For Saud Al Matrooshi, it all started one morning when he was a little boy. As he walked into the kitchen, the centre of his household, the distinctive, wholesome aroma of freshly baked bread wafted through. A shakshouka was bubbling away in the background. Saud’s father Mohammed Al Matrooshi, his idol, was at the helm of it all. From his very frequent travels, he'd often bring back spices from his trips for Saud - new, exotic ones that Saud had never heard of or smelt before, fragrant ones that were now going into the shakshouka. And just like that, in the midst of the enticing smells and sounds, Saud decided he was going to become a chef.
Over the years, what started as a hobby, just cooking for friends and family - who were incidentally very generous with their compliments – was soon a passion and a profession for the 34-year-old chef.
But it wasn’t a passion that was easy to hone. Al Matrooshi hit many a stumbling block; he recalls how anyone he asked for advice on where to start on the journey to donning a chef’s toque, they would say: “But you don’t want to be a chef! Our culture, our society was not ready for this job then, because they didn’t understand the nature of it. Almost everyone was against it. Which means I felt completely lost.”
After graduating from school in the UAE, he went into the communications and media field, and graduated but was still very lost. He worked as a marketing manager at a Dubai property that owned a few hotels, where he’d escape to the kitchen any chance he got: “Before meetings they always knew where to look for me.”
His appetite for a different career didn’t go unnoticed. “And one day, a very nice French chef said – why don’t we train you. And the rest as they say is history.”
He started from scratch as a steward, and for about four to six months learnt about detergents to use for sanitising in a kitchen: “What kinds are the best to use, the amounts, the water temperature. Slowly, I worked up to a higher rank. I worked in other restaurants, travelled abroad, took a few courses, came back with all that knowledge, and wanted to do something.” To do that “something”, he joined a well-known group as restaurant brand manager, and after a few successful restaurant openings, also took on another role of procurement manager in the Food and Beverage field, all of which helped him broaden his knowledge of the culinary world.
But throughout it all, he kept missing the chef’s jacket. Which means when he got a call from Emirates Flight Catering (EFC) in 2018, he didn’t hesitate twice. “And here I am now, living my dream,” he said.
The journey to the skies
In charge of the Middle East sector and menu development for the region’s largest carrier, nothing prepared Al Matrooshi for the huge production environment at Emirates Flight Catering. While he was used to a certain number of kilos of forecasting and ordering, at the world’s biggest flight catering kitchen the numbers changed – to about 225,000 meals a day. “An average order of just chicken was 22 tons per day,” Al Matrooshi said. “Adapting to such a busy environment was nothing short of a challenge - high standards have to be provided to meet high standards of some well-travelled audience.”
Despite having cooked for royalty and at government summits, it was a whole different ballgame at EFC, due to the journey of the food - dishes weren’t just travelling a few feet from kitchen to table. “It’s an entirely different method - not every food item will travel well. If I cook French fries and serve it on a flight, after it’s been blast chilled and reheated, it will have lost its crispness, its very essence.”
Catering to countless cultures
Introducing Emirati dishes on flights in an attempt to present the cuisine to both old and new audiences was important to Saud. He says while Emirati cuisine has been based on the desert environment in the UAE, it lends itself to some remarkable flavours. “We have a very beautiful, humble cuisine that’s not well known worldwide, and I would like people to try it and know it. You have herbs, protein from the desert or protein from the sea. It has influences from around the region – India, the Levant. The main influences are of course from Indian cuisine because of the spices we used to get from there. Also the cooking technique – we have dishes similar to the biryani and those similar to the curry, like saloona. But our versions are way milder than Indian ones. The techniques in terms of stir-frying, fried onions, garlic paste, protein, then coating protein with the spices are the same.”
The UAE’s beginnings define its culinary heritage
He says various beginnings have defined the cuisine. “People back then lived a very hard life and wanted to preserve these ingredients; all they could do was pickle or salt fish, or dehydrate, such as powdered yogurt, so they could carry it while travelling; they’d hydrate it again and drink it. Now, as Arabs we’re known for larger portions and generosity - but not a smaller, casual or fine dining projection of the dishes.”
So, Chef Al Matrooshi set about achieving just that, introducing Emirati dishes on flights for a two-in-one outcome: First, for the Arab traveller to find their cuisine, and the second, for a new audience to discover it. So the machboos, [a spiced chicken and rice pilaf], was introduced on both a London flight and a Munich one. “We have seasonal cycles, and we put the unique flavours of the machboos on the summer cycle, the popular one, when a lot of Arabs travel abroad, and they loved it.”
Another Emirati dish that found popularity on flights was the fish tahta - fish deep-fried with Emirati spices, a little curry, and rice added on top, similar to biryani. “It was very well received, especially as people didn’t expect to see it. We had some great feedback.” So was the bzar chicken - chicken made in a fragrant spice blend, authentically Emirati.
