What’s in your fridge?
We all know there’s a wide range of high-end restaurants to enjoy in the UAE, but who doesn’t also love home cooking? Five Abu Dhabi residents who know their way around the kitchen tell us what food products they keep on hand and what dishes they delight in making for themselves and their loved ones. Photographs by Antonie Robertson
Mayes Wadi, 35, homemaker
Mayes Wadi, a vibrant and attractive housewife from Jordan, married into a food dynasty when she wed Hayati Ibsais at the age of 23. For more than 300 years the Ibsais family have been selling kunafa, gently frying the spun pastry soaked in sugar syrup , letting the soft, shredded cheese in the centre melt for grateful customers. In 1860, they set up one of the oldest speciality shops in the Old Quarter of the West Bank Palestinian town of Nablus. It is still open today.
When they were first introduced, Ibsais was keen to know if his intended bride could cook, and as soon as they were married she felt pressure to prove herself.
“We moved to London straight after the ceremony, with no honeymoon,” Wadi recalls. “My new husband went straight to work and I looked in the fridge to see what I could cook for him.” She found spinach and meat and, being used to cooking for her large family here in the UAE and Jordan, quickly had a huge stew simmering on the stove. Satisfied she had cooked enough for a few days, Wadi thought she could rest on her laurels and explore London the next day. However, on his return, Ibsais had other plans.
Grinning proudly, Wadi recalls how he exclaimed: “This is the first time my home smells of food!” She adds: “He kept eating, eating until he had finished everything!”
Food is an important focus in their family life, with Wadi passing along the family food traditions to her two children. Reem, a slim, pretty 10-year-old – who for her 11th birthday has requested the ubiquitous pre-teen diet of mini burgers and fries – is sometimes resistant. Reem was gratified to hear that her mother also hadn’t enjoyed eating makluba (a chicken, eggplant and rice dish) as a child but that she had been required to.
Wadi is triumphant, though: “But now I love it!”
Wadi’s football-mad so, Sulieman, 8, is loyal to his foodie roots and loves kunafa. However, just as his grandmother had done for his mother, Wadi prepares a fruit snack every day at 4pm and lovingly gives it to her children.
“It is important to be healthy, too,” she says with a smile.
On Mayes’s menu
FAVOURITE FANCY DISH Requab mahshia (lamb’s neck stew)
FAVOURITE EASY DISH Spaghetti Bolognese
FAVOURITE SNACK Freshly baked cake
FAVOURITE BREAKFAST Vegetable omelette
FAVOURITE LUNCH Arabic barbecue, with kofta
FAVOURITE DINNER Sushi and sashimi
SHOPS AT Carrefour but buys meat from Abela and Spinneys
SECRET INDULGENCE Pistachio cake. It tastes like ice cream from back home
CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT Kenwood mixer
ALWAYS RUNNING OUT OF Tomatoes and cucumbers. We have a salad of them every meal
ITEM MOST LIKELY TO TURN GREEN AND MOULDY Kiwi fruits
Moe Youssef, 28, financial analyst
Vera Wellman found herself the perfect husband.
“I do not cook at all,” says the 27-year-old Guatemalan preschool teacher. But Wellman has been wed for a year to Moe Youssef, who makes up for her lack of kitchen prowess.
The Palestinian-American is a self-taught cook and baker who, he says, makes “everything from scratch”. Curries are his speciality, but it’s the Guatemalan dish of ribeye steak and red beans and rice that especially endears him to his wife, and his Moroccan tagine “won my heart,” she says.
Youssef’s refrigerator is full of fruit, vegetables and staples, and a “mystery cheesecake topping” he can’t identify. How did he get to be so adept in the kitchen?
“I was on a budget and had to look out for myself” while working in Chicago a few years ago, he says. Now, he adds, “I always watch the Food Network,” and the Moroccan Bible cookery book, with is 128 inspirational recipes, is, well, his cooking bible.
Youssef and Wellman moved to the UAE after they wed, and he likes the array of foodstuffs here. He gets his spices at the plant souq, and also visits the fish market and the fruit and vegetable market, but mostly shops at LuLu and Carrefour. “Prices are cheap,” he says.
And unlike more free-hand cooks, he always measures and always watches the clock when he’s got something going.
“When he cooks, I always hear the alarms on his iPhone going off,” says Wellman. It’s that attention to timing and detail that makes his cooking – and no doubt his marriage, too – a success.
