The first female chef of the United Arab Emirates, Chef Khulood Atiq is the star of the Department of Culture and Tourism, Abu Dhabi’s ambitious Emirati Cuisine Programme aimed at reviving and popularising traditional Emirati food across the UAE and the world
Chef Khulood Atiq, who grew up in Dubai, first got interested in cooking as a child, encouraged by her mother, and later pursued her passion with courses in business and cooking. Her big break came when she served as an assistant chef on Hani Wafia, a food show on Samaa TV. She also worked as an Emirati cuisine specialist at the Jumeirah Mina A’Salam hotel in Dubai. In 2011, she came out with Sarareed, a cookbook with over 80 Emirati recipes. Chef Khulood has consulted with numerous hotels and restaurants since, in her quest to promote traditional Emirati cuisine. As a key collaborator of the Emirati Cuisine Programme, she now trains chefs across the UAE in traditional Emirati dishes. She spoke exclusively to TravelDine about her journey as a chef and association with the breakthrough cuisine programme.
You are the UAE’s first female chef. How does it feel?
I am very proud of being the UAE’s first female chef, and it makes me feel very content.
How did you get interested in cooking? Did you have an innate talent for it?
Since I was eight years old, I loved cooking for my entire family, and I was everyone’s favourite cook in the house! I used to cook with a sprinkle of love for my family, and everyone wanted to taste my food again and again.
Work in commercial kitchens can be quite hectic. How do you juggle family and work?
I try to balance my work life and home life as much as I can. I try to take morning shifts so that I can be at home when my kids come back from school. I take time off when the kids have school holidays to spend more time with them. I also try to plan each weekend with my family so that we can benefit from the shared time together.
Tell us a bit about the Emirati Cuisine Programme and your role in it.
The Emirati Cuisine Programme started when we wanted to introduce Emirati food to tourists’ restaurants in Abu Dhabi hotels. We started with 4- and 5-star hotels around Abu Dhabi, which was a massive success. Many hotels came to us and enrolled chefs and at the beginning they used to come to our centres, but after careful evaluation, we realised that it would be more convenient if we went to the chefs. This is when we started conducting the training in Abu Dhabi hotels based on a schedule and it was very successful. We didn’t stop during the pandemic either as we continued conducting online courses.
Are you experimenting with fusion dishes as well in the second phase of the programme?
Yes, we will be introducing fusion dishes in the next phase of the programme. There should always be a search for new ideas focussing on taste and presentation, and if we want to stand out amongst international cuisines, it is important to look for novelty and to experiment with trends.
How does it feel to train so many chefs as part of the Emirati Culinary Programme?
It makes me extremely happy and content to be able to train so many chefs. I feel that I have achieved my main purpose of being a chef, which is to spread the word about Emirati cuisine and teach chefs from around the world how to cook Emirati cuisine.
How is Emirati food different from other Middle Eastern cuisines?
Emirati food is completely different from Arabic food or other Middle Eastern cuisines as it is closer to East Asian cuisine.
What are the primary flavours of Emirati food? Is it similar to Indian food?
Every cuisine has its own unique flavour and distinct taste. The primary flavours of Emirati food are saffron, cardamom, dried lemon, Emirati ghee, and the Emirati spice mix.
Has Emirati food been influenced by other cultures and ingredients that have come from outside?
Yes, Emirate cuisine has been influenced by ingredients from East Asia as a result of commerce and trading.
What are some of the ingredients unique to Emirati food?
Some unique ingredients are sidaf, maleh (salty fish) and prosopis (ghaf tree).
What is preventing Emirati food from becoming popular around the world?
We are on the right track in educating chefs about Emirati cuisine and now there are many more Emirati chefs when compared to before. In the future, we will see more chefs trained in Emirati cuisine, who will help spread the word and open Emirati restaurants around the world.
What are some of the most iconic Emirati dishes?
The most iconic Emirati dishes are Mhala, Chebab, Luqaimat, Harees, Tharid, Majbous, Ghesheda, and Gaf salad.
Do you like Indian food? Which is your favourite Indian dish?
I love Indian food and it is my second favourite cuisine, right after Emirati cuisine. I love dishes like dal makhni, tomato soup, keema, curry, and paratha.
What future projects are you planning and working on?
I will continue conducting training and exploring new methods. Currently, I am working on finishing the second part of my book Sararid Kholoud. I will be participating in culinary exhibitions and international events to continue spreading the word about Emirati cuisine. I am also working with UNESCO in documenting Emirati cuisine and will be giving sessions in universities and academies to further awareness about it. Lastly, I will be releasing an Emirati cuisine guide.