This week, co-host Devina Divecha sits down with Nahla Tabaa, an artist, a researcher in the food space and an alchemist. Nahla explains what alchemy really means in the context of food, the intersection of food, art, and history, along with some of her recent commissions.
[00:00 - 00:16] Welcome to Nourish by Spinneys, the podcast which promises to inspire you to eat well and live well.
[00:16 - 00:33] I'm Devina Divecha. And I'm Tiffany Eslick. Welcome to a space where we hope to nourish your heart and soul. On the show, we chat with leading players in the food community, from farmers to foodies, as well as health and wellbeing experts. It's all about engaging conversations and fresh ideas.
[00:33 - 00:49] We're chatting today with Nahla Tabaa, who is an artist and a researcher and has worked in arts, culture and also food. It was an interesting conversation and I learned a lot. But I'm going to let Nahla explain exactly what she does. Thanks for taking the easy way out Devina.
[00:49 - 01:04] Because when I get asked this question, I used to get quite flustered. I have friends still making jokes about the fact that they still have no idea what I do. Because it looks like a lot, and it is, but at the same time, it's intrinsically part
[01:04 - 01:23] of the same practice. So yes, the way I define myself is I am an artist, but through that practice, I've been working for a very long time in the culinary world, in research, in culture. And most recently, another hat I put on is alchemy.
[01:23 - 01:40] How fascinating. Do you know that I actually first learned about alchemy when I read The Alchemist? I think I was 10 years old. I was reading way beyond what I should have been reading. And I remember, I mean, obviously The Alchemist is about a lot more, but I remember researching like what is alchemy and learning all about like, you know, turning metals into gold.
[01:40 - 02:00] That is fascinating because I also found out about alchemy through books, but I found out about it through Harry Potter. But that is kind of the underlying principle there of the chemistry between ingredients and components. And that's as much about food. So for example, how sun drying brings new flavors onto the plate, as it is about art
[02:00 - 02:17] with dyes and colors and textiles. And that's what's common across everything Nahlah seems to be doing and has been doing for years, if like me, you're watching her intently on Instagram. Yeah, I've always loved her Instagram feed. I mean, even like just a simple salad that she puts up looks so beautiful.
[02:17 - 02:32] And as we love on the show, she always showcases local ingredients, spices and lots of color. So yes, we covered alchemy, the intersection of food and art and its history, well-being and some of her commissions, like with the Jameel Arts Center and also Al-Sarkal Avenue.
[02:32 - 02:47] I actually met Nahla through another Dubai staple for me, Frying Pan Adventures. I was a guide with Frying Pan Adventures for about five years. Amazing job, life-changing and actually really kind of spearheaded the research aspect of
[02:47 - 03:10] my culinary practice. Yeah, and I think what I loved about how we met was we met through the Sufra program that Frying Pan was running. And for people who don't know what that is, they were running a series of one-off events that really dived a lot deeper into culture and food and that intersection.
[03:10 - 03:28] And I love that. That was amazing. Yeah, exactly. Prior to that, I had been working in community programming at different cultural and arts institutions here in the UAE. And that was generally my background to be able to curate more handpicked experiences
[03:28 - 03:47] for an audience. I would say like the difference between like the Sufra members and let's say our tourists is that you were people who had tried all the tours and were still hungry for more, that like to seek that deepened learning opportunity where knowledge transfer and exchange was
[03:47 - 04:09] even more of a focus. And it's been a few years, I think, since we met, because I think the last time we met was on a tour in Satwa, I think. But what's changed for you in the last couple of years since we met? So I would say that leaning into looking at everything that I've been doing as an artistic
[04:09 - 04:31] practice has meant that my culinary background has found its way into being commissioned by institutions to work a little bit more with food. I've been working with restaurants on collaborations. I was also, for example, commissioned by the Jamil Arts Center around a year ago now to
[04:31 - 04:46] respond to their outdoor space. And they asked me to respond to their outdoor space in the summer. So that for many who live here know that the summer is quite a challenging time to be outdoors.
[04:46 - 05:03] And so what I ended up producing was this art installation, but also I saw it as this garden of these sun drying panels, where I was chopping up fruits and vegetables with the help of their team, drying them under the sun as a way to harness the sun instead
[05:03 - 05:23] of vilifying it. So while the process does read as an art installation, I was also producing food. I was also producing these pieces of silk that were stained by the fruits as well, producing their own colors. And so somehow I wanted to collect all that information and translate it into a kind of
[05:23 - 05:38] almanac or book that could be useful for anyone who wanted to attempt in a very practical way sun drying in this country. But also I produced recipes that then read as these fictional stories or memory stamps
[05:38 - 05:54] as well. Yeah. So I think that is the recipe book that you published. Let's talk a little bit more about that because that sounds pretty cool. Kind of what came together because it's not just the food, right? It's poetry, it's words, it's quite holistic.