A fusion route
But for a wider audience, Al Matrooshi says the first step was going down a fusion route - in essence building bridges between cuisines. “Anyone new to Emirati cuisine will try it because it has been merged with another more familiar one. And that will then inspire them to try the traditional version, paving the way for the cuisine as a whole,” he said. “Modern flavours, playing around with different kind of fruits and vegetables… the ingredients are still local, the twist is only in the technique.”
An example of such a twist is the ouzi.
“Traditionally, we cook a whole lamb – if we want smaller portions, we cook the shoulder or leg, and if we want it smaller, we choose a premium cut like short rib - something that has a bone, because the identity of this dish is to have the bone with meat. In my fusion version, I’ve done away with the bone and used boneless cubes. And I’ve stir-fried it. But I’ve still stuck to traditions… such as using dates at the end as a coating.”
The two key ingredients
Chef Al Matrooshi lists two elements to Emirati food - the Emirati spice mix and Emirati ghee or clarified butter. While the spice mix bzar is available everywhere, the ghee is found in bigger supermarkets. “What makes the ghee special is a secret ingredient – dates,” Saud said. “It’s purified butter that comes from animal fat, with certain spices added to it. Dates are added to preserve the moisture inside the ghee.
“As for the bzar, if we go way back, all these spices are from India. It’s a mix of garam masala, tandoor masala and biryani masala - each one is very different based on the balance of the spices. Bzar is one of the many spice mixes around the world like Chinese five-spice, and every Emirati household has it. There are four kinds – chicken, meat, fish and a general bzar. All you need to do is toss whole spices in a pan, not for a long time, just until the oils come out. Then you blend it into a powder.”
The future looks vegan
Al Matrooshi aims to continue reinventing dishes, techniques of cooking, and presentation. “Arabic food with a Western twist. I have no limits when it comes to food, no favourite places, I keep experimenting. I eat everywhere – a shawarma joint one night, a fine dining one the next, a hidden gem I was told about.”
He’s also now working on menu around Arabic vegan food – he’s created numerous dishes that have an Arabic identity but are vegan. “There are now lots of vegetarian and vegan demands - but customers want it in Arabic cuisine. In the Arab world protein is key, but not so for the new generation. It’s quite a challenge to find ways to take out the protein. I did a fasulia (lamb and bean stew) recently, minus the lamb - mixed beans cooked slowly in a stew with Arabic spices, served with dill rice. The innovation continues.”
Read on for easy recipes from Saud to cook up an Emirati feast at home, plus a recipe to make the spice mix Emirati bzar.
Stir-fried style Emirati Ouzi/Ghuzi
This very festive dish is cooked at Eid gatherings and weddings. The key to its flavour is the balance between saffron in rose water and the cardamom powder, says Saud. Flavouring the meat is crucial.
4 tbsp cooking oil
½kg beef tenderloin cubes
2 tbsp Emirati bzar spice
30ml date molasses
½ cup fried onion
3 tsp salt
¼ cup of chopped coriander
½ cup yellow lentils
½ cup green lentils
½ cup red lentils
½ cup of green peas
1 tsp saffron diluted in 50ml rose water
1 tsp cardamom powder
1 cup of chopped onion
¼ cup of raisins
¼ cup cashew nuts
2 medium bowls cooked white rice
1 tbsp Emirati ghee
1. Coat your hot wok with the cooking oil and add your beef cubes, then add the bzar spice and half of the date molasses and stir for 5 minutes.
2. Take out the beef and add onion and stir for 2 minutes, then add coriander and all other ingredients and stir for a good 4 minutes. Add the rice and some ghee at the end. Serve warm.
Chicken saloona with wild rice
The key to a good saloona, which is stew-based, is a good chicken broth. “I use 70 per cent of the chicken for frying in the dish and 30 per cent for the broth so as to get more flavour,” Saud Al Matrooshi said. While the most common main ingredient is the chicken, different proteins such as fish and lamb can also be used.
2 tbsp Emirati ghee
2 chopped onions
4 chopped garlic cloves
½ cup chopped coriander
3 dry limes
2 tbsp Emirati Bzar spice
2 cup concentrated tomato sauce
2 tsp chicken stock powder
1kg chicken, cut into cubes
1 cup potato cubes
1 cup carrot cubes
1 cup marrow cubes
1 cup chopped tomato
4 tsp salt
4 cups of cooked wild rice
1. Place a pot on high heat and add ghee.
2. Saute the onion, garlic and coriander for 4 minutes then add the tomato sauce, chicken, dry lime, the spice, chicken stock powder and saute for 5 minutes.
3. Add all vegetables and water. Let it simmer for 15 minutes, then add salt.
4. Serve the wild rice on the side.
Emirati spice mix (Bzar)
¼ cup black peppercorns
¼ cup cumin seeds
¼ cup coriander seeds
1 tbsp cloves
1 tbsp green cardamom pods
3 dried chillies
2 sticks cinnamon
1 whole nutmeg
1 tbsp ground turmeric
1. In a pan set on medium heat, toss all the spices except turmeric until fragrant (only about a minute, be careful not to overcook) then add into a spice grinder until finely ground. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the turmeric.
2. Store in an air-tight container for up to one year.
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