ABU DHABI // Ali Salem Edbowa liked almost everything about Slovakia except the food and its seemingly unending succession of stodgy stews and cabbage. So he did what many young travellers do when fed up and far from home - he called his mother. "I said I feel bad from fast food and fried food," he said. His mother gave him some recipes.
"I started to cook and I felt something in me. I see it when I cook, I'm happy. So what do I do? I cook and cook and cook." His love affair with food grew so much that on his return to the Emirates he bought a restaurant. But he did not tell his friends that in addition to being the owner, he also worked in the kitchen. Now aged 38, Mr Edbowa is a successful chef. He has had three cooking shows on television and the most recent, Rams al Suhoor, ran during Ramadan last year.
In 2007, he was named best Arabic chef by the Emirates International Salon Culinaire. Now he is convinced the time is ripe for Emirati cuisine to take its place on the world stage. "There is no restaurant serving local Emirati cuisine and no one knows about the local food," he said. Mr Edbowa has just taken up his post as the executive chef at Mezlai, a new restaurant in the Emirates Palace hotel, which opened in late June and bills itself as Emirati-owned and -operated.
The chef has big ambitions for the venue and Emirati food. "I want to put this kitchen on a par with all the kitchens in the world," he said. "This is the first local kitchen, no one knows about our food and we have so many things to do with the food, to play with it. We can mix European, Arab, Emirati food to create new food. "I hope in the future I shall have 100 Emirati restaurants throughout the world."
Mr Edbowa says there are around eight commonly known Emirati meals. However, the menu will offer 20 to 30 traditional dishes, as well as some 80 "fusion" options that put a cosmopolitan spin on local staples. Wheat remains an important ingredient in many Emirati dishes. For thousands of years it has been used to make gruel or ground into flour for bread and baked over coals or in the hot sand. The better-known dishes include harees, which is made from ground wheat and meat and cooked over low heat for 12 hours until the texture becomes creamy. It is usually served in a deep dish at weddings and during Ramadan.
Other choices include madrooba chicken, a mix of onion, garlic, coriander, dill, tomato, spinach and wheat served over cooked chicken, or hammour majboos, in which the fish is cooked with onions, dried lime, turmeric, cardamom and nutmeg and served over spiced rice. Some of the items on the menu are more surprising, such as camel steak slow-roasted in sea salt, cardamom and the natural jus of herbs and saffron sauce, deep-fried fish eggs and shark veloute, a soup with garlic, saffron and cream.
"Shark is a traditional food, the fusion is the soup," he said. "We call it disheet, it comes like a powder and we put it in the rice. We can do just two types, I think, a gravy or a stew." For some dishes, Mr Edbowa uses a blend of spices that he has created and refuses to disclose, on others, a herb that he found growing on the side of the road outside Emirates Palace. "I bring it here to roast with the lamb and fish," he said. "It's from the road, this one, called shekss, grows everywhere, but no one knows about it."
Many of the staff have an impeccable pedigree in Emirati cooking, having cut their culinary teeth in the kitchen at Sheikh Zayed's palace. Mohd Rafik was Sheikh Zayed's personal bread maker for 16 years, learning to make the 15 types of bread that will be offered by Mezlai. They include three of the most common types of rgag, an unleavened bread that has layers of egg, cheese or zaatar. Thottahil Noordan has also made the jump. "I went directly from Sheikh Zayed's palace to here," he said. "It's a great challenge, it's difficult, I get to create Emirati food, but we always have new dishes and new challenges."
While some have previous experience working with Emirati cuisine, Mr Edbowa says the chance to gain expertise in a relatively obscure form of cooking is a big selling point for staff. "You won't get this experience anywhere else. Believe me, there are many kitchens and many hotels, but there is no local food," he said. "I've worked in Emirates Tower, I've worked in Burj al Arab and in so many hotels, but I don't find myself. I'm local but I work in French cuisine - this is not mine. I work in Italian or Oriental or Lebanese, it's Arabic but not mine. "When I work here, it's my home." firstname.lastname@example.org
While Mezlai offers a daily iftar, a post-Ramadan night out for two could include: Cold mezze Calamari with cinnamon and green beans Kasif salad, hand-tossed lettuce with vegetables, white vinegar and dried Buiah fish Hot mezze Sardines, foie gras and gulf scallops, pan-fried with olive oil and honey Harees, crushed wheat boiled with lamb Main Courses Slow roasted shoulder of UAE raised lamb 'Medfoun' with herbs, hand blended spices, and natural jus Threed - Braised chicken or lamb with baby marrow, potatoes, tomato peppers and rgag bread Whole roasted baby lamb Dessert Aseeda Rosewater cooked with saffron, sugar, cardamom and butter Sago pearls simmered with sugar, saffron and cardamom