[05:54 - 06:09] Yeah, it's quite holistic. It also contains photographic imprints of what this silk and how the fruits and vegetables engaged. So it also reads like this, this just beautiful book of photographs as well.
[06:09 - 06:29] And yeah, I would say if I wanted to define where I am today, that book really encompasses that because A, there was so much labor that went into it. I spent the entire summer into winter kind of tending to this like garden of dried fruits
[06:29 - 06:45] and vegetables, assessing where in the building is the best place to actually dry things. So there were some areas where molds would grow. There were some areas where these birds would come and eat off of it. But for some reason, if you place them like on the west of the building, the birds didn't
[06:45 - 07:03] catch on to the fact that there was something there. And then also just, I think because my work has always been so like focused on being benevolent, sharing, being generous, teaching, it was really important to me to also translate that
[07:03 - 07:20] information into bits of recipes. Something I would say I learned with Frying Pan Adventures is we read so many recipes. We learned how food was presented, but we also learned how to like hone in on our story
[07:20 - 07:38] and our narrative around the certain foods. And this is how I've always seen recipe writing. It's not just a set of instructions that relates to how you chop something and where you get this ingredient from. It really has a lot to do with your state of mind on that day, what you've been feeling,
[07:38 - 07:55] like what is happening with a moon phase? What are you watching on Netflix? Like that to me, when I say alchemy, this is what I mean. It's really part of like body, soul, context, and then how that is translated into food.
[07:55 - 08:11] We didn't mention the name of the book though. Yes. So the book is named Shamsa. It's named after a dear friend, but also it's a word that means sunburst or like just that single ray of sun.
[08:11 - 08:29] And that was my attempt to again, like personify the sun, reclaim its innocence in a place where it's actually induced so much trauma when it comes to all of us living here. You know, you've mentioned alchemy a couple of times and we were chatting about it before
[08:29 - 08:45] we started recording as well. And you experiment with dyeing. And I've seen... Not literally, we mean dyeing like... Colors. Colors. Yeah, and I've seen some of the, you know, on the occasions you have posted images on
[08:45 - 09:03] your Instagram, it just looks so colorful and just looks so wild almost. But I know that that's something you think about even when you look at recipes or cooking. So let's talk about that. Yeah, for sure. I mean, one thing that has really happened to me over the years, it's been eight years
[09:03 - 09:19] living here. Dubai is a very different pace. It's hectic. We get urban tired very quickly. And a few years ago when I was quite burnt out, I spent the summer in London. I went to the Prince's School of Traditional Arts.
[09:19 - 09:34] Stunning school. I highly recommend everyone goes and does a short course there. I did this course in sacred geometry that maps the planets according to Socrates and Plato. Why?
[09:34 - 09:56] I don't know. I just decided this is what I'm going to do. I'm terrible at mathematics. It burns a lot of calories to actually by the millimeter draw a piece of sacred geometry. It is intense. But there was just something so incredible about our professor, Dr. Daniel Doherty, who
[09:56 - 10:16] would like start off with like this piece of music that would kind of speak about how planets were invoked not just in music, but like what we're about to do, which is sacred geometry. But then something else he taught us was to make our own colors.
[10:16 - 10:35] So he would just show up. He's like, yes, I was just walking down by the stream on my way to my commute in London and I found these stones and we're about to make colors from them. And that really turns on my culinary practice because I was sitting there watching him crush
[10:35 - 10:56] stones, what would you call it, put it through a sieve, dilute it, cleanse it. And from there, suddenly I have this palette of colors. His philosophy around that was you cannot make something sacred without embodying what
[10:56 - 11:13] it means to be sacred. The paper that you use, the colors that you make is all part of the process. And I think that that is what was really life changing for me to see that this old world practice still had relevance today.
[11:13 - 11:28] It taught me again to be like very patient, very labor intensive and to seek magic actually in everything that exists here. From there, I produced a work for Art Dubai, was part of Campus Art Dubai, and that was
[11:28 - 11:45] me kind of embodying Dr. Daniel's philosophy of foraging and coming into class so happy and so spirited with the fact that he'd found these things. And I wanted to look at what foraging looked like in a place like Dubai.
[11:45 - 12:08] We're a city. There are pockets of green, but also not really. And yet at the same time, we have access to the spice souk. We are literally a central part of just so much knowledge that's been coming in. And slowly, slowly, I started to extract colors from absolutely anything from dust on an AC
[12:08 - 12:23] duct to squid ink from the fish market to flowers, herbs, bits of bark, spores from a tree in Safa Park. And then the pandemic happens, of course, and honestly, that was a time where we really
[12:23 - 12:40] had to surrender. Like if there was any time to like learn that lesson, it was then. My partner in the alchemy of dying is a close friend of mine. She is a fashion designer called Studio Meru.
