Aisha Mohammad Al Tamimi
Qatari chef and an expert in the art of hospitality and etiquette
In this interview, we highlight a Qatari woman who is famous locally and internationally and some of us might have grown up watching her on Qatar Television. Today, we learn the story of Aisha Mohammad Al Tamimi, whose name is always mentioned in Qatari homes as she is a chef who specialized in local and international cuisines, and whose professional knowledge is so vast that she authored seven recipe books. Moreover, she is a wife, a mother, and the victorious heroine who challenged breast cancer. So, who is Aisha Mohammad Al Tamimi?
I am one of the first Qatari chefs who specialized in khaliji and international cuisine. I am also an expert in the art of hospitality and etiquette.
How did your journey start in the culinary world?
It was a tough start because what had led me to learn cooking, especially learning to cook traditional Qatari dishes, was getting married at a young age. However, as time passed, I started enjoying cooking and became very interested in learning new khaliji and international recipes. One catalyst for this love was the fact that we used to welcome a lot of guests at our house since my husband was a well-known journalist and had many acquaintances visiting him from abroad. So, we used to welcome them at our house whenever they came to Qatar, and I was responsible for their meals, and I always wanted to serve them a variety of new dishes.
My elder sister was kind enough to teach me how to cook the Qatari dishes. After that, I started to learn other Arabian and Western dishes from magazines and books. I learned about the Italian cuisine first, then I learned about the Indian cuisine. I saw a parallel between the Indian cuisine and the Qatari cuisine as both depend heavily on a variety of spices, but both, the Italian and the Indian cuisine, had a great influence on my way of cooking. I think in the first few years after my marriage, I was cooking for my family only. After I started working as a teacher, I used to prepare dishes for my colleagues who were always praising my cooking skills, but in my head, I didn’t think that I was a talented cook, and I thought that those dishes were great because I kept trying to perfect them. Everyone enjoyed my cooking, and they would always ask me for the recipes. The more they requested the recipes, the more I felt that I needed to make even better dishes. I used to make cakes and sandwiches for them and then moved to bake pastries. Regardless of the type of dish, people would take one bite and immediately ask for the recipe!
When I used magazines and books to extract recipes, I would never stick to the exact recipe stated. I would always modify the recipes till I am satisfied with the final dish. It is hard for me to describe how I was thinking during those times. I would just try again and again till I succeeded in making the dish in a way that satisfied me. I was very determined to cook delicious dishes. I would say that people liking my cooking was the first milestone in my cooking journey. Afterwards, people started advising me to put all my cooking talents into publishing a recipe book, an advice that I didn’t follow at that time because of how expensive it was to produce and publish a book. However, the idea stayed in my mind until the release of my first book in 2005.
Throughout this journey, I made sure to learn everything related to cooking and I didn’t restrict myself to only following recipes. I would always try to make the dishes my way. Sometimes when I would visit restaurants with my husband and if he had a dish that he liked, I would ask him to guess the ingredients of that dish. Later, I would try to make that dish based on his description. He always said that my version of those dishes would turn out to be better than the ones he had at the restaurant. I started to recognize the ingredients of any dish just by looking at and tasting it and then I started developing my own recipes which greatly impacted my cooking skills. Another thing that improved my skills was the time we lived in Riyadh when my husband was a part of a diplomatic delegation. We used to welcome a lot of guests from different countries and that fuelled my passion even more because I wanted to serve the best food for them. All the positive comments that I received during that time motivated me even further.
The culinary world is a fresh world that is always expanding with every cuisine creating new recipes every day. So, a chef needs to stay updated with the latest emerging recipes and techniques in local and international cuisine. However, in my opinion, there is a difference between modernizing old recipes and the “mutilation” of them, especially when it comes to traditional recipes as these are a legacy that we inherited from our ancestors. They are a part of our culture and heritage, and I believe that we should not change them and then normalize that change and call it our traditional food. Those new recipes are not the ones we have inherited. I consider traditional recipes a red line that should not be crossed. When we travel to any country, one of the things we always do is try their traditional dishes. Let’s assume we travelled to Italy. Obviously, we will see that their menus will contain their traditional dishes, and those recipes are left untouched so why do we change ours? It is my dream to see Qatari cuisine celebrated and renowned internationally. I am happy that the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar will welcome the world to taste Qatari food and I hope to see a lot of those dishes prepared by Qatari chefs.
