TORONTO: Saudi chef and restaurant owner Hatun Madani is hoping to introduce the Hijazi cuisine native to her homeland to a wider audience and recently opened her restaurant Najabat in Dubai’s Dar Wasl Mall.
The chef and TV presenter hails from Madinah in Saudi’s eastern province. The pilgrims who have passed through her hometown for centuries have influenced the local cuisine, which Madani describes as rich, but largely unknown.
“I’m trying to raise awareness of our cuisine, and revive it,” she tells Arab News.
But more than that, she also hopes to carry forward the legacy of her late mother, Najabat. Madani was always intimidated by the prospect of cooking for her.
“To me, she was the best cook,” she says. “After she passed away, cooking from her recipe book was the best way to carry on her legacy.”
Here Madani discusses ‘unlearning,’ diplomacy among friends, and enjoying the process, and presents a recipe for a ‘Saudi risotto.’
When you started out as a professional, what was the most common mistake you were making when you were preparing or cooking a dish?
I learned to cook from my mother – measuring everything with my eye and cooking (intuitively). But in the restaurant business you cannot cook like this. You need to have a proper recipe, measurements, manuals, and think about things like the cost. So, unlearning was my biggest challenge.
What’s your top tip for amateur chefs or those cooking at home?
There’s no right and wrong. Try to enjoy the process; it’s something you should enjoy. If it doesn’t work, keep trying until it does.
What’s one ingredient that can instantly improve any dish, and why?
Ghee. It’s healthier than oil. All my rice dishes use ghee, and it’s a game changer.
When you go out to eat, do you find yourself critiquing the food?
I’m a perfectionist, but I try my best to keep it to myself and not criticize out loud. It’s embarrassing when friends cook for me and ask how I liked it. We all have our preferences, and I try to be as polite and diplomatic as possible.
What’s your favorite cuisine?
I could live on bread and cheese. Or pasta. But one thing I really love is seafood, maybe because it takes me back to Saudi and the food I grew up eating.
What’s your favorite dish to cook?
Molokheya (jute leaf soup). We use a dry powder in Medina, it’s very thick. I remember my mother teaching me how to make it and whenever I talk about it, it takes me back to those times. That’s comfort food for me.
What you are you like in the kitchen? Are you a disciplinarian or are you quite laidback?
I try to treat my staff as family. I want them to relax and be happy with what they’re doing. Most of the time, I’m very laidback. But if I see a mistake being repeated, I do have the tendency to become a Gordon Ramsay.
Chef Hatun’s saleeg
4 or 5 pieces of mastic
500g chicken (preferably breast or quarter)
1 onion, peeled
2 cups water
2 cups Egyptian rice
2 cups milk
2 tablespoons ghee
Salt and pepper to taste
First, prepare the chicken stock by heating oil in a pan and adding two pieces of mastic. When the mastic has melted, add the chicken.
Add the onion, salt, pepper, and water. Boil until the liquid is reduced by half. Remove chicken and keep aside.
Strain the stock and return to pan.
Add the rice and cook on low heat until the rice is mushy.
Heat the milk and add it in.
In a separate pan, melt ghee and the remaining mastic.
Add the melted ghee and mastic to the rice and milk mixture. The rice should be cooked, and the mixture should be thick.
Brush some of the ghee and mastic on the chicken and broil in the oven until golden brown.
Serve the rice on a large platter with the chicken on top.