Saudi chef’s passion for cooking burns bright despite challenges of multiple sclerosis

Afnan Aljaadi's passion for cooking helped her overcome her depression. (Supplied)
Afnan Aljaadi's passion for cooking helped her overcome her depression. (Supplied)
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Updated 08 April 2021

Saudi chef’s passion for cooking burns bright despite challenges of multiple sclerosis

Saudi chef’s passion for cooking burns bright despite challenges of multiple sclerosis
  • One of the main things that helped Aljaadi overcome her depression was her passion for cooking

JEDDAH: Afnan Aljaadi was a freshman in college when she received the life-changing news that she had multiple sclerosis (MS) in 2008. Aljaadi is now one of Saudi Arabia’s leading chefs, specializing in French, Italian, and Asian cuisine. She talked to Arab News about how she has been able to make her dreams come true against the odds.

MS is a medical mystery. Its cause is still unknown, there is no cure yet, and symptoms and progress vary from person to person. It is a relatively rare autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system including the brain, cerebellum, and spinal cord. According to the American National Multiple Sclerosis Society, there are only 2.3 million people worldwide with a confirmed diagnosis of MS, 1 million of whom are in the US. 

The first symptoms Aljaadi noticed back in 2008 were dizzy spells that would cause her to faint, sensitivity to sunlight, and migraines. Her college work began to suffer and her GPA dropped significantly. Unfortunately, she told Arab News, her college professors thought she was making excuses and faking her symptoms until she had been properly diagnosed.




Afnan Aljaadi's passion for cooking helped her overcome her depression. (Supplied) 

After a series of tests and an MRI, she was transferred to a neurologist, who suggested brain and nerve radiation therapy. It took several more tests and visits to other neurologists before her diagnosis was confirmed.

“The disease was very strange. I had never heard of it before, but I am very thankful that I discovered the symptoms (early) and did not lose the ability to move,” Aljaadi said. “I was struggling so much in that first year because society did not accept the changes I was going through. That has turned me into a very reserved person.”

Aljaadi developed further symptoms: The frequency of her fainting increased, the left side of her face felt numb, and her skin became extremely sensitive to cold water. These are not uncommon — the lesions seen when patients with MS undergo an MRI can affect areas of the brain responsible for sensation, meaning many experience a loss of feeling in parts of their bodies, as well as blurred vision, weakness, and “brain fog.”

Like many people diagnosed with a life-altering condition, Aljaadi became depressed. “I went into a spiral of sadness and depression after acknowledging that I had been diagnosed with the disease and was not receptive to it,” she said.

The head of the neurology department at My Clinic in Jeddah, Dr. Rumaiza Hussein Alyafeai, a Saudi neurologist and consultant, and an MS specialist, explained how MS affects the brain and muscle function.

FASTFACT

MS is a medical mystery. Its cause is still unknown, there is no cure yet, and symptoms and progress vary from person to person. It is a relatively rare autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system including the brain, cerebellum, and spinal cord. According to the American National Multiple Sclerosis Society, there are only 2.3 million people worldwide with a confirmed diagnosis of MS, 1 million of whom are in the US.

“The immune system is not affected in itself, but some immune cells lose track of attacking foreign particles and they start to attack the myelin sheath (an insulating layer around the nerves) in the nervous system, hence the lesions start to appear,” she said.

“Among the most challenging obstacles that patients with MS might face is the lack of knowledge,” she continued. “Autoimmune diseases, in general, are quite difficult to handle as they have a variety of symptoms that make the patients pass through a sometimes overwhelming journey prior to having their diagnosis declared. You might start to see symptoms such as mood swings, depression, euphoria, forgetfulness, and emotional lability.”

One of the main things that helped Aljaadi overcome her depression was her passion for cooking. Having completed her college degree in six years, she started work as an administrator. But she also participated in several cooking competitions, and in 2013 she took part in “Master Chef,” which she credits with opening many doors for her.

She has now received two chef certifications from the acclaimed French-born Monégasque chef Alain Ducasse and French culinary school Le Cordon Bleu, and she is a certified professional pastry chef. She runs her own cake decoration business — @unemeringue (“My inspiration is generated from my passion in art, combined with my pastry skills to create edible art pieces with a unique fine taste,” she said) and has also joined the Middle Eastern food and lifestyle TV channel Fatafeat.

“The most challenging obstacle is losing control of my muscles, especially when I do my daily routine of work in pastries and cooking and all I feel is numbness,” she said. “But I am a survivor. I changed my lifestyle and understood what could hurt me. I’m still fighting it. It’s a matter of adapting and adjusting to a certain healthy lifestyle and habits to maintain a sustainable day-to-day routine.”

