It’s not surprising that Alexandra Von Hahn has a natural curiosity about the foreign cultures she encounters. Her father was German and her mother Hungarian. She was raised in Chile and Canada, and married a German diplomat. Alexandra delved into the history and traditions behind Emirati cuisine during her husband’s five-year tenure in the UAE. Her first cookbook, Culinary Magic of the Emirates, is a culmination of her love for Emirati culture and food traditions, and an ode to her friends in the region.
Talk us through your journey – what inspired you to put this book together?
When I moved to the UAE I asked myself, ‘Do I want to continue to focus on my cheesecake company in Germany or should I get to know the Emirati food culture in the UAE?’ It struck me that there’s something very special about the UAE’s cuisine. But the only way I could familiarise myself with it was to literally go from door to door in the Al Bateen area in Abu Dhabi. That’s how I met my former neighbour, Zahra Al Nahdi, who is also featured in my book. She’s the one who told me that before I could understand the food culture, I had to learn about the values upon which it was based.
What are some of the traditions Zahra taught you in the course of this journey?
Before inviting me into her house, Zahra told me to go home and dress completely in black. Once I returned in appropriate attire she proceeded to teach me how to walk into a house, sit down in a majlis [meeting room] and then she served me Emirati coffee, dates, chocolates, candies, cake and bread. There’s an interesting tradition associated with serving a guest coffee – only one third of the cup is filled with the beverage so that the guest doesn’t burn her lips and tongue. In addition, it means the host is honouring the guest and celebrating her arrival in her home. The coffee is only meant to be sipped and no one drinks more than one or two cups at a time. Essentially, it’s a catalyst that allows strangers to spend time getting to know each other.
How long did it take to put this book together?
I never set out with the intention to write a book, but by the end of my research I had so much information on a topic that hadn’t been discussed before that I decided to share it with the world. I interviewed 156 Emiratis over the course of three years, compiling recipes and gathering stories on their backgrounds and the connection between food and their traditions.
Could you elaborate on the connection between food and Emirati traditions?
For those of you who read my book, you will notice food is never simply wolfed down. It’s meant to be celebrated and honoured. In order to appreciate food, families sit on the floor in a circle and eat with their hands. This allows them to touch, smell and taste the food, making mealtimes a sensory experience. Food isn’t meant to stuff our stomachs and make us lethargic after a meal. One way to prevent overeating is to sit with one leg tucked under yourself and the other one pulled up against your stomach.
Could you describe one of the food rituals you’ve highlighted in your book?
Yes, absolutely. Food is always blessed because it comes from Allah. The person who cooks, blesses the food by transmitting his/her energies (that come from God) to the food. Before it is served, the cook blesses the meal once more by placing his/her hand over the food. Emiratis believe that this ritual imparts greater flavour to the dishes that are served.