By Asma Ali Zain
Last year, Israel and the United Arab Emirates signed a treaty establishing diplomatic relations. But for more than a year earlier, diners in the UAE had already been finding their way to Jewish culture — via the home cooking of a South African expatriate.
Elli Kriel, a sociologist by training who moved to Dubai in 2013 when her husband was transferred to the Emirates for work, began serving kosher food to Jewish tourists years ago out of her home kitchen. Now she has become the go-to kosher chef in the UAE at a time when Israeli tourists have begun streaming into the country.
Last year, Kriel launched Kosherati, which sells kosher-certified Emirati cuisine, as well as fusion Jewish-Emirati dishes. And she opened a kosher pop-up restaurant at the Hilton Al Habtoor City, a Dubai hotel. Before the restaurant had to close because of rising COVID-19 rates, it employed three chefs and 12 other employees. Kosher supervision was provided by the Orthodox Union.
“[For] those who wanted kosher foods, coming to eat the foods that they could get in their home communities [while] in Dubai was a bit of a waste,” Kriel said.
When Kriel’s family arrived in Dubai, there were some 70 Jewish families in the UAE and little communal infrastructure, which made it challenging for the family to continue keeping kosher. Kriel would fill suitcases with kosher foods when she traveled, and would ask visitors from South Africa to do the same when they came to the UAE. Once they were settled, the family started hosting dinner parties for local Jews.
Word spread. Observant Jewish tourists and business travelers sought out Kriel and asked her to cook kosher meals, which she would do for free. When the UAE held a high-profile interfaith conference in 2018, organizers turned to her to feed a Jewish delegation.
While Kriel was building up a base of kosher eaters, she found another set of customers. Emiratis who had traveled to the United States or Europe and couldn’t find halal food often turned to kosher restaurants, which abide by similar dietary restrictions. Some developed a liking for traditional Jewish cuisine.
“They missed this taste when they came back to the UAE,” Kriel said. “I had two sets of audiences. I had those who wanted Jewish foods, not necessarily kosher foods, and also had those who wanted kosher foods, but not necessarily Jewish foods.”
Kriel had long wanted to try her hand at traditional Emirati dishes, and began experimenting with kosher versions of them in 2019. When the pandemic began, she found more time to develop a repertoire.
One of Kriel’s offerings is the balaleet kugel, which combines an Emirati vermicelli and egg breakfast meal with the Ashkenazi Jewish sweet noodle dish. Similarly, her chebab blintz melds the Jewish crepe delicacy with chebab, an Emirati pancake. And Kriel’s “bread of peace,” named in honor of the normalization agreement, combines challah with khameer, an Emirati spiced pita-like bread.
Demand for Kriel’s food has risen with the normalization of relations with Israel, as more than 50,000 Israeli tourists flew to the UAE before travel to and from Israel was suspended due to the pandemic. Kriel hopes the influx will lead to kosher ingredients being sold in Dubai.
“Within six months, of course, it’s going to be a completely different environment — we’ll be able to go into the supermarket, and you will find kosher products,” she said. “You’re going to have a section that says ‘kosher.’ So we will get there.”
This originally ran on JTA.org.