On Moe’s menu
FAVOURITE FANCY DISH I’m not a “fancy” kind of guy. Fancy usually means microscopic portions, and I love to eat. If you were to ask what my favorite expensive food is, I’d say a bucket full of steamed crab legs, shrimp and scallops with butter and lemon
FAVOURITE EASY DISH Medium ribeye with potatoes. It’s fast and effortless and definitely easy
FAVOURITE BREAKFAST Waffles with fresh fruit. I just purchased a waffle iron and have been experimenting with different recipes
FAVOURITE LUNCH Pastrami on rye with a nice spicy Dijon, lettuce, tomato, and onion
FAVOURITE DINNER Chicken jalfrezi. I’ve tried making it myself from recipes from the internet but it’s never as good as India Palace’s
SHOPS AT LuLu Al Wahda Mall, Carrefour, the fish market and the fruit and vegetable market
SECRET INDULGENCE Strawberry cheesecake. I can never find a good cheesecake here so I end up making it. It’s the worst addiction because it’s a lot of work and patience is needed. After all that beating of the cream cheese and baking, you have to wait five hours for it to set in the oven, then you have to wait while you refrigerate it overnight. I ate it for breakfast once
CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT Dark chocolate, the darker and bitterer the better
ALWAYS RUNNING OUT OF Tomatoes. I use them for pasta sauces, bases for stews and curries, and for salads. I never use cans
ITEM MOST LIKELY TO TURN GREEN AND MOULDY Strawberries and cucumbers
Dr Marian Coutinho, 48, dermatologist
Dr Marian Coutinho and her family radiate good health.
“We eat lots of fruits and vegetables,” she says.
“Very healthy,” adds daughter Audrey, 18.
Tall, thin and fit – as are Audrey and her sister, Vanessa, 13 – Coutinho says they and her husband, Eugene, eat “everything Indian”. That’s certainly what you might expect from a woman who was born and raised in Mumbai, which she still refers to by its former name, Bombay.
Thus, says Audrey, who was home on holiday from university, “we have rice every day, and chicken, mutton, beef or fish, and vegetables. Leftovers for lunch”.
The family dines together every night – they employ two cooks, one from Goa and one from Sri Lanka (“for something different”, says Coutinho) – and pack their lunches. Breakfast is an entirely different matter.
“Eugene and I usually eat the same breakfast, like oat porridge, bread and jam or peanut butter, Indian foods like dosa, idli and poha,” says Coutinho.
Audrey prefers milk and cereals like bran flakes, while Vanessa prefers sausages. Thankfully we all have the same dinner and lunches.”
While Coutinho – who was working for Kaya Skin Clinics in Mumbai and moved to Abu Dhabi six years ago to help open the group’s first clinic here – doesn’t prepare those meals, she does take a weekly turn in the kitchen.
“I still cook on Fridays and also make some Indian snacks like pau bhaji and pani puri,” she says. “I also cook when the cooks are on vacation.
“I did try my hand at cooking as a student,” Coutinho adds, “but not much. After marriage and for some years , I cooked for my family. But now due to heavy work pressures, we employ cooks.
“My mother is an excellent cook and she always cooked for us herself,” the doctor adds, although, she, too, benefitted from having domestic help. “I have a recipe book of all her dishes.”
And perhaps one day Audrey and Vanessa will have a similar collection.
On Dr Marian’s menu
FAVOURITE FANCY DISH Prawn canapés – a basket made of flour stuffed with prawns, vegetables and mayonnaise
FAVOURITE EASY DISH Pasta and chicken
FAVOURITE SNACK Pani puri (a Goan snack), with spicy water
FAVOURITE BREAKFAST Dosa and chutney
FAVOURITE LUNCH Mutton biryani
FAVOURITE DINNER Grilled fish
SHOPS AT LuLu Al Wahda Mall, Al Adil Trading Company
SECRET INDULGENCE Vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce
CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT Goan sausages
ALWAYS RUNNING OUT OF Grated coconut
ITEM MOST LIKELY TO TURN GREEN AND MOULDY Cheese
Rory Allen, 29, quality assurance manager
Rory Allen’s spaghetti Bolognese won him the girl of his dreams – six years later.
Allen, a self-described British army brat who was born in Hamburg, Germany, and spent the first six years of his life there, calls himself “the world’s laziest cook”. He says the demands of work, gym, pool, frequent trips to Dubai and other commitments have made him a master of one-pot meals – dishes he can throw together, let simmer and enjoy when he’s ready.
Thus the spaghetti Bolognese.
“He cooked it for me at uni,” says his fiancée, Nicola Scott, 25, a flight attendant with Lufthansa Airlines. “I’ll never forget it.”
