Nazek Al Sabbagh is the owner of the retail store Malleh Gourmet.
Mitchelle D’Souza, Sub-editor/Reporter
When former civil engineer Nazek Al Sabbagh started selling malleh, a traditional Emirati salted fish dish made mainly with tuna or king fish, she had no inkling she was going to reach it to new heights of popularity.
Today she can proudly claim to have been featured on international shows — culinary experts of the likes of John Torode and Andrew Zimmern have shone a spotlight on her star dish, malleh — and she is a force to reckon with in the food business, having won many awards for innovation and creation.
Nazek dived into the malleh-making business in 2010 after retiring from her civil engineering profession.
“I come from a business background. Being born in UAE, business runs in our blood,” states the self-proclaimed workaholic.
The businesswoman always mulled over what she would do after hanging up her hat, and that’s how Malleh Gourmet and two of her other enterprises (a fashion designing label and a quick fix maintenance company) were born.
The salted fish preparation of malleh is typically eaten with white rice.
Another method is boiling the malleh with spices and having it as a side with biryani and pilaf.
It is an indispensable food item in Emirati cuisine, and is consumed by families, especially during Eid.
“This is very important to us,” explains Nazek.
“After Ramadan we eat meat, we eat fried food. But we don’t have malleh because it’s salted.
“But on the first day of Eid, every house would have this on the table, especially Eid al-Fitr. It’s a must.”
Along with her sister Zohoor Al Sabbagh, who is malleh’s ‘ingredient master,’ Nazek sells the preserved fish dish out of their boutique in Jumeirah 2.
Aside from malleh, they offer sehnah (a lightly coloured powdered condiment made from ground anchovies), mehyawah (a form of preserved anchovy paste that is delicately mixed with traditional spices) and jashei (sundried and salted anchovy fillets devoid of skin, bones and head).
Nazek struck upon the idea of opening her boutique on discovering the lack of quality malleh in the market.
“Every time I went to the market to buy malleh, I couldn’t find one that matched my standards.
“I wanted all the grandparents and elders to find a specialised malleh shop any time of the year; one they could trust.
“Our recipe for malleh is just like the way our ancestors made it.”
While there are many retail varieties of malleh available in the market, what makes Malleh Gourmet a winner is the process by which it’s prepared.
It is the first one to make use of superior quality packaging and the only one in the market that displays the ingredients and it’s percentage on each label.
Their bottles are barcoded and have been exported to countries in the GCC region such as Kuwait and Bahrain, and the cities of New York and London as well.
Nazek opines, “Malleh can be brought from the market. You can get it for a nominal price.
“But people come to us because they know it’s clean and hygienic.
“They trust the ingredients and it’s sustainable. You’ll come 10 years later and it will still stay the same.”
Her mission now is getting the younger generation to develop a liking for malleh.
“I am so honoured that my customers are not of any particular age category. I have customers in their 20s.
“That’s our mission, keeping this traditional dish alive and interesting for future generations.”
While malleh appeals to the palette of Emiratis across all ages, millenials tend to lean more towards mehyawah or sehna (it’s usually relished by sprinkling atop white rice drizzled with ghee and lemon).
Nazek is working towards keeping it exciting for them by employing a hands-on approach.
“I do exhibitions where I showcase malleh and it’s a whole feast,” she states. “People just stop in their tracks and watch the spectacle.
“For salted fish, I say, we need to train the chefs. That’s what we do. My sister and I.
“This is another level. We not only sell, but train them on how to make the product.
“We have conducted a few cooking sessions in restaurants and hotels, attended by food bloggers and foodies.”
As for the brand’s future, it surely looks bright with Malleh Gourmet poised to expand further.
It has also been registered for the upcoming Expo 2020 event.
“Maybe one day we could be like KFC with branches everywhere,” jests the boss lady.
She continues, “There’s no other way to make this product more relevant than expansion.
“I can feel the forces pushing me into expansion without questioning or hesitation.”
Nazek signs off by quoting an insightful proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
She professes: “We are here for this purpose. We preserve not only the fish, but also the traditional food, that authentic taste.”
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