There’s no doubt COVID-19 has brought about shifts in our relationship with food. From stress baking or multiple-day food projects to Netflix and ramen, cooking was suddenly occupying prime spot in the lives of the housebound. Yet for every perfect slice of banana or sourdough bread, there’s a blackened pot or charred slice of pizza lying in an oven somewhere.
Who said reheating was easy?
Even something as simple as reheating took an undesirable turn for some. After more than two months of cooking and washing up and doing the same over and over, Dubai resident Hamza Ben finally decided to get some popcorn delivered in from Vox Cinemas. When it arrived, it wasn’t as warm as what the 32-year-old and his wife were used to eating when at the movies, so he put the pack in the oven for five minutes. “Way too long,” Hamza said.
The result was a house full of smoke, a deafening fire alarm, and building security at his door – along with a packet full of charred black popcorn. “What should have been a very small task became a big deal,” Hamza said.
The smoke cleared after a few minutes of keeping windows open and switching on the exhaust fan and air purifier. After convincing the security guard that everything was okay, Hamza’s wife Rano tried to salvage a few pieces of the popcorn – “we could eat about 10 pieces” Hamza laughs. “But we soon remembered the link between burnt food and cancer, and stopped.”
Cooking was completely new to Hamza, started only once the pandemic did and he spent more time indoors. Cutting fingers, burning stuff and ruining entire dishes have been frequent affairs since then. “I once made a chocolate cake by erroneously adding 1 cup of salt instead of 1 tsp; my cake looked so beautiful compared to my wife’s – the only difference being that her cake you could actually eat.”
Hamza’s wife is Kazakh, and often makes Russian manti and pelmeni (both are types of dumpling); as for himself, the closest he’s gotten to deliciousness is pasta and eggs. Now, he laughs that his wife and he have ongoing fights as she wants to cook at home while he prefer deliveries just so he doesn’t end up with anything charred.
Just like Hamza, 29-year-old Dubai resident Fasil Mohamed Naser picked up a ladle for the first time during the quarantine last year. He’d always been the kind to rather go hungry than have to cook something. Growing up in the UAE, his dad would cook for him; after his marriage a few years back he was fully dependent on his wife for meals. But his wife flew to India in February, 2020, for the birth of their baby. Fasil was supposed to go in April of the same year, but then the international lockdown started.
The civil engineer then had a new job put on hold, and for the next few months stayed in a two-bed flat all alone. He first ventured into the kitchen with his wife on video call from India, giving him step-by-step directions on how to make everything from tea and dosa to chilli chicken.
This continued from the hospital bed. “She was helping me cook a day before giving birth,” Fasil said. “I couldn’t even identify spices before the pandemic started, and here I was making elaborate biryanis. It was simply asking for trouble.”
Trouble did arrive when he first set about making a chicken curry, and instead of leaving the heat on for five more minutes as his wife had instructed, he left it on for 25. “I had a completely blackened curry with me. The water got absorbed, there was no gravy, it was like fried chicken, but burnt. I didn’t tell my wife about it.”
It didn’t end there. He almost had an explosion in his kitchen when he tried forcing open the pressure cooker while making rice. “My wife was shocked; both by what I’d done and the fact that I’d done that even after four months of cooking experience.” The next day, he ended up with burn marks on both his hands after adding oil to a frying pan with some water in it.
Even seasoned cooks weren’t spared as they found themselves with more time on their hands, even trying the trends quarantine threw up. Saudi Arabia resident Jamila Sumra, 53, got on board the sourdough bread train, despite being aware of how laborious a process it was. “The starter needs a week,” Jamila said. “But I’d grown up in San Francisco; and San Fran sourdough is famous, and I always wanted to make it.”
So one day deep into the pandemic, Jamila made starters in 10 different jars, hoping one would work out. “Things like flours and tap or bottled water make a difference, so soon there were so many types of starters growing around the home - my poor husband didn’t know what was going on. I also read about placing starters in different temperatures around the house, so I’d put them outside, then bring them inside.”
When the day finally arrived, Jamila was very excited. “They say you do a float test by taking a tablespoon and putting it in water - I did a dance in the kitchen because my starter floated! Then it was on to the flour… sourdough is super sticky and not like roti, so the whole kitchen had sticky dough everywhere like a kindergarten experiment… my hands and hair were covered with it.
“The whole process takes two days, so I kept it to rise - you have to let it rise 16 hours in the fridge. I followed instructions to the T, which I usually don’t do.”
But even that didn’t help. “They came out like chapatis. I was so disappointed - they were flat.”
If the quarantine taught me one thing, it was how to be patient. And about learning curves during the cooking process.
Jamila is a photographer, so still managed to take photos of her sourdough bread from interesting angles so it looked like a success to everyone she sent pictures to. She also didn’t give up. “I made it a few times after and it was fine. If the quarantine taught me one thing, it was how to be patient. And about learning curves during the cooking process.”
