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Saudi Chef Asma Tabaaji Tells Us the Secrets of Her Dishes and Competing with Men in the Industry

Asma Tabaaji

Her first step in the culinary world was in her family kitchen. With time, cooking became her eternal passion, prompting her to pursue learn the trait both skillfully and professionally.  

In this interview, Saudi chef Asma Tabaaji gives us a sneak peak into her kitchen. She talks about her cooking talents, her beginnings, some of the situations she has encountered in the kitchen, and what she thinks about male-dominated cooking industry in the KSA:

Could you describe the experience of a Saudi woman as a chef?
One of the most enjoyable professions ever! For me cooking each dish or meal is an adventure. It’s no tedious task, when you’re having fun, but constant strive for creativeness and excellence. Today, Saudi women are the ground for this profession.

Recently, so many Saudi women names have surfaced in the field of catering for formal events and occasions, what’s your take on that?
Each woman is characterized by and known for her own cooking flavor and exquisite taste. The sure thing about this field is that each dish, even if it’s the same one, will differ according to how prepared the cook is, how much she loves the task of cooking, and the extent of which she’s willing to excel.

Does that mean women are attracted to work in this profession? Were Saudi women able to break away from the stereotype of being confined to certain areas of work?
Well, for me it’s not a profession, as much as it is a skill and art. Saudi women have always been attracted to work in this area, but only within the frame of the productive families programs. Only few have the guts to work at restaurants and hotels.

How do you react toward those who criticize a skillful cook like yourself?
I say it’s only a matter of different opinions and I really respect all opinions.

Saudi female chefs use "Instagram Boutiques" to promote their dishes. Do you think this is a healthy phenomenon or the business needs to be a little more organized?
I think it’s essential and very necessary to put in place some kind of an order, under the supervision of the productive families program, so that every productive woman or family can sell their products on Instagram. Of course after registering the business at the Ministry of Commerce to control the hygiene, expiry dates, and the other issues involved.

Can Saudi dishes compete globally, or against popular fast food? What are the most famous Saudi dishes in demand?
The taste of our popular traditional dishes is different from one Saudi city to another. From my point of view, I see that all dishes are competing against each other, whether they are international, Arabic, or local. The culinary world is big, vast and diversified with the usage of different spices, portions, cooking techniques, and other factors. As for the most popular Saudi dishes, the ones mostly in demand include Jareesh, Marqouq, Saliqu, Marasei'e, Mataziz and the different types of Kabsah. 

Cooking is a gift, a talent: does it need practice or study?
I actually view cooking as a skill. You need to have the ability and passion for it, so no matter how many lessons you take you cannot excel in it unless you cook from your heart and with love, regardless of your age!

Have you transferred your experience to others?
Yes of course, I taught my friends and relatives. Now all my female family members are good cooks. We inherited this gift from my mother and father, may their souls rest in peace.

Are you with or against opening specialized colleges for teaching cooking?
I am strongly with. People wishing to pursue this career need to learn the basics of cooking on a professional level.

Women nowadays learn how to cook through the internet. Do you think YouTube is a good way to learn?
Yes! One of the best ways to learn how to cook is through YouTube and Instagram. 

What is your advice to the new generation of girls, who do not know the skills and basics of cooking, but are wishing to follow in that career path?
A girl must first love to cook; no one can be obligated to do anything. To excel in what you deliver, you need to love to cook. Also, focusing on diversifying and introducing new delicious dishes is very important.

What do you think are the basic skills to be a successful chef?
To have the guts, self-confidence, and the capabilities to bear and tolerate the hardships of the kitchen.  

Is being a chef a profitable profession, or a job with limited income?
Speaking for myself I say I do this for the passion and not the money!  

What is the most difficult situation you encountered during your journey in the culinary world?
When the power and water were cut off while I was preparing meals in Ramadan. I was to prepare meals for around 2500 people! Thank God, I managed to survive the crisis and finished cooking for Iftar and Suhoor. Another problem I encounter sometimes is the limited time I have to complete the task entrusted to me.

What is so special about chef Asma's dishes?
I cook with love and not because this is part of my daily routine, or because it is my job. Cooking made with love and passion has an exquisite and distinguished flavor.

What is your specialty? The dishes you excel in and your family members ask you to do?
I believe I make all Arab, oriental and international dishes perfectly well. Family members love my Kabuli, Mindi, rice with check beans. My Indonesian and Indian cuisine specialties are also a hit in my family. 

Name one international kitchen that appeals to your taste?
Cake Boss from Italy.

A famous international dish you didn't like?
Honeslty, I like all kinds of dishes, and enjoy the adventure of tasting everything.

Do you think that the kitchen is still the kingdom of women?
It is the kingdom of women, men, and even children! I strongly believe that it’s not restricted to one category or gender.

It is said that spices and herbs can hide the flaws of food, even expired, old food: what do you think?
No, nothing can fix or hide expired, old food. Spices may hide some flaws where only the experienced taster can distinguish them.

Do you have other hobbies?
Cooking is my hobby and passion. But I also seek to evolve and gain more experience in my main job as a media and programs officer.

Have you ever participated in a national or international cooking contest?
No never, but it gives me so much pride that I supervised a food buffet for the biggest Ramadan Tent in the Middle East, "Ramadan in our neighborhood". It lasted for 30 days and received around 2500 people every day.

What is your advice for women who want to learn cooking now?
There are no limits for creativeness in the kitchen. Learn a new dish or recipe everyday. Discover the secret world of spices. Always broaden your horizon and abilities.

What is your favorite proverb or wisdom?
Circumstances do not control us, only we can make them either weaken or strengthen us.

What is your dream?
To open my own restaurant, and allocate a part of it for the needy and hungry.

A final word to the readers?
For every woman I say: plan to realize one goal at least every day. Do not stop at a certain stage but keep evolving and learning. As for me, I believe that someday I will achieve my dreams and progress forward in this field that I love so much.

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