Finding the right diet has played an important role in living with her condition, she explained. Every patient’s dietary needs will differ, depending on their blood type and their family’s medical history.

“I follow a gluten-free diet,” Aljaadi said. “I avoid lactose, I increased the amount of vegetables I was eating and reduced my meat intake.” Exercise, especially walking, is also crucial, she added. “Continuing treatment without a healthy lifestyle will not give any satisfactory results.”

But it’s not just her physical well-being that Aljaadi needs to pay attention to, she explained. “Visiting a psychologist — just talking to a (professional) — helped me a lot,” she said. “It improved my confidence and (increased my belief) in Allah’s mercy, with patience and persistence, to accomplish my ambition.”

“Most MS patients are great warriors and heroes of their own unique stories,” Alyafeai said. “They almost always cope well with the disease (with the help of) their neurologists.”

For anyone else with MS, Aljaadi has some advice. “I’d encourage you to let go of your comfort zone to avoid bouts of depression,” she said. “Remember that your persistence is a source of energy for others who are suffering.”


Too little sleep in middle age linked to raised dementia risk

Too little sleep in middle age linked to raised dementia risk
Updated 21 April 2021

Too little sleep in middle age linked to raised dementia risk

Too little sleep in middle age linked to raised dementia risk
  • Nearly ten million new cases of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, are counted each year worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, and disrupted sleep is a common symptom

PARIS: Sleeping six hours or less per night in your 50s and 60s is associated with an increased risk of dementia, according to a new study of nearly 8,000 British adults followed for more than 25 years.
Scientists said that while the research, which was based on data from a long-running survey, could not prove cause and effect, it did draw a link between sleep and dementia as people age.
The study, published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, showed a higher risk of dementia in those sleeping six or fewer hours per night at the ages of 50 or 60, compared to those who have a “normal” seven hours in bed.
There was also a 30 percent increased dementia risk in those with consistently short sleeping patterns from the age of 50 to 70, irrespective of cardiometabolic or mental health issues, which are known risk factors for dementia.
The study authors from the French national health-research institute INSERM analyzed data from a long term study by University College London, which has followed the health of 7,959 British individuals since 1985.
Participants self-reported their sleep duration, while about 3,900 of them also wore watch devices overnight to confirm their estimates.
Nearly ten million new cases of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, are counted each year worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, and disrupted sleep is a common symptom.
But a growing body of research suggests sleep patterns before the onset of dementia could also contribute to the development of the disease.
Time spent sleeping is linked to dementia risk in older adults — 65 years and older — but it is unclear whether this association is also true for younger age groups, according to the authors.
They said future research may be able to determine whether improving sleep patterns can help prevent dementia.
“Many of us have experienced a bad night’s sleep and probably know that it can have an impact on our memory and thinking in the short term, but an intriguing question is whether long-term sleep patterns can affect our risk of dementia,” Sara Imarisio, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK told Science Media Center.
She said that while there is no magic bullet to prevent dementia, evidence suggests that not smoking, drinking in moderation, staying mentally and physically active and eating well are among the things that can “help to keep our brains healthy as we age.”


Happy meal: Arab K-Pop fans share excitement over McDonald’s new BTS deal

Happy meal: Arab K-Pop fans share excitement over McDonald’s new BTS deal
The BTS meal is coming to McDonald's in May. File/AFP
Updated 20 April 2021

Happy meal: Arab K-Pop fans share excitement over McDonald’s new BTS deal

Happy meal: Arab K-Pop fans share excitement over McDonald’s new BTS deal

DUBAI: US fast food giant McDonald’s has tapped Korean pop sensation BTS to promote a new meal, and Arab fans of the boy band can hardly contain their excitement.

Many supporters of the seven member group took to their social media to express their anticipation for the Grammy-nominated boy band's meal that will be launching starting next month in nearly 50 countries, including Oman, Bahrain, UAE, Qatar and Morocco in addition to the US, India, Singapore and more.

“From today, I will just eat at McDonalds,” wrote one Twitter user in Arabic.

Another user from Saudi Arabia mentioned McDonalds in their Tweet, urging them to make the meal available in the Kingdom.

“I am not a fan of McDonald’s, but I changed my mind because of this meal. Provide it to us like you did for the Arab countries on the list,” the user wrote.

Another Twitter user wrote in Arabic: “Wait a minute, I discovered something. A few days back, Suga said he is hungry and a few days later, they collaborated with McDonald’s. He was probably giving us a hint, but we were clowns. WE WANT THE BTS MEAL IN EGYPT (sic).”

