Dubai: She was the outgoing and stubborn one of the four Emirati sisters while growing up. Speaking to the Food by Gulf News team, Nazek Al Sabbagh said: “If I set my mind on something, I made sure to get it done.”
Age hasn’t changed her go-to attitude, and perhaps became the reason that her elder sister Zohoor Al Sabbagh and she made it their business to preserve Emirati recipes and bring them to the world. Quite literally.
Growing up in Old Dubai, Deira in the 1960s, little did the sisters know that they would one day become the pioneers of preserving traditional Emirati recipes and bringing it to the world.
“Back then, food was cooked traditionally at home and consisted mostly of fish-based dishes,” said Nazek.
Deira falls in the coastal area of Dubai, where fishing and pearl diving were the main occupations and fish was readily available. Even if there was no fresh catch, mothers and grandmothers would use fermented and salted fish. That’s how the culture of fish preservation and eating began in the community.
She grew up to become a civil engineer and worked with Dubai Municipality, whereas Zohoor went on to earn a Master of Philosophy (M.Phil.) in Nutrition Education from Liverpool University in the UK. But, the year 2008 was a turning point in Nazek’s career graph. She said: “Two years before my retirement age, I started planning my post-retirement project, while I was still young and energetic.”
It was around the same time that the two sisters felt that with the new generation of food enthusiasts and social media trends, traditional Emirati recipes were getting lost. This became Nazek’s concern and the starting point of the Emirati sister’s entrepreneurial journey. Two years later, in 2010, they started Malleh Gourmet.
“Our grandparents passed away and parents are getting old, so we thought it’s the right time to begin preserving age-old recipes and build them into food products that reflect UAE’s heritage. Something which even tourists can carry as a gift to their homeland and say, ‘this is authentic UAE food’.”
The years of planning
The initial years were spent travelling for research and development of food products that could be prepared, preserved and even passed on. Right from choosing the wood for their packing boxes to the font of the logo’s intricately carved on them, there was meticulous planning and creativity needed at every step.
Right from planning the product line, to its packaging, while focusing on hygiene and sustainability, it took the sisters two years to finally launch their brand.
One problem was the pricing. With many similar products in supermarkets at lower costs, reducing the price of their products would mean compromising on the authenticity and quality. But, Nazek and her sister were not ready for this.
“If you come 10 years later, the Mahyawa (tangy sauce made of fermented fish) recipe will be the same, if not, better. We will not compromise on the quality for cost. We analyse the product, why they are doing well and which ones require improvement.”
Where it all began
It all started with traditional Emirati spices and fish. Spice blend – Bzar, Sehnah Shahgrah (a condiment made from ground anchovies), Mehyawah (a preserved anchovy paste mixed with traditional spices), Malleh (a form of salted fish preserved and aged with gubab or tuna and kanaad or king fish), Jashei (sundried and salted fillet devoid of skin and head). An addition to their line of products - tomato and lime pickle was a labour of love launched after Covid-19. “Salted and packaged in the most hygienic manner the shelf life of our products are 6 months and all these are tested by laboratories,” said Nazek.
When they first went to buy the ingredients, mainly – fish, they were surprised. While buying Malleh was easy, getting Mehyawah was a challenge. Because a lot of ingredients affect its preparation. The first time, they bought half a ton of fish and thought it would last for a good three years. “Our shelf life is 6 months, so we had to prepare new batches every two to three months,” she said. Overcoming this challenge took practice and patience over the years.
“Our products don’t have the fishy smell,” said Nazek. This is because the time and catch of fish is important. To ensure this, she has a team of men at the coast who work with precision to ensure that the fish is salted when caught fresh and during specific tidal fluctuations.
Pandemic didn’t stop growth
“There were less walk-in customers [during the pandemic] but we kept running. We had more shifts, since we cannot keep employees masked 12 hours. But we had more online delivery orders.”
From Emirati families to international hotel chains and travellers, Malleh Gourmet’s products have a wide reach. Hotels usually don’t buy these products and spices in bulk, “They will buy for a particular week, for example if it’s the National day or a local festival because they there are storage issues”, said Nazek.
Growing slowly and steadily, Malleh Gourmet’s journey has been a long one. Nazek wishes to see young people try out ‘creative cooking’ with same ingredients - this is the challenge to survive and the need if they have to preserve authentic Emirati food in the future. “They have to keep on creating new recipes with our ingredients….”
Watch Nazek Alsabbagh's quick and easy breakfast recipe using mehyawah. A breakfast common in many Emirati homes.