Could you tell us more about your cookbooks?
As I mentioned before, writing a cookbook has been on my mind. In the nineties, however, it became the only thing I was thinking about. It became the dream of my life! So, in 2005, I made up my mind to finally write the book regardless of the cost. I started inquiring about the cost of the different things that go into the process, such as hiring a photographer, printing, translating the book, and many other things. Once I had calculated the total amount, I visited a bank and asked for a loan of the said amount. I was always against the idea of borrowing money, from banks or individuals, but it was about fulfilling the dream of my life, so I made an exception.
I cannot describe how happy I was with that book. It was like my firstborn, and of course, it wasn’t a perfect book, nor the process was a smooth one. The book and its translation required many edits. However, it didn’t affect my happiness and joy. The first edition was about five thousand prints and after that, it was sold out, and I ended up printing the second edition in 2007. The book contained simple recipes, but it was the fruit of my experience, and it was a hit with people because it focused on the simple aspects of cooking. Actually, the book was such a success that I was able to repay the loan. And this is the story of my first book: Mawaed, and to date, I have published 4 parts of it.
It wasn’t an easy task to publish books; it required a lot of effort and time. The hardest stage was the phase of taking pictures. I had to prepare the dishes before the photographer would arrive, and then we needed to decorate and present the dish in an appealing way. Before this stage, there was a longer stage of writing the recipes paying close attention to measurements, and preparing those dishes to make sure it worked, and if it wasn’t successful, I remeasured everything and tried again till the dish was successful. Once I was sure that I got the right measurements, I converted the measurement unit to cups because that was what the people requested it to be. I try my best to be precise when it comes to measurements as people trust me with that.
Before publishing my second book, I hosted a cooking program on Qatar TV. Through the episodes of that program, I shared a lot of recipes that I decided to document in my second book which was published in 2006. The second book was a success too, but people still admired and bought the first book. After the second book, I decided to take a break from writing any new books.
I published another book in 2008 which had a section dedicated to traditional dishes. This was followed by my fourth book published in 2010 and that was the last part of Mawaed. Things are different now because people no longer rely on books to find recipes. There is the internet for that. Regardless, professional and passionate chefs still appreciate having books as references. However, to stay in trend, we have plans to start a YouTube channel and that is what we are currently working on at The Cooking Academy.
What encouraged you to host a cooking show on TV?
Just before publishing my second book, I expressed to my husband that I wish to share my many recipes with others, and since he was working in media, I asked for his permission to host a cooking show on TV. To be honest, I don’t know how I thought of it or how I had the courage to tell my husband, but he wasn’t mad about it and welcomed the idea; he even said that he would help me! We had this conversation at night, and I spent that night sleepless wondering if he had agreed to the idea because his mood was good and that in the morning, he will change his mind. To my surprise, he remembered the conversation the next morning and told me that he will write a request letter to Qatar TV and present it to them. All this was happening at a time when we were not used to seeing women on the TV screen.
Everything worked out and I started hosting the program in 2005. I had requested them to broadcast the program live; I have no idea where I got the confidence to ask such a thing! I was right in being confident. The program was an hour long and I would take calls from the viewers. The program was a hit with people to the point that I had people who were living outside Qatar call the show. I had calls from America and Austria and many other countries. My confidence grew even more because of how much people liked the program and I felt that I was able to explain and deliver the information in a proper manner. This is a skill that I might have developed throughout my work as a teacher because teachers will always try their best to deliver the information and find the best approach to do so, which are the same things I focused on during the show. I even remember that once I had an Arab chef guest on the show and she told me that I explain like a teacher, especially because I tried to give my audience the smallest of details so that they know every step of the cooking process and also know how to present the dish.
You run a cooking academy. How did you establish it?
We opened the academy in 2018. It was established by my son and his friends. During the covid-19 pandemic, we faced some challenges. We tried to deliver the orders to people but what we earned wasn’t enough to pay the expenses of the place, so most of the partners decided to withdraw from the project and my son became the sole owner of the place. This is when I decided to join him in the project especially because teaching cooking was nothing new to me. Since the beginning of the nineties, I used to give cooking classes to individuals at my house for anyone who wanted, and I might have been the first Qatari to cook and sell food from her house. However, working from my house is different from managing an academy which requires a lot more professionalism.