Dubbed the “BTS meal,” it will include chicken McNuggets, fries and two dips.

The burger chain has seen its revenue outside the United States drop during the COVID-19 pandemic. The company is tapping on promotional campaigns through celebrity endorsements and limited-time menu items to get customers back into restaurants as economies reopen with the roll-out of vaccines.

The BTS meal follows similar US-only deals with singers J Balvin and Travis Scott, which McDonald’s says boosted sales in the later half of last year.

The spike in demand during the Travis Scott promotion caused the company to temporarily run short of ingredients to assemble its signature Quarter Pounder burgers at some restaurants.


Lebanese style icon Karen Wazen fronts Ralph Lauren campaign with her children

Lebanese style icon Karen Wazen fronts Ralph Lauren campaign with her children
Lebanese influencer and designer Karen Wazen stars in new Polo Ralph Lauren campaign with her children. Instagram
Updated 20 April 2021

Lebanese style icon Karen Wazen fronts Ralph Lauren campaign with her children

Lebanese style icon Karen Wazen fronts Ralph Lauren campaign with her children

DUBAI: Lebanese influencer and designer Karen Wazen was recently tapped to front a new campaign for Polo Ralph Lauren, and she is sharing the spotlight with her family. Wazen features in the campaign images with her three children, twin girls Karlie and Kay, and her son George.

“Ah so happy to share with you our Family Campaign for @PoloRalphLauren!!” exclaimed the Dubai-based fashion blogger on Instagram, alongside the campaign images. “There are no words to explain the love and emotions I have for my family... they’re my biggest blessing and pride,” she added, thanking Polo Ralph Lauren for “capturing these beautiful moments together.”

It’s not the first time that the American brand has shone a spotlight on an Arab family for a major campaign.

Back in December, the label released a campaign titled “Family is Who You Love,” featuring a diverse cast of siblings, parents and children, among them Saudi sisters Sakhaa and Thana Abdul as well as British-Moroccan model Nora Attal and her family.


Actress Jameela Jamil defends US singer Demi Lovato in body positivity row

Actress Jameela Jamil defends US singer Demi Lovato in body positivity row
Jameela Jamil is well known for her body positivity organization ‘I Weigh.’ File/ AFP
Updated 20 April 2021

Actress Jameela Jamil defends US singer Demi Lovato in body positivity row

Actress Jameela Jamil defends US singer Demi Lovato in body positivity row

DUBAI: British actress Jameela Jamil took to her social media account to defend US singer and actress Demi Lovato due to a body positivity controversy this week. 

Lovato, who is best known for her role in Disney’s musical “Camp Rock,” recently called out a popular Los Angeles-based frozen yogurt shop The Bigg Chill, stating that the store’s diet options could lead some people to feel uncomfortable.  

"Finding it extremely hard to order froyo from @thebiggchillofficial when you have to walk past tons of sugar free cookies (and) other diet foods before you get to the counter,” said the “Cool for the Summer” singer, who has been vocal about her struggles with eating disorders in her documentary “Dancing With The Devil.” The 28-year-old urged the business to “do better” along with the hashtag #dietculturevulture.  

Jamil was quick to come to Lovato’s support, after the singer’s comments garnered some backlash online. Taking to her Instagram Stories, the “The Good Place” star wrote, “Ok, I want to try to avoid making the story bigger than it already is. But if an eating disorder advocate says she sees products that are positioned as guilt free, and it is potentially triggering, that doesn’t mean she’s too stupid to remember that diabetics exist. It just means that we need to change the marketing of products that are for people’s medical needs.”

She added: “That’s all @ddlovato was asking for. It doesn’t make her a monster. It doesn’t mean she disregards people’s illnesses. She’s just one of few celebrities reminding us to look out for mental illness. Guilt free is diet culture terminology.”

The British-Pakistani-Indian actress is a major advocate for body positivity.

The 34-year-old, who became a household name with her activism and role as Tahani Al-Jamil on NBC’s “The Good Place,” routinely takes to her platform to encourage people to respect their bodies and often gets candid about her struggles with eating disorders and body dysmorphia that she grappled with in her teenage years.

Jamil is also well known for her body positivity organization “I Weigh,” that focuses on self-worth and body positivity beyond weight, encouraging people to weigh themselves by their positive attributes, as opposed to numbers on a scale.


From Riyadh to Dubai, why is good coffee in the region so expensive?

