▶ Lama Jam­mal of Ma­malu Kitchen wants to put healthy, home-cooked meals back on the ta­ble, writes Maysa Alrawi

The National - News - - ARTS & LIFESTYLE - More in­for­ma­tion is avail­able at­maluk­

Hair­nets in place and aprons on, a group of about 20 women are hard at work in a cook­ing stu­dio in Dubai. The at­mos­phere is re­laxed, and laugh­ter fills the air as they slice and chop. This is no run-of-the mill class, how­ever, as these ladies are not learn­ing to cook for them­selves, but for their em­ploy­ers.

At the helm of the op­er­a­tion is culi­nary afi­cionado Lama Jam­mal, founder of Ma­malu Kitchen, who spends her time an­i­mat­edly float­ing from sta­tion to sta­tion, train­ing nan­nies and helpers to make home-cooked dishes, healthy snacks and chil­dren’s school lunches.

Ma­malu Kitchen has al­ways had a very clear mis­sion: help­ing moth­ers and feed­ing fam­i­lies. The idea came to the Le­banese en­trepreneur a few months af­ter giv­ing birth to twin boys. “It was Ramadan,” Jam­mal says, “I had a 1-year-old son, two ba­bies and a fast­ing hus­band, and I wished I had some help in the kitchen. That’s how Ma­malu was born.

“Many work­ing moth­ers sim­ply don’t have the time to spend on cook­ing. In this re­gion, many are for­tu­nate enough to have help, so we can del­e­gate,” she says. But Jam­mal knew that the move was a po­ten­tial risk. “I knew I did not want my classes to turn into some kind of but­ler ser­vice. I wasn’t sure what kind of re­sponse I would get.”

How­ever, the risk paid off. Jam­mal has since taught hun­dreds of helpers, in both English and Ta­ga­log with the aid of a trans­la­tor, with some very pos­i­tive re­sults. “The best part is hear­ing from clients who had never sat down at a ta­ble to­gether be­fore, and are now eat­ing as a fam­ily,” she says, “I re­ceive pho­tos from nan­nies show­ing me dishes they have made. It’s very re­ward­ing.”

Shamsa Baker, an Emi­rati mother of four, en­rolled her chil­dren’s nanny, Hanzel, into classes and no­ticed a trans­for­ma­tion in her home. “I love be­ing able to teach my nanny to cook all the foods I want to make for my chil­dren, but don’t nec­es­sar­ily have the time, be­cause some days I am so busy with school pick-ups and meet­ings,” Baker says. “And now my kids eat their veg­eta­bles with­out a fuss.”

Hanzel, who is from the Philip­pines, in turn saw this as an op­por­tu­nity to learn new skills. “Ma­malu cour­ses were fun but in­for­ma­tive, es­pe­cially from a healthy, safety and food hy­giene as­pect.”

An­other re­peat client of Ma­malu is Fa­tima Mazrui, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of The Change Ini­tia­tive, which pro­vides sus­tain­able so­lu­tions for the com­mu­nity, busi­ness and govern­ment. The mother-of-four’s nanny, Nelia, has also at­tended sev­eral Ma­malu classes. Mazrui stresses the im­por­tance of home cook­ing from an en­vi­ron­men­tal and eco­nomic as­pect. “The classes have shown my fam­ily how to re­cy­cle and up­cy­cle food, min­imis­ing wastage. Gro­cery bud­gets are also kept un­der con­trol. Lama is the fairy god­mother of home cook­ing.”

Nelia, also from the Philip­pines, says she en­joyed the sense of ca­ma­raderie. “I’ve made friends. The classes were fun and it was easy to learn,” she says. “Be­cause the recipes were [taught] in Ta­ga­log, they were sim­ple to make.”

Jam­mal, who spent her child­hood shad­ow­ing her mother in the kitchen be­fore get­ting her de­gree at Swiss hos­pi­tal­ity man­age­ment school Glion, spe­cialises in sim­ple, Mediter­ranean-in­spired fare. Her sig­na­ture dishes in­clude clas­sic Mid­dle East­ern recipes with a twist: vegetarian pump­kin kibbeh and cran­berry vine leaves.

She has amassed a sig­nif­i­cant so­cial me­dia fol­low­ing and re­cently launched a YouTube chan­nel, shar­ing themed con­tent, recipes, tips and tricks for new­ly­weds, bach­e­lors and moth­ers alike. Jam­mal is also set to open a cook­ing stu­dio in Dubai at the end of the year in Nakheel Mall on Palm Jumeirah, run­ning classes for cor­po­ra­tions, helpers, par­ents, cou­ples and even teenagers leav­ing home for the first time for univer­sity. “I want to cre­ate a move­ment,” she says, “By en­gag­ing ev­ery sin­gle mem­ber of the house­hold, we are en­abling a life­style change in the re­gion.”