Says Allen: “I just sweat the vegetables in a little olive oil, add the meat and cook, add the tomatoes and stir it all up, and then let it go.”
“It takes him two minutes,” says Scott, whose close friendship with Allen at the University of Bath in England blossomed into romance when she came to visit him in Abu Dhabi. They plan to wed in Cyprus next September.
Allen has been in the UAE for 20 months, and is proud he’s never bought a take-away lunch while at work. He packs his own, noting that “the money I save on lunches equals the monthly fuel bill for my car”. He drives a Mercedes-Benz, since that is the only company he’s been with since he joined the workforce in 2004.
The eldest of four children, Allen says his family had nannies, in Germany and England, until he was about 10. After that, he familiarised himself with the kitchen, and soon was making meals for his sister and two brothers. To this day, he still finds it “really hard to buy and cook for one”, which is another reason he’s happy when Scott’s schedule brings her to Abu Dhabi.
“For a man, he’s quite a healthy eater – lots of veggies,” she says. In fact, Allen says he loves the array of exotic fruits and vegetables available in the capital’s supermarkets, but adds: “Some I try, some I’m leery of.” He says kitchen staples seem remarkaby cheap here, though food remains his “single greatest expense every month”.
And like all good cooks, says Allen, “I never measure”.
On Rory’s menu
FAVOURITE FANCY DISH A roast dinner – not that fancy but I hardly ever have it
FAVOURITE EASY DISH Spaghetti Bolognese
FAVOURITE SNACK Nuts-and-raisin mix
FAVOURITE BREAKFAST I hate breakfast. I usually eat a mix of cereals
FAVOURITE LUNCH Chicken Caesar salad
FAVOURITE DINNER Steak with baked potato and salad
SHOPS AT LuLu Al Wahda Mall (choice), Carrefour (convenience)
SECRET INDULGENCE Cake
CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT Tea
ALWAYS RUNNING OUT OF Milk
ITEM MOST LIKELY TO TURN GREEN AND MOULDY Jar of jam – always seems like a good idea to buy, but then I use it once and forget about it
Jennifer Golden, 38, former lawyer, now homemaker
Jennifer Golden, an American from Washington, DC, lives in the Liwa Village compound in Abu Dhabi. She is married to Greg, 42, and they have two sons, John, 7, and Blake, 5. The family moved here in February 2009 when her husband opened the Abu Dhabi office of his law firm, Baker Botts LLP.
Golden enjoys the diversity of foods available in the UAE and feels that some produce, especially tomatoes, carrots and cucumbers, is tastier than it is back in the States. But it has been a learning curve in parts.
“We have had to adapt to new ingredients and conditions since we moved here,” she says. “While I say barbecue is my husband’s specialty, he has run into some roadblocks since we’ve lived here. When we first moved here we went camping in the Empty Quarter. We were excited to be out there but we didn’t know what we were doing. For dinner, Greg tried to grill lamb on a little open-air hibachi that he set down in the sand. Of course the wind was blowing and we tried to rescue our dinner but everything we ate that night had a fine coat of sand on it. Yum!
“Then our first charcoal grill at home gave a lighter fluid taste to everything – like dinner was prepared at an Adnoc. Now Greg has a gas grill and he has his system down so we are enjoying his barbecue.
“I think baking can be a challenge here because ingredients come from many different countries and I am never sure how they will all work together. The first birthday party I had for our son Blake required two huge sheet cakes which we planned to cover with buttercream frosting. Nothing turned out as planned and we ended up scooping out pieces of thick flat cake that didn’t rise and serving the ‘frosting’ as a sauce. The kids didn’t care. It looked awful but it tasted fine. I now order all of our birthday cakes.”
Golden says she does miss the high quality freshly prepared convenience food that you can get in the US. “And we miss TexMex as well. The restaurants here try, but they don’t really get it right.”
Helena Frith Powell
On Jennifer’s menu
FAVOURITE FANCY DISH Holiday family meals like Thanksgiving
FAVOURITE EASY DISH Pasta
FAVOURITE SNACK Fruit
FAVOURITE BREAKFAST Cereal, toast, juice, coffee
FAVOURITE LUNCH Salad
FAVOURITE DINNER Barbecue – my husband’s speciality
SHOPS AT LuLu Khalidyah Mall
SECRET INDULGENCE Belgian chocolate stash
CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT Golden Grahams – we buy a lot of boxes when they are in stock
ALWAYS RUNNING OUT OF Milk
ITEM MOST LIKELY TO TURN GREEN AND MOULDY Bread. We have tried everything. We even freeze it now. I think we need to just buy it fresh every day
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019