A cup of coffee from Dubai-based Nightjar costs $5. File/Instagram@nightjar.coffee
A cup of coffee from Dubai-based Nightjar costs $5. File/[email protected]
Updated 19 April 2021

From Riyadh to Dubai, why is good coffee in the region so expensive?

A cup of coffee from Dubai-based Nightjar costs $5. File/Instagram@nightjar.coffee

DUBAI: Buying a cup of coffee in the Gulf can be quite expensive.

Coffee lovers often bemoan the fact that their latte costs double in Dubai or Riyadh what it does in other countries.

What we might not realize, however, is that we are paying for a lot more than milk and beans in that cup of coffee.

Last week, social media was set alight by a complaint over the price of a $7 flat white in Dubai. Coffee lovers from Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar chimed in on whether the cost was justified. It begs the question: Why is coffee so expensive in this region?

We spoke to cafe operators to find out.

Leon Surynt, owner of Nightjar Coffee, one of Dubai’s most popular coffee brands and cafes, said that it is “really hard” to keep his coffee affordable.

Nightjar imports its own beans directly from farms around the world, roasts them at its Alserkal Avenue roastery and sells to hotels and cafes across the country. 

“You need to have multiple avenues, which is a bit of online, a bit of wholesale and a bit of cafe, to make money here,” Surynt says. 

“We live in a society that has a low tax rate, but we also have many compliance costs.”

If we were to break down the cost of a latte at Nightjar ($5), Surynt says, the ingredients — milk and coffee — and the cup only account for about $1 or 20 percent. He estimates that staff wages and expenses, on the other hand, make up a whopping 30 percent, while rent is another 15 percent. Other overheads, such as government fees, marketing, admin and logistics mean his profit from that one latte is about AED 4 (or $1). And that’s not accounting for the cost of delivery aggregators, his salary and kitchen operations.

“There are a lot of hidden costs here,” Surynt said. 

The story is the same for many others.

Samer Harkous, business development manager for Cypher Coffee, supplies hundreds of cafes in the UAE and overseas with green and roasted beans. 

Cypher does not operate a cafe but offers samples at its roastery.

When pricing Cypher’s products, Harkous said rent and municipality fees must be built into the price of beans, and a profit needs to be made on top of that. The cafe selling those beans must then add on its own costs.

And roasting beans is a costly — and difficult — process.

Equipment is imported from overseas. Each bean requires a different roasting method, which is meticulously recorded on charts by staff, from monitoring the necessary temperature and gas levels to listening for the “first crack.” 

Beans themselves command a range of prices. Cypher’s most expensive roast is from Yemen (up to $136 per kilogram) and its cheapest, and most popular, is from Brazil (between $16 to $82 per kilogram). 

Brazilian beans are therefore used by cafes wanting to keep costs down. More expensive beans, usually used by specialty coffee houses, will command a higher price.

Ali Al-Fahad, founder of Earth Roastery, which was established in Kuwait in 2014 and has spread across the region since, adjusts his coffee prices depending on the country he operates in. 

He said that Kuwait is the most expensive and logistically difficult location for a cafe business, while Dubai is the easiest and cheapest. That is why it took them until 2019 to open a café. Before that, he was solely selling wholesale coffee beans.

“Business here is very risky. Very few people can be successful,” he said. “When we opened the coffee shop, we understood that.”

Al-Fahad said their highest costs go on salaries and visa costs, followed by rent and logistics.

“Customers travel. They want the same quality and experience as they have in Europe. But to be on that level, you need to invest more.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by (@crustandcrema)

Cyrus Woo, deputy director at Bahrain’s Crust and Crema, said pricing was a “sensitive” subject when they opened.

“We had to be very careful. We only had other coffee shops to compare to, so we did market research and then did our own costing.”

Of the $4 it costs for an Americano or $5 for a latte, Woo agreed that what the customer is mostly paying for is staff salaries.

“If you factor in how much of the coffee and milk you’re going to use for one drink, those are the minimal costs involved,” Woo said.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by (@crustandcrema)

“You’re paying for the atmosphere, overheads, marketing, utilities, rent, insurance, equipment and labor costs. The market is saturated, and baristas are in high demand, so you have to pay more for them.”

Woo said that while coffee makes more money than food at a cafe, for coffee to be profitable, a cafe has to “sell a lot.”

“We are a for-profit business. We need to be able to survive, but we don’t want to be greedy. 

“I hope that when people come in and have coffee, they appreciate there’s a lot more involved, that they’re paying for the experience.”

So, when you’re handing over $7 for your latte, lamenting the expense, remember: You’re not just buying a coffee. You’re paying for your surroundings and for your barista’s wages. And actually, for $7, that’s pretty reasonable.