care. While I have my grievances towards this traditional way of thinking, I cherish the lessons learnt from all the time spent preparing dad’s food.
“The dish I associate most with my mum, though, is eba (pictured top left). It’s a staple side dish in many Yoruba homes and is made by mixing garri (cassava meal) with hot water until it becomes doughlike. Once, when I was about six, I was sick and my mum made it for me, and just me. I remember feeling so special. I’ve since learnt how to cook eba myself, but I’ll always defer to her when she makes it.”
Mo Abedin and his mother, Amena Rakkuson, are the creative force behind Sticky Rice, the home-grown Thai restaurant in Jumeirah Village Circle, Dubai. Abedin says he has his mother to thank for the joy he finds in food and cooking
“Mama is a chef, and we both share that same passion for food. It’s a huge part of our relationship; if we’re not cooking or eating, we’re talking about food. The funny thing is, growing up I used to be the pickiest eater in the world. If it wasn’t eggs, or a sandwich or burger, I wasn’t going anywhere near it. My mum realised this and decided to have me help her in the kitchen.
“She threw me in at the deep end and taught me how to make a full-on roast beef dinner: meat-handling, spice-rubbing, garlic and clove studding, string-tying and all. While the beef sat cooking in the oven, I became very curious; I watched her prepare everything else and eventually offered to help. Then dinner time came around, and I took pride in serving the food we’d made and also ate everything, too. It was the start of a lifelong passion.”
Judy Karim, a food blogger and recipe developer of Lebanese descent, says creating happy memories around meals and instilling a love of cooking in her daughter is extremely important
“My mother didn’t cook very often. Growing up, it was always my grandmother who used to cook for us. However, from time to time, my mother would prepare something delicious; my favourite treats were her strawberry tart and sable biscuits. For someone who never liked cooking, she would always ace both dishes. I still follow her recipes and make them exactly as she did – no twists or amendments – as I cherish the memory every bite brings.
“I plan on cooking with my daughter, especially on special occasions. She is almost two, and we already make ‘ice cream’ or fruit lollies together. I truly hope she will enjoy cooking and baking with me. I want her to grow up and remember how I let her lick the bowl from time to time, the sound of the blender when making her favourite juice and the excitement of waiting next to the oven as a cake bakes.”
Hattem Mattar might be the king of his smokehouse, but when his mother is in the kitchen, he says they both know who is in charge
“My mum is, to this day, the empress of the Egyptian kitchen. Nothing spoke of her majesty like molokhia, and we could never get enough. Normally this vegetable stew is made with chicken, but my mum made molokhia with everything. Dinner guests meant molokhia with turkey; Egyptian family coming over meant molokhia with rabbit. A special occasion meant my favourite, molokhia with duck.
“I learnt to cook the dish so I could eat it when I was at university. For four years, my mum’s molokhia ended up feeding me and my Egyptian friends who were also away from home studying. Today I still make it the same way at the Mattar Farm residence with my daughters. Happily, it is their favourite, as it was mine. I hope that in the future the recipe is passed on to their children and that the legacy stays alive and well.”
Luma Makhlouf, one half of the husband and wife duo behind pop-up taqueria concept Maiz Tacos, says she continues to be inspired by the food her mother makes, and her commitment to using fresh ingredients
“Food is a very important thing in our family. Even though we grew up in the US, our parents made sure we understood a lot about Palestinian culture, especially when it came to what we ate. In the few days before Eid, we would spend hours sitting around the dining room table making mama’s famous maamouls to serve to our guests when they come over. I remember the house being filled with the most delicious aromas, and it was hard to keep our little hands out of the maamoul jars.
“My mum [pictured far left] is simply the best cook I know – you can taste the love in her food. Her signature recipes are all the Palestinian dishes that she cooked for us from scratch when we were growing up, and I wouldn’t change a thing in them – they are perfect as they are. Because she doesn’t live nearby, these are the dishes I yearn for the most. I cook them over and over again, exactly as she tells me and I try to recreate her magical touch.”
Three recipes to try
Mixed berry tart by food blogger Judy Karim’s mother
Serves 6 to 8
Ingredients for the crust
3 cups flour
½ cup granulated sugar
200g butter, softened
1 egg yolk
¼ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp liquid strawberry flavouring
Ingredients for the filling
2 cups milk
½ cup icing sugar
2 tbsp flour
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1 tsp liquid strawberry flavouring
1 tbsp butter
1 x 170g can of cream or Ashta
600g mixed berries of your choice
Preheat the oven to 200ºC Blend all ingredients for the crust together to form a dough. Transfer the dough to a rectangular tart pan with a removable bottom. Press the dough evenly into the base and sides of the pan. With a fork, prick the crust all over and bake for 25 minutes until golden. Leave to cool once done. In a pan set over medium heat, combine the milk, icing sugar, flour, egg, vanilla extract, flavoring and butter until you get a custard-like filling. Remove from the heat and leave to cool. Add the Ashta or cream and mix together. Pour into the prepared crust. Decorate with the mixed berries.
Sticky Rice restaurant owners Mo Abedin and his mother Amena Rakkuson’s pumpkin sago pudding, which Abedin says is super simple, super-quick and can be eaten hot or cold
Serves 3 to 4
2 cups coconut milk
1 cup sago
½ tsp cinnamon powder (optional)
Steam the pumpkin until fully cooked through. Discard the skin and put the flesh in a bowl. Mash until smooth. Pour the coconut milk into a saucepan set over a medium heat and bring to a simmer. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Pour in the sago and continue to simmer until the sago is cooked and the pudding has thickened. Add the mashed pumpkin and the cinnamon (if using). Mix well and serve.
Grilled duck sausages in betel leaves by Lily Hoa Nguyen of Vietnamese Foodies restaurant, inspired by the recipe her mum made as a treat
Serves 3 to 4
80g duck breast, minced
10ml oyster sauce
5g lemongrass, finely chopped
2ml sesame oil
5g red onion, finely chopped
2g crushed black pepper
10ml plum sauce
10 betel leaves
Sesame seeds, to serve
Mix the minced duck, oyster sauce, lemongrass, salt, sesame oil, red onion, black pepper and sugar together in a large bowl. Leave to marinate for 20 minutes. Fill the betel leaves with minced duck mix, then roll up into sausage-shapes. Cook over charcoal or in a hot griddle pan for five minutes. Serve the betel leaves with the sesame seeds and plum sauce.