Charred toast and creative pizza endeavours
Even something as simple as toast has been throwing people off. Rippen Kaur, 35, a Dubai resident, managed to burn an omelette, bread and butter all in the same day. “I added butter to the pan and left it on for too long so it burnt; I then added the eggs in and they promptly burned too. My toaster was on too high a setting and so my bread ended up burnt soon after. I had resumed cooking during the quarantine after a gap of two years due to a hectic job that allowed me no time, so I wasn’t used to cooking anything.”
After the omelette debacle, she tried her hand at poached eggs – the results were similar. “The water heated up too much and when I added the egg it dissolved.”
I lost weight after I started eating at home, so now I have takeouts only once a week. It’s been a lot of trials and errors and frustration.
She tried buckwheat daliya soon after, but burnt it too. Still, Rippen is determined to continue cooking. “I lost weight after I started eating at home, so now I have takeouts only once a week. It’s been a lot of trials and errors and frustration."
Some residents have had no choice but to get creative in the kitchen. When movement in Dubai’s Al Ras area was completely restricted for a few weeks of disinfection, 36-year-old housewife Pooja Dadlani didn’t have any way to satiate her kids’ cravings for pizza as deliveries weren’t allowed in. So she decided to bake it from scratch. “I usually cook regular Indian food, daal, rice, rajma, vegetable and chicken curries, so Italian was completely new to me.”
After much difficulty in procuring all the ingredients - an adventure that involved discovery of a new grocery store around the corner and spending over Dh100 - the family trooped in excitedly for pizza night. “My children added a whole lot of toppings, and we baked it and it came out looking so beautiful - but it tasted exactly like breadsticks. My little girl’s tooth that had been shaky came off completely as she ate it.”
Pooja’s daughter is now too scared to eat pizza and begs her mother not to make any at home. “As soon as the restrictions were eased, the first thing we did was order in pizza. So, never again am I trying it,” said Pooja.
Homemade coffee buns
Another Dubai resident trying her hand at an entire new cuisine – and failing miserably – was 32-year-old Maryam Abdullah. A teacher, Maryam finally had the time for culinary pursuits when schools closed. She immediately set about trying to recreate her favourite coffee buns. “And I quickly learnt that quality cooking requires quality time and practice. Successful coffee buns must use some sort of secret ingredient,” she said. “Following online tutorials didn’t work. It was too sticky, maybe because I poured more sugar syrup on top and added a lot of butter for extra taste. I wasted time and money for something I couldn’t eat more than a bite of.”
Just like Maryam, when flight attendant Ana De Freitas, 29, found her job impacted by the pandemic, she suddenly had a lot of time to embrace baking bread. She ended up with no eatable bread, and with a scar on her hand. “I don’t know what went wrong,” she said.
Ana didn’t decide on bread to follow the trend, and was surprised when she saw a lot of people make it on social media. “I’m Portuguese, so eat fresh baked bread every day. In Abu Dhabi, I chose to not leave the house even before the pandemic restrictions, so I had no way to get bread. So I rolled up my sleeves and entered the kitchen.”
I’m Portuguese, so eat fresh baked bread every day. In Abu Dhabi, I chose to not leave the house even before the pandemic restrictions, so I had no way to get bread. So I rolled up my sleeves and entered the kitchen. The bread wouldn’t rise and came out hard as a rock. Plus, I burnt myself trying to take it out of the oven – I now have a souvenir scar from the attempt. I tried to salvage the bread by putting some butter on it but it was a disaster and I had to throw it out.
The results weren’t as palatable as the idea was. “It wouldn’t rise and came out hard as a rock. Plus, I burnt myself trying to take it out of the oven – I now have a souvenir scar from the attempt. I tried to salvage the bread by putting some butter on it but it was a disaster and I had to throw it out.”
Embracing the chaos… or not
Sharjah resident Fatima Suhail has been cooking for five years, but after her family started eating at home more during the pandemic, she found she was prone to various cooking disasters. “I lost my mum at a very young age, when I was three, and it was my dad who cooked for us for the next 24 years. Four years back, he was diagnosed with cancer, and I had to take on the responsibility of cooking.”
But the 31-year-old went from making omelettes for lunch or dinner to elaborate Pakistani dishes, such as biryani or pulao, during the quarantine. When she set about making daal one night, she remembered her dad had always put a few tablespoons of salt in, and she did the same, not realising she was cooking a much smaller quantity. “My two siblings spat it out. They were starving, it had taken me around three hours to make that salty soup, and we ended up waiting for food to be delivered.”
The next day, she fried some Thai green curry paste for too long, in the belief that would make the curry more fragrant: “It tasted like medicine. So I googled it and it said you must add sugar or salt to adjust the bitterness, so in went enough sugar to give anyone diabetes. My family’s wrath was waiting for me. We had to throw out the entire pot.
“It’s been a whole lot of chaos over the months – I’m not sure I’m ready to embrace it
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