Photo essay: The Lebanese woman giving Dubai a taste of Mexico

Salam El Baba spent a month and a half in the Central American country where she learnt how to prepare birria tacos

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Salam El Baba took a risk when she quit her corporate job to focus instead on making tacos.

"I realised how miserable my corporate life made me, and my immediate go-to was food," she tells The National.

After making the tough decision to leave her job, she then decided to travel to Mexico, with the intention of eating her way through the country.

"I went for a month and a half. It started with me walking and stopping at every interesting stall, especially when I saw a line," she says. "So the first 10 days was me walking around Mexico City and picking up everything."

Her parents, originally from Lebanon, left Tripoli during the civil war and moved to Ghana where El Baba spent her first 15 years. She says the experience shaped her to become who she is today and that living as an expat was something she loved, which is why she ended up in Dubai.

Her relationship with food comes from the memories they evoke, such as the happy times cooking with her family when she was a child.

"I remember making mushroom omelette with my older brother in the kitchen. I was eight, maybe nine. And I remember how happy that made me," she says.

"Then I remember making food with my grandma during the summer. She went and bought all the ingredients I wanted. Later on it evolved into hosting friends. I was making food, but it never occurred to me that there's a difference between home cooked and an actual professional."

These days she has continued with her passion by making birria tacos for others. During her trip to Mexico, she met people in Guadalajara and learnt how to specifically make the dish from a chef she met in a food market. The chef invited El Baba into her home where she stayed for a week learning how to create authentic birria tacos before returning to Dubai.

"A birria taco, traditionally, is all the leftovers of goat and bones that you had in your kitchen. All the pieces would go into a pot ... Eventually, it became a broth of beef – if not beef, goat – and they still make it with goats in Mexico," she says.

"We make it with lamb and beef just because of personal preference. A slow cook, heavily seasoned broth of beef and lamb. It is slow-cooked for seven or eight hours. The meat then eventually becomes super tender and goes into our tacos."

Today, she runs Birria Tacos Dubai, which is open on Saturdays and Sunday in Dukkan El Baba in Barsha Heights. Sometimes she takes her tacos on the road to pop-ups around Dubai, including recently at Alserkal Avenue.

When it comes to describing why her tacos are so popular, El Baba says it is because of the way the meat is cooked and how simple it is to put together.

"The taco is a little cup, you have a bit of the broth with you, and you dip your taco into this super-flavourful sauce. Sometimes it's spicier than other times, depending on the mood. The meat is super tender. And the idea is that you should not need to add anything more."

Updated: August 11, 2023, 6:01 PM