I was advised by many to open a restaurant, but I didn’t like that idea. It would require me to employ a staff and honestly, I don’t have the time for such a project. Also, if anything would go wrong, I will directly be responsible for it. So, I decided to focus on the academy only. I believe that one needs to be content with what they have and work to fulfil their own ambitions, not other people’s ambitions or do what others label as success. I was able to achieve what I had achieved thanks to Allah and then because of my hard work, but the level of fame that I had achieved was something I didn’t expect, nor did I work for. What made me work hard was my passion for cooking and my love for what I was doing. There was a time when my husband was getting recognized on the streets since he was a famous media person, but today, the situation has flipped, and I am the one with fans and the who gets recognized on the streets. Also, I would say that the authorities had a great role in highlighting my work on international platforms, and I got to learn a lot from working with people from other cultures. People encouraged me a lot which led my confidence to grow even further, and I am thankful to Allah that I was able to achieve a lot as a Qatari woman.
You mentioned that the state and the authorities played a role in your international success. Could you elaborate on that?
I have participated in many events outside Qatar as a chef specializing in Qatari cuisine. For example, in 2018, when Fahad Bin Mohammed Al Attiyah was the Ambassador of Qatar to Russia, he invited me to prepare the dinner that the embassy was going to hold in celebration of Qatar’s national day. He specifically wanted everything in the celebration to be Qatari and he was the who named me to be the chef for that event. They requested that I prepare a list of all the ingredients and things that I will need, and everything was bought from Qatar and shipped to Moscow. There I prepared everything in a small kitchen. It was so small that if I was to cook in it again, I wouldn’t know how to manage it, but at that time, Allah was taking care of me, and we were able to pull it off and finish preparing the dinner on time.
I made sure to prepare all the well-known Qatari seafood dishes as those dishes are something Qatar is known for as a peninsula. My sister helped me prepare the dishes and she was worried that the attendees would not eat all this food that is surely strange to them. She kept saying who is going to eat the “muhammar”? And I kept repeating to her that our job is to prepare the dishes and if they eat it, then great. If not, then it is fine too. We also made sure to make different Qatari sweets like “sagu” and “aseeda”; in addition to other famous traditional dishes such as “harees”, “madrooba”, and “jereesh”. On the day of the celebration, we started cooking at 4 am, and by 4 pm we started preparing the dining table. Then I excused myself to go change and prepare myself for the party. I left for a few hours and came back at 6:30 pm and the party had started half an hour before that. I was happy about what we achieved that day, and I looked forward to attending the party and taking pictures of the dishes. However, I was met with empty dishes! So, I asked the caterers to refill the dishes as we had made extra portions. To my surprise, they told me that they have served it all! After the dinner, the ambassador introduced me to the attendees as a Qatari chef and I was overjoyed with the positive comments I received. That event was a big break in my career as a Qatari chef.
The state also trusted my skills. For example, in 2015, I was invited by the Ministry of Commerce to participate in Expo 2015 hosted in Milan, Italy. We had A Qatari booth at the expo and during it, I had the opportunity to teach some Qatari dishes to foreign chefs. We were overwhelmed by the number of people who passed by the booth and their excitement to taste the Qatari food. “Muhammar” was the dish that caught everyone’s attention because it is a sweet and salty dish, and I took the opportunity to explain the history of the dish.
In 2017, The Supreme Committee invited me to take part in an event called “The Qatari House” that was held in Brazil. Many ministries and organizations participated in it. The goal of the event was to introduce the western world to Qatari culture and the many achievements of Qatar. I participated in it to introduce them to Qatari cuisine, and I also taught some Brazilian chefs some of our dishes and also some Brazilian dishes. We were having about 600 visitors every day and we were preparing meals for all those people!
During that event, I was still in treatment for breast cancer, so I had taken with me enough medicine to last me for a week only. I had planned to travel to Brazil and stay there for four days. However, I was told to stay for a whole month, so I stayed for 20 days. Those were 20 beautiful days and the whole group was working hard. The whole house was like a beehive. Sheikha Asma Al Thani was a part of the group, and I cannot start describing the amount of energy that we derived from her and her excitement to work hard.
