For Emirati celebrity chef Bader Najeeb, cooking is a culture-bending act of creativity infused with passion and nostalgia
“Food is about the love that you put in it.” In this age of nutritional neurosis young Emirati chef Bader Najeeb’s philosophy – that the food on our plate should be made with a healthy dollop of affection – is both refreshing and heart-warming.
Fitting too: it was as a teenager, watching his mother prepare meals for the family, that the self-taught cook served his culinary apprenticeship.
“The care and love you put into food always comes from the home – frequently from the mom,” he smiles.
Since those childhood days spent perched in the family kitchen, scrutinising his mother’s every move, Najeeb, known familiarly as ‘Chef B’, has become one of the UAE’s most celebrated cooks. At 18 he was already presenting two TV shows, rustling up iftar (fast-breaking) puddings during Ramadan on Ma’a Bader (With Bader) on Abu Dhabi Al Emarat TV; and hosting Sukar Zyada (Extra Sugar), on Sama Dubai TV. Desserts, says the young chef, are his forte.
Today, the 21-year-old is a social media sensation, filming, directing and editing hugely popular cookery demos for his YouTube channel, WithChefB (12K-plus followers), and sharing tantalising pictures of his culinary creations on his Instagram feed (almost 90K followers).
All this while studying for qualifications in both accountancy and professional pastry- making.
The chef has been credited with reconnecting Emiratis with their traditional cuisine, and reminding them that, in spite of the smorgasbord of international fare available in spots such as Downtown Dubai, the emirate’s vibrant restaurant and retail district, they shouldn’t overlook the food they were raised on. Notwithstanding that Dubai’s multiculturalism – the emirate is home to people of more than 200 nationalities – plays a starring role in Bader’s repertoire. “For me it’s all about fusion – creating an interchange of cultures through food,” he says.
For example, during an appearance on America’s The Today Show, the chef added an ice cream twist to classic Emirati doughnuts, luqaimaat, while also introducing US viewers to camel milk milkshakes.
For me it’s all about fusion – creating an interchange of cultures through food
And in the chef’s own take on Chinese fortune cookies he created special versions for the holy month of Ramadan; each diminutive crispy parcel containing a prayer in place of the customary prophecies and aphorisms.
Bader says he would love to introduce the world to Emirati cooking, and for it to achieve the same levels of familiarity as other international cuisines.
“Many people don’t know the difference between the Middle Eastern food they know about –hummus, for example – and traditional Emirati food. It’s up to us to change that.”
And with his extensive digital following, Bader, more than anyone, is tuned in to the power of social media to inform and enthuse a global foodie fanbase. “Social media provides fantastic exposure and enables you to demonstrate to people in other countries the creativity we unleash every day behind closed doors.”
So, how would Bader sum up the spirit and essence of Emirati cuisine for a novice? “We use a lot of cardamom and saffron,” he explains. “Whether it’s a sweet dish, a savoury dish, a hot drink or a cold drink – you’ll always encounter those spices.
The chef declares a particular soft spot for dates, which feature in many of his recipes, from date truffles to crispy date bites.
“They are used extensively in Emirati cooking and always transport me back to our family kitchen. My mother was famous for her date cakes. That’s why I’m here now. It’s what got me into baking.”