DUBAI: Sara Aqel was born and raised in Jordan by her Palestinian parents. Food, she says, has always been a major part of her life.
“My mom’s a very warm person and she loved playing host. The house was never empty. I think most people in the Levant would agree that food is the center of everything. At funerals, you’ll have everyone crying, but a couple of them are crying and planning what to cook for everyone else. At weddings, we think about what’s on the buffet or what’s for dessert a lot more than we think about the dress or the shoes. So, just organically, food was where I found comfort.
“Curiosity played a big role too,” she continues. “Seeing a cake turn from a batter into a sponge and not understanding how that trick worked. ‘What’s happening?’ So I started reading more and more about it.”
At 18, Aqel headed to culinary school in Switzerland, then landed a prestigious internship in Hong Kong, and eventually made her way to Dubai.
Here, Aqel discusses experimenting, the joy of dough and the power of love, and provides a delicious panelle recipe.
What’s your top tip for amateur chefs cooking at home?
Taste it. Sometimes you think ‘It looks the same as last time I made it, so it must be OK.’ But you have to taste it. I mean, cooking at home is different — in a restaurant you have the pressure: You don’t want someone’s first impression to be that you’ve made a mistake. But when you’re cooking at home, you can take some risks: If you want to put chocolate in your risotto, do it. It’s no big deal. When I was cooking at home, I’d experiment and try dishes out on my parents. Sometimes they sucked, but my dad would just laugh and say, ‘This is great. But let’s never do it again.’
Is there a single ingredient that can improve any dish?
Love. If you put your heart into it, it always works. No matter how difficult you’re finding it. If you treat it like one of those relationships where you really love the person and you don’t want to break up — you want to keep trying — that’ll make it work.
What’s your favorite cuisine?
I like Levantine cuisine, for sure; it’s healthy and it’s earthy. And Japanese. The Levantine feeds my soul and nourishes my body. The Japanese moves my entire palate; my brain eats it with me. [Laughs.] And bakeries too. I could eat cake any time of day.
What’s your favorite dish to cook?
I really enjoy making pizzas. I like the combination of bread and something else — savory or sweet. I always have pizza dough in the fridge, so sometimes, especially if I’m in a hurry, I’ll make a pizza. It takes five minutes, but it stays in your heart for a full day. I really enjoy making things with dough — but with my hands, not a machine. I like handling the dough itself.
You’re quite tactile? You like to feel the food?
Yes I do. And then I like to eat it. I like to feel it twice. [Laughs.]
What customer request most annoys you?
To customize a dish — unless it’s for dietary needs. I feel like we’ve put a lot of effort into our menu and there are a lot of options for everyone. We’ve covered all areas. Actually, it doesn’t annoy me, it just kind of breaks my heart a little. I’m a very emotional person; I get attached to the food I make. So I feel like they’re telling me, “Your son’s hair isn’t nice. You should shave it.” I’m, like, “Whyyyy?”
Chef Sara’s Panelle
INGREDIENTS: 300g chickpeas; 900g water; 10g chopped parsley; salt to taste
1. Warm the water in a pot
2. Gradually add chickpea flour, mixing constantly with a whisk until the mixture is firm and lump-free
3. Add parsley and salt
4. Spread mixture on a tray lined with 5mm baking paper
5. Keep in the fridge for a day to dry out
6. Remove dough and cut into equal rectangles
7. Fry at 200c for two minutes
8. Serve with tzatziki mix
INGREDIENTS: 300g Greek yoghurt; 100g cucumber; 1 garlic clove; 15g dill; 6ml white vinegar; 20ml olive oil; salt and pepper to taste
1. Grate cucumber and strain all the water using a cheese cloth
2. Grate the garlic and mix with the cucumber
3. Add the yoghurt and mix. Add dill
4. Add olive oil and vinegar
5. Mix well and store in fridge