I love participating in the events that are held outside Qatar and being able to introduce others to Qatari cuisine. I always try to innovate our traditional recipes without changing their essence so that they are appealing to the new generation. We can change how to present the dishes but not the recipes themselves. I personally think that Qatari cuisine is healthy, and that’s why our ancestors were quite healthy, and they didn’t suffer from high blood pressure or cancer, nor were they obese. My father was healthy and lived till he was 80 years old. Animal fat was a big part of his diet, and he would add it to his food.
Would you like to share with us your journey of overcoming breast cancer?
I was diagnosed in 2014 during a routine health check-up. I had water cysts in my breasts, but the test results of that year were not good. So, I was referred to a specialist for further tests, which we did. After the check-ups, I travelled to Thailand, and my niece, a doctor, advised me to redo those tests there, which I also did. The day that we went to see the doctor to get the results, I remember being alone with the translator and I was talking to her when she said that my right breast is fine but the left one has a small tumor. At that moment I felt that my whole world shattered, and all my courage faded! I called my daughter, who was with my sister at the same hospital, and told her, crying, to come to me. The doctor talked to us for a whole hour, but I wasn’t listening to him at all. At the end of the conversation, he asked us if we wanted to remove the tumor only or the whole breast. I replied to him in a harsh tone: “you are the doctor; you should not be asking me what we should do”. I didn’t mean to insult him, but I wasn’t myself, but the doctor was not shocked by my attitude as I am sure he understood what I was going through at the time. So, he didn’t comment on my reaction and proceeded to explain to me that the tumor was small and that removing it would not be hard. However, it is possible that during the surgery he might find out that the cancer has metastasized to other tissues, and in that case, he will have to remove the whole breast. I told him to do what he thinks is right. I was devastated.
A few days after that meeting, the surgery was performed. They had removed the tumor and some glands. After that, we had to decide between chemotherapy or radiation. That was another depressing period for me. I had heard a lot about chemotherapy and how painful it is. So, my niece sent my test results to doctors in America and England for their advice and all of them agreed that radiation therapy will be enough. This news helped improve my mood a lot. After I fully recovered from the surgery, I started radiation sessions. I had to take 33 sessions through which I was happy and full of positivity. I used to go to the sessions with a smile and chat with the nurses and laugh with them. I even brought desserts for them. Alhamdulillah, I finished the treatment and then had to stay on medication (tablets) for five years with routine check-ups.
After overcoming cancer, I worked with The Qatar Cancer Society to give talks and spread awareness and I am thankful that I am able to share my journey with others, answer their questions, and help to reduce their anxiety. My advice for everyone is to always remember that nobody will die before their time. Diseases could be a cause, but Allah is always going to be merciful towards us. Some hardships are a sign that Allah loves us, and they could be reminders to repent back to Allah. Being diagnosed with cancer has completely changed my relationship with Allah. I am much closer to Allah, and I firmly believe that Allah gives more than what we ask. So, when you ask Allah for strength, you will surely receive it.
Have you faced any other challenges during your journey?
I faced a few challenges at the beginning of my journey mostly because of my husband’s reservations about my work as a chef with men. He didn’t disapprove of it, but it is the nature of men to be protective of their wives. However, I always remind him that since he agreed to let me do the TV show, he already proved to me that he trusts me. With time, however, those challenges disappeared. Another challenge that I faced was that some of my family members were not happy with me hosting a show on TV. For example, one of my sisters is very religious and when my show would broadcast, she would tell her son to go and see if I was wearing my hijab properly. Alhamdulillah, all these difficulties improved over time and whatever I faced were minor issues.
I would say that the biggest challenge I faced was my diagnosis of breast cancer, especially because it affected my work a little bit, but with Allah’s help, I was able to return to work as soon as I finished my treatment. One of the things that I dislike is to be told that I didn’t do justice to someone. Sure, perfection doesn’t exist, but I always try to do my best in all my relations, with my husband, my children, and even with my friends.
What do you consider your biggest achievement?
My biggest achievement is being referenced in books. For me, this is a sign that I have managed to reach the success that I wanted. I am also very proud that I was able to take care of my family and household while also working.
What is your advice for women in Qatar?
Take care of your household. You don’t have to cook, but you have to supervise it even if you have someone to help you with chores. It gives me great joy when a woman takes care of her house and shows interest in learning to cook.