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Spicing Things Up

Israeli food makes a splash in Dubai

Tablet Magazine
February 04, 2009

When the new Dubai Mall, one of the planet’s largest and grandest shopping meccas, opened last fall, its developers boldly announced that they’d given the Earth “a new centre”—so it only makes sense that shoppers in need of emergency kugel recipes can now go to the mall’s Japanese-run Kinokuniya Book World, browse the extensive selection of Jewish cookbooks, and leave with a copy of Joan Nathan‘s “Jewish Holiday Cooking.”

Nathan might herself be more interested in skipping the Ashkenazic nosh in favor of lunch at the mall’s new Baker & Spice cafe, whose founder, Yael Mejia, enthusiastically espouses the kind of Middle Eastern-inflected Israeli cooking Nathan has been avidly proselytizing among American Jews for years.

Born in England and raised in Tel Aviv, Mejia—who frequently goes by the more Anglicized “Gail”—has built her London-based bakery chain into a temple for the kind of food she grew up eating: fresh, seasonal, vibrant, and unabashed about spicing up stodgy favorites with unexpected flavors. Baker & Spice is the sort of place where shepherd’s pies and smoked haddock cakes sit comfortably alongside carrot and orange soup flavored with saffron and coriander, and items like organic lamb burgers come flavored with cinnamon, chili, and herbs.

“Nothing wishy-washy,” is how Mejia, a wry 54-year-old, describes her food aesthetic, which relies heavily on the Israeli touchstones of lemon juice, sumac, olive oil, and cumin. “Really strong flavors, really strong color.”

The new menus highlight more aggressively Middle Eastern flavors than Londoners would tolerate—bread festooned with zaatar leaves and sumac that “looks amazing, tastes amazing, is amazing,” French toast and granola drizzled with date syrup instead of honey—and fruit baskets filled with radiant pomegranates, melons and squashes sourced from small organic farms in the Emirates. Roast pumpkin soup comes paired with labne and purple spinach, lamb shank with pomegranate molasses, roast chicken with Lebanese crushed potatoes, Omani sardines with Turkish lemon gremolata.

“I’m using Israeli-style flavors, which are of course very local,” Mejia says. “It’s food with attitude.”

Baker & Spice started in 1995, nearly two decades after Mejia returned to England to study catering and hotel management. A graduate of a prominent agricultural school, she found a country awash with imported foreign produce that looked fantastic but tasted “like dross,” as she bluntly put it. “It’s a well-known fact that a lot of food in England tastes of nothing,” she says, waving her cigarette for effect. “Nothing grows in England except potatoes, turnips, and parsnips—everything else is shipped in, and so things are picked before they’re ready, because it needs to look good, and there’s no taste to anything.”

Mejia—who describes herself as a good cook who hates to stand in a kitchen—spent 17 years in the food distribution business before she lost patience and decided to start her own shop, where she could hire people to make the sort of food she missed eating herself. “We cook how I like to eat it,” Mejia says, flashing an unapologetic grin over a Skype video link.

From Victorian ovens in the posh Knightsbridge neighborhood, just a stone’s throw from the famous Harrod’s food halls, Mejia had a team of bakers turning out chewy ficelles and slipper loaves embedded with roasted garlic, along with flaky croissants and bittersweet pains de chocolat sold alongside homemade nectarine jam and chunky marmalade. But the real glory was in the savory dishes her first traiteur, Sami Tamimi, an Arab Israeli who got his start in the kitchens of Jerusalem’s Mount Zion Hotel—regularly piled on colorful platters at the main counter: glossy roasted vegetables and salads of beans, avocado and eggplant, sometimes livened up with tart pomegranate syrup instead of common balsamic vinegar.

“In Israel they do not import fruit and vegetables—they wait for everything,” Mejia says. “So when I go to the markets myself I read every box, look at every cucumber and tomato, and if I have to buy imported stuff I buy it from places where I know it’s growing in the right season and in sunlight and natural warmth.”

Ashkenazic staples appear at Passover and Rosh Hashanah but draw a certain degree of disdain from their purveyor. “I don’t do gefilte fish,” Mejia declared a few years ago in an email newsletter announcing a special-order “soul food” menu featuring chicken soup with kreplach, chopped liver, and boiled brisket. But the roast chicken was dressed in lemon and honey, the tzimmes came in caramel, and the apple strudel was paired with sour cherries—a Persian favorite.

Mejia bragged that her Passover kneidlach traveled as far as Australia, but she never went the route of domestic goddess Nigella Lawson, the global queen of televised food porn; instead, she is a food impresario. The original shop, which has moved up the street to a larger, airier storefront, has spawned four others, along with a counter at the legendary Selfridges food halls; a separate wholesale bread business has given rise to Gail’s Bread. There’s also a private-jet catering business called Cloud 9 and a chocolatier called Cocomaya.

And now, there’s Dubai. The venture was originally proposed by two Kuwaiti investors—and customers—who asked Mejia eight years ago to create a cafe/market like Baker & Spice in Kuwait. “We became very close, and now they’re practically family,” Mejia says. “So when they came to me and said, ‘Let’s do it in Dubai, the real thing,’ they didn’t even need a pitch.” One shop, in the Souk al Bahar, opened in January; two more are slated to open this spring, along with the Dubai mall flagship. In between developing menus and training her new Indian and Filipino staff, Mejia—who rarely explains why an Englishwoman understands so much Arabic, especially specialized food terms that are almost identical in Hebrew—visits local farms and tries to generate government support for the Emirates’ nascent organic farming industry.

“I’m going to try to get some help for people growing vegetables in the middle of the desert,” says Mejia, who wants to import the “know-how” developed on kibbutzes along the Jordanian border for farming with brackish irrigation water, which forces plants to produce super-sweet fruit.

“The ingredients we buy are so good, they speak for themselves,” Mejia says. “I stick to very simple combinations that are complex, but not complicated. The flavors are like a silk thread running through the food—the ingredients change, but the flavors are always there.”

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.

From the editors at Tablet Magazine