Alia Adi has a soft voice brimming with determination. The founder and CEO of basmaty.com, a portal that offers Middle Eastern recipes in Arabic, says a typical day begins with her waking up at 6.30am and checking her social media accounts before planning the hours ahead. These moments may be stuffed with recipe collection, shooting, production work or social media promotion but also they are infused with Adi’s love for food.
The name the Syrian chose for her platform, Basmaty, is a glimpse into the thought behind it. “In Arabic, basma means smile and basmaty means my smile. So the idea behind this [platform] was for me, food is something that you can put a smile on someone’s face [with], and it is something that really make your senses smile,” she says. And that’s what she’s passionate about.
The Swiss born and bred Adi says food is an old flame. “I discovered food with my mother as a kid and I’ve always loved being with her in the kitchen. So I got my passion of food from a really young age,” she says.
“From what I remember, she [Adi] always liked trying new stuff and new recipe[s]… she did also [attend] a dessert school in London for one year, so since then we have been enjoying very good meals,” says her older brother Omar.
However, the route to making her hobby her day job took a while. After university, Adi — the middle and only female sibling — moved to Syria where her older brother was handling the family business, an olive oil production company. There, she handled the marketing of their product through various channels, one of which was using the oil in various recipes.
“For four years I worked with my brother in the field. And I realised very quickly by searching for online content about recipes in Arabic [that] there was a gap in terms of what was available online. So the idea of launching my own platform emerged at that time. The Middle East has such a strong food culture, and I [wondered], ‘How come there are not more platforms that are providing content in Arabic?’ And I decided to launch Basmaty... to target the Arab world,” Adi says.
The idea of Basmaty proved an opportune investment. She launched the website in 2011 in July and hired a team, including a chef, and started producing videos — she says it made sense financially too as the costs incurred to hire qualified people in Syria were much lower than they would have been anywhere else in the Middle East.
The ensuing civil war however made things difficult. Adi had to relocate the next year and between moving to Dubai, where her target audience is and Europe — her parents moved back to Switzerland — she found herself torn. What made things worse was the fact that others in her team would find themselves similarly untethered soon.
“So I came to Dubai for a little bit and then I went to London. I was still managing my team [in Syria] from here and from London. And I was hesitating between going back to Europe or establishing my company here, which was a big step for me because the cost involved was much more than when I was in Syria. So I had to make a decision. So for two years, I was still managing my team online,” she says.
Then, when her team left the country, she decided to go it alone. She learnt slapdash ways to put her videos together, to post and promote the segments.
But seeing her platform doing well on YouTube — “my platform quickly grew to generating a million views on YouTube” — she didn’t want to give it up. “I just told myself you have to teach yourself these things you know and keep going.”
“I moved to London as I have [my team] at YouTube in London, and I thought let’s give it a shot… So I went for a year, got a lot of training from YouTube, a lot of support from them and eventually, after one year, if I wanted to take my business to the next level… I really need to raise funds and [being] in London isn’t really a possibility for me because my market is here.”
She returned to Dubai and established her company through a training programme and entrepreneur incubator called In5.
However, there were hiccups. First, with funding and then with the technical promotion of her website. This is where Ayman Al Barbary came in. Al Barbary, who worked as a website developer in Syria and when he came to Dubai nine years ago went into digital marketing too, explained the importance of subtle tweaks when trying to garner online hits. “I was introduced to Alia and Basmaty almost three years ago. And actually Alia approached me at the time to take care of the marketing of the website, where she actually struggled to get too much traction and traffic from the market and through digital channels such as search engines, through social media and all that.”
After doing an analysis, Al Barbary found “she’s missing a lot of opportunities… we did quick fixes for the website and the traffic spiked: I think we have almost double the traffic in a few months. And that all came organic from Google.”
Going through the ups and downs of starting a business, Adi felt a need to evolve her business into a platform. “[I] actually evolved it into a network that is involved in identifying and promoting, and assisting food talent in the region,” she explains, “So basically, through my collaboration with YouTube I met a lot of content creators and I identified those who are consistent with what they are doing and the struggles they have — and a lot of them are women; about 90 per cent. And I’m helping them to produce, to strategise their content, to sell and reach and monetise their content. So that’s the direction I’m going in with my platform.”
Adi’s steely determination becomes apparent when she talks of Syria and wanting to do something for her country. “Everyone I know from Syria wants to go back to Syria, including me. I’m thinking how can I later on be an asset for my country as well. And every Syrian I know thinks about what they can do to rebuild the country. As soon as I see there’s some sort of stability I want to reopen production in Syria.”
Until then Adi’s focused on dishing up smiles, one recipe at a time.
Adi also gave us a few dishes that she feels are perfect for Ramadan.
Fattoush is a staple salad from the Levant region. It is made with fried Lebanese bread and lots of fresh vegetables.
Preparation: 10 minutes
Cooking: 1 minute
For the salad
4 small cucumbers, cut into 2cm cubes
3 small tomatoes, cut into 2cm cubes
3 tbsp sliced black olives
½ bundle of watercress
1 small onion, sliced
10 fresh mint leaves
½ romaine lettuce, shredded
2 small Lebanese flat bread, cut into small pieces
Pomegranate molasses, for garnish
For the dressing
3 garlic cloves, crushed
8 tbsp apple vinegar
5 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp sumac
Salt to taste
Deep-fry the bread pieces in vegetable oil, drain over kitchen paper and set aside.
In a large bowl, combine the lettuce, cucumber, tomato, watercress and mint leaves.
In a separate bowl whisk together the garlic, vinegar, olive oil, sumac and salt then pour the dressing over the salad. Toss gently to combine.
Sprinkle the fried bread on top then arrange the olives, and onions on the side of the serving dish.
Finally drizzle a little pomegranate molasses over for garnish.