[12:40 - 12:57] For years, we've been cross pollinating or just sharing conversations. And so the alchemy of dying was both a research platform, but our desire to teach these practices. The philosophy is that all these natural dyes have incredible powers.
[12:57 - 13:15] So how do you harness them or present them? How do you end up wearing them and how does that impact you as well? That's beautiful. And it's like you say, it's, you know, kind of crossing across different verticals or streams of thought. Were you always interested in food and the arts growing up or is this something that
[13:15 - 13:32] kind of developed later on? Both my parents are artists, so I was always an artist or at least in their studios watching them work. And because they were so heavily involved in the cultural scene in Jordan, it meant
[13:32 - 13:49] that I also felt that like level of activism that, yes, I will always need to work in this field. I also used to love watching travel shows and cooking shows with my mom. Like it was really my dream to be a presenter, a culinary presenter or a travel presenter,
[13:49 - 14:05] let's say. I'm also bicultural. Mom is from Bangladesh, dad is from Syria, Jordan, and my mom's a fantastic cook. And I know we all say that about our moms, but she really is like reputably an incredible
[14:05 - 14:22] person who kind of just looked at both palettes and she was like, right, how am I going to do things differently? Watching her just be bold about how things were reinterpreted was always with me. I learned how to cook actually in university though.
[14:22 - 14:40] It was one of my best friends. He used to cook all the time and I would just assist him and slowly, slowly that started to build up. What's your go-to comfort food? I love rice. I adore rice. Like I think it's just the best thing to work with.
[14:40 - 14:56] I love stews, just slow cooked stews that you can throw anything into and it will work. I also just have a little herb garden on my balcony and I kind of just use those herbs again and again.
[14:56 - 15:12] And that's maybe like the starting point. They kind of inform or lead how something is going to go. What do you grow in your herb garden? What do you have? Two types of basil, rosemary, Cuban oregano, whatever can survive.
[15:12 - 15:30] And all very useful things to have. Yeah. We'll take a quick break and be right back with more. Stay with us. Welcome back. I'm Devina Divecha and you're listening to Nourish by Spinneys and my conversation with
[15:30 - 15:48] Nahla Tabaa. Our interview with her is also featured in the January issue of Nourish, our magazine, so you can read about it there. I want to kind of go back to something you said earlier while we were talking about, you know, dyeing and using kind of natural elements to do so.
[15:48 - 16:04] You mentioned foraging and you know what you can find in the city. I know that's something that you care about and you are also working on a project related to that. So let's hear a little bit more about that. Yeah, absolutely. I can talk about two projects related to that.
[16:04 - 16:27] Earlier last year, I was commissioned by Al Serkal Online to interview three artists who were involved in the culinary world. So that project is called Rewilding the Kitchen. And in one of the instances, I was in conversation with this amazing duo from Jordan called Namliye
[16:27 - 16:43] who have been foraging across landscapes in Jordan to produce small batch jam. Jam and teas. And one of the things we spoke about a lot was this idea of like, A, demystifying what
[16:43 - 17:02] foraging means, B, learning to kind of accept what land is providing and not expecting consistency in that as well. When we imagine foraging, like just now, Tiffany and I were talking about like, oh, foraging
[17:02 - 17:21] in Ireland and how like abundant and romantic and how fairy-like that might seem. But what happens when you need to do it in a place where it's not as readily available? How do you use the same tools to kind of search, be curious and be very appreciative of what
[17:21 - 17:37] something is yielding, even though it doesn't present itself in the same abundance? And so that has been my approach to kind of foraging and looking at the kitchen as a place to forage as well.
[17:37 - 17:54] Rewilding the Kitchen has three interviews published and three recipes published by each of the participants who really spoke about just making a simple cooler, but actually the recipe in itself is not like the most simple.
[17:54 - 18:15] Let's say there is a complexity to it. Recently with Warehouse 421, I was commissioned alongside a dear friend and artist, Moza Matroshi, to respond to her research. She's been actually spending the last two years with a research grant looking into agriculture
[18:15 - 18:32] in the UAE, the endangered native plants and why they were kind of like sidelines in all of this. And through that process of really just tagging along with her observing, collecting, we've
[18:32 - 18:49] been trying our best to create recipes and food experiences around these plants. And of course, traditional recipes, but in no way trying to kind of elevate it or change
[18:49 - 19:04] Emirati food in a sense or like push it where it doesn't need to go. It is what it is. Exactly. We've been really