And a change has been a long time com­ing. “It is es­ti­mated that about 40 per cent of chil­dren in the UAE are ei­ther over­weight or obese,” Dr Sherif El-Re­fee, a con­sul­tant pae­di­atric en­docri­nol­o­gist and di­a­betol­o­gist at Im­pe­rial Col­lege of Lon­don Di­a­betes Cen­tre, told The Na­tional last month. Home-cooked meals can play a sig­nif­i­cant role in bring­ing the num­bers down, ac­cord­ing to nu­tri­tion­ist Zeina Mak­tabi of Up Close and Healthy.

“Be­sides be­ing able to con­trol ex­actly what goes into food, home­cooked meals bring the fam­ily to­gether,” she says. “You can turn gro­cery shop­ping into a fun ac­tiv­ity. You would be sur­prised at how many chil­dren don’t know what an aubergine looks like. There is also the men­tal health as­pect to sit­ting down to­gether, boost­ing con­fi­dence and in­creas­ing bond­ing time.”

Still, there is a long way to go. “Even with home cook­ing,” Mak­tabi says, “it isn’t al­ways the best meth­ods that are be­ing used. There is a lot of deep fry­ing. Some­times, fam­i­lies may del­e­gate meals to the house help. They may add more fat or salt than they should.

“There is def­i­nitely a trend to­wards health­ier op­tions in the re­gion and aware­ness is grow­ing, but the key bot­tle­neck is the cost and price.”

Jam­mal ad­vo­cates ev­ery­thing in mod­er­a­tion and a diet of whole, eas­ily di­gestible foods that hark back to pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions. “Healthy doesn’t have to be ex­treme, I cook

Jam­mal ad­vo­cates ev­ery­thing in mod­er­a­tion and a diet of whole, eas­ily di­gestible foods that hark back to pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions

the way our grand­par­ents used to, but with sub­sti­tutes. I don’t deep fry, I use co­conut oil. I’m a fam­ily chef, so I don’t be­lieve in cut­ting out food groups. The idea is to share easy, fuss-free recipes. I also teach how not to scratch pans to pre­vent the re­lease of tox­ins, to cook with oils with high smoke points and what kind of salt to use,” she ex­plains.

Jam­mal cred­its the rise in child obe­sity to a love of fast food, the iPad gen­er­a­tion who love to snack and the con­ve­nience of food-delivery ser­vices. Yet, she is op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture. “The new mil­len­nial gen­er­a­tion is spend­ing more time on well-be­ing, peo­ple now pre­fer ex­pe­ri­ences to ma­te­rial things. They want mem­o­ries and they want to in­vest in them­selves; cook­ing is part of that.”

Jam­mal hopes Ma­malu will one day be a house­hold name, a one-stop-shop for food so­lu­tions. The helper classes were just the be­gin­ning of her jour­ney. “I am my own mar­ket,” she says. “I am all about food so­lu­tions and I want to share them with peo­ple liv­ing par­al­lel lives to me. I know they work, be­cause I have tried them.”

One such so­lu­tion is Jam­mal’s re­cently launched frozen food range, Eazy Freezy, which is avail­able to pur­chase on her web­site. Ja­mal in­sists the line isn’t at odds with her phi­los­o­phy and won’t re­place cook­ing, but will pro­vide ad­di­tional help for busy fam­i­lies.

The range of 13 preser­va­tive-free prod­ucts in­clude quinoa-en­crusted chicken ten­ders, chil­dren’s burg­ers with hid­den veg­eta­bles and her sig­na­ture dishes, all recipes she has taught in her classes. “My frozen range is for my clients. It’s not for ev­ery­day use, but let’s say it’s Satur­day and you’re at the beach all day. There is no time to pre­pare lunch­boxes so you can use our Smi­ley Face piz­zas; or it’s Thurs­day night and you have last-minute guests com­ing for din­ner, you can stick a spinach pie in the oven, make a salad and you’re done.

“Batch cook­ing is es­sen­tially what I have al­ways done. I did it a lot when I was preg­nant. Grow­ing up in war-torn Lebanon, we needed to have a lot of food in the freezer, maybe to feel safe.”

It is that feel­ing of safety that drives Jam­mal to want to em­power oth­ers to lead a health­ier life­style, to feel pro­tected against ill­ness and, above all, to cre­ate a sense of com­mu­nity. “No one is born a great cook, one learns by do­ing,” Jam­mal says, quot­ing Amer­i­can chef Ju­lia Child, be­fore adding: “If you think you can’t cook, you can. Any­one can.”

Clock­wise from main, wa­ter­melon salad; vine leaves with cran­ber­ries; pump­kin and burghul pie with a tangy spinach and chick­pea fill­ing

Pho­tos Uschi Irani

Healthy date ‘Snick­ers’ bites and co­conut en­ergy balls

Lama Jam­mal teaches nan­nies to cook healthy recipes in English and in Ta­ga­log through a trans­la­tor

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