Burning issue: Livin' La Vida Local

What does 'local' mean for chefs when buying ingredients?

The Farmers' Market on The Terrace is just one of many local produce initiatives in the UAE.
The Farmers' Market on The Terrace is just one of many local produce initiatives in the UAE.

What does ‘local’ mean for chefs when buying ingredients and where do they get it from? Caterer Middle East investigates

The number of farmer’s markets and local ingredients found in grocery stores are on the rise. A lot more awareness is seen on the home consumer end on what is ‘local’ and why they should consider it. But are chefs able to use local ingredients on the menu, and more importantly, is it possible to tailor menus to ingredients found locally?

Silvena Rowe, who moved to the UAE to set up a restaurant, says the first problem arises in defining what ‘local ingredients’ mean.

“When you buy ingredients from a local farmers market, ‘local’ means a 100 mile radius in London. Here it is very different; we don’t even know what it is,” she says. Rowe explains that staying within a geographical area, for example importing from Iran or Turkey, is sometimes the best ‘local’ you can hope for in this region.

The School of Culinary and Finishing Arts’ (SCAFA) head chef Francisco Araya agrees. “We try to buy as much as possible produce from the Middle East, but for local I mean Oman, UAE, KSA, Iran — their carbon footprint is lower.”

Menu Creation
But once chefs figure out what ‘local’ means to them, can they possibly create dishes based on these items? Rowe reveals that when she arrived in the Middle East, she imagined the situation would be as it is across the rest of the world where ingredients are sourced locally and according to the season.

She says: “I reckon without a shred of doubt, that 98% of chefs here, from what I’ve seen, are using imported ingredients. And you can’t blame them because it’s easy and consistent.”

In a previous interview with Caterer Middle East, Rowe had claimed that she will not be including items on her upcoming restaurant’s menu that cannot be sourced locally. She now says: “I have realised that I will not be able to have 100% of local supplier ingredients on my menu but if I push this as far as I can, this is going to be my aim.”

Private chef-for-hire and consultant Tomas Reger says that it’s easier for him to use a majority of local ingredients in his food because he caters to no more than 25 people at a time.

“During the winter or when the temperature drops, I have no problem getting local stuff, and that’s what I’m looking for,” says Reger. He says freshness of the ingredient is also a factor in his trying to buy as much as he can locally.

With bigger restaurants or hotels though, Reger says it is a little difficult, with chefs having to rely on imported items as well. He does point out, however, that it is not impossible.

“I once spoke to one of the big suppliers in the region, and they provide a list of ingredients they can provide locally and a list of imported items, and if you insist you can build a menu around locally available ingredients.”

Araya says: “Of course I would love to go local for produce and fish. I would love to change my menu according to what’s available throughout the year, but with the produce from Dubai, at least today that is not possible. We are able to find poultry, eggs, little bits of produce, fish and shellfish; not enough to have a menu based on local products.”

Cuisine plays an important role in deciding whether menus can be tailored to local ingredients. With the climate here favourable to certain products, it’s only natural that restaurants or chefs specialising in certain cuisines have no choice but to import.

Rowe says this is not endemic to the Middle East. “For example, Thai cuisine in London is impossible because of the restrictions in importing Thai herbs and spices.” She admits though, that because her cuisine is Middle Eastern, she does not foresee much of a problem.

Araya adds that the trend in the world is to go local, not just in ingredients but also in local cuisine and traditions. He says: “At SCAFA, we try our best training future generations of chefs who will choose sustainable ingredients and if possible local produce.”

Shopping List
Which local ingredients can we find on menus? Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa’s senior sous chef Peter Sebby says: “We have incorporated quite a number of local products such as fish and seafood namely, shaam, mahi-mahi, Omani prawns and lobster all of which are fished from the shores of the Gulf seas. We also have vegetables like cucumbers, bell peppers and herbs.”

In agreement with Sebby, Rowe says that when it came to seafood, she would definitely be able to source fish locally. “I get seafood from Deira fish market which is unbelieveable and phenomenal.”

Reger agrees and adds: “You get fantastic fish here during winter, but then I won’t get it over summer. It slows down.”

Araya is more candid on the issue. He says: “For chicken and eggs we have good producers, who commit and are able to produce good ingredients, but for fish and shellfish what is available is disturbing. I visited the fish market in Deira a couple of weeks ago and I’ll never buy fish from it during the hot months of the year.

Fish and shellfish are kept without ice or not refrigerated, with the guts in, exposed to high heat and insects all day long. If not sold they are refrigerated overnight, set for display and sold the following day. I can’t understand why in a place where people’s health is at risk there is no air conditioning or control regarding how food is kept.”

Challenges
While a firm promoter of the cause, Rowe says the problem with local ingredients is that of inconsistency. This is because there isn’t enough demand for it and there isn’t a tradition of practice in this regard. She adds that she’s not deterred by any challenges and has already developed close relationships with some suppliers.

Araya agrees that the quality is not consistent throughout the year forcing SCAFA to get produce from different parts of the world.

The problem with local produce is the variety, according to Reger. “Here a tomato is a tomato, a squash is a squash. But within a tomato there are different types with different flavours,” he says.

Rowe adds to this: “Of course there’s nothing exotic here; if I want exotic fruit I have no choice but to import.” Sebby agrees with Rowe about ‘exotic’ goods, and adds that this is sometimes essential.

“Some dishes require exotic products not produced locally hence have to be sourced from beyond the Gulf region. To stay relevant we must be able to serve guests with a wide ranging variety of the best ingredients so as not only keep up with current trends but also satisfy our international clientele.”

Sebby adds that the challenges of sourcing and using local products stem from the fact that this is a very hot region and getting products on a consistent basis through the different seasons is never easy as compared to imports that can be received all year round due to ability of many markets to buy from. “Production of meat from the locality is still at an infant stage thereby curtailing the probability of putting them on our menus,” he adds.

Promoting Local
Despite any challenges faced, Rowe says that supporting local farmers is important, especially for chefs and restaurants. “I am creating a restaurant in Dubai and I would like to have respect towards the locally produced ingredients in season, and not just the producers.”

She advocates chefs and restaurants to do their research well and find out where they can support local farmers. “Most chefs will decide to buy straightaway from whatever is available from whoever is available — they don’t shop around. [Finding local ingredients] comes with investigation.”

Sebby disagrees and says: “Many a chef would prefer going to a local market to shop for the local ingredients as they give best flavours in dishes.” He adds that the advantages of using local products and ingredients are that they are fresh, full of flavour and cost-effective. “Imported products have freight taxes hence when one receives them costs are high,” adds Sebby.

Rowe points to the Ras Al Khor Fruit & Vegetable market in Dubai where she finds and buys produce from Jordan, Iran, Turkey and India. “That’s as good as it gets and this is in addition to my local supplier from Al Ain,” she adds.

Sebby reveals that currently the resort is in consultations with a farm in Al Ain which produces local vegetables, fruits and herbs to supply products. “Once achieved, it will move us great strides ahead towards our goal of having most ingredients on our menus being locally farmed. Like the eggs we use are just farmed down the road from us which gives us an advantage of getting freshly laid eggs on a regular basis.”

So What's Next?
Araya is an advocate for high quality and sustainability in the local farming industry. “To be able to source the produce we chefs use at our restaurants locally we have to be sure quality is going to be good and consistent, and that it is going to be produced in a sustainable way.”

He adds that ‘sustainable’ does not necessarily mean ‘organic’. He continues: “To accomplish it Dubai has to invest in technology and training, it has been done all over the world allowing communities to get their produce from ground that used to be a desert.”

Reger has tried to grow some fruits and vegetables in his own vegetable patch, and has met with varying degrees of success. He’s full of praise for an organic farm in Lebanon, Jlal At-Tormos, which grows a wide variety of items. “I can’t get local heirloom tomatoes here but I got them in Beirut,” he adds.

He also thinks the trend will only get better. “Local farms are indulging in composting so eventually the soil will get better.”

Sebby’s advice for chefs trying to go local is that menus can be rotated to go with seasons. “For outlets to be able to use local ingredients well on their menus, they should bear in mind the seasons, consistency of supplies and quality. Products should be more natural and not genetically modified. Many times we may focus too much on price and forget the quality,” he concludes.

A Closer Look
Farmers' Market on the Terrace

The fourth season of the weekly Farmers’ Market was hosted on the terrace of Jumeirah Emirates Towers in Dubai every Friday until early May 2013.

Previously housed at Souk Al Bahar in Downtown Dubai, the market provides a platform to support local farmers who sell their freshly harvested produce directly to the consumers.
It contains a variety of organic produce including vegetables, eggs, honey, jams, bread, cakes, beans, pulses and rice. Some of the local farmers include Al Shuwib Organic Farms, Bufjair Trading Co. and Rashed Salyem Al Kitby Farm, among others.

The second Farmers’ Market On The Terrace launched outside Baker & Spice on Dubai Marina Promenade.

We asked Yael Mejia of Baker & Spice Dubai and the inspiration behind the Farmers’ Market on the Terrace if it’s possible to tailor menus to local ingredients.

“I believe in looking at what is around seasonally, locally and regionally and building a menu around these parameters rather than coming at it purely from a menu starting point and then looking to obtain the required ingredients, regardless of where they come from.

Leveraging what is around the region, any region, forces you to look hard at what you cook at any time of the year and to ring in changes accordingly. The question remains around concepts imported into this region and hinge on the ability to recreate faithfully food that has no context here, and is dependent on importing from the home market,”says Mejia.

Market Focus
A Look at The Three Latest Farmer's Markets in the UAE

Blue Planet, Green People
Located in Jumeirah Lakes Towers, Dubai, Blue Planet Green People, founded by Renu Ojha, launched its Farmers’ Market which is scheduled to take place every Friday from 10:30am-2:30pm during the cooler months in Cluster U, JLT, in front of its store. It includes farmers’ produce from Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Sharjah, featuring aubergines, cucumbers, carrots, green leafy vegetables such as spinach and rocca, and herbs such as coriander, basil and parsley.

Ripe
Founded by Becky Balderstone, Ripe hosts two markets in Dubai: one in Al Quoz at The Courtyard on Saturdays from 9am-1pm, and in Jumeirah on Fridays from 9am-1pm at the Le Gourmet Café. It also offers one more in the capital, at Jones Al Raha, Abu Dhabi on Thursdays. The markets feature ‘local, seasonal, organic and fresh’ produce, along with other products. Visitors can buy from a set box or mix-and-match to create their own.

Organic Produce Market
The Marketing Management Section of Assets management department at Dubai Municipality in collaboration with Ministry of Environment and Water opened a market for organic fruits and vegetables produced in nine local farms next to the Deira Fish Market from 9am-4pm on Fridays. Bundles of seasonal ingredients are available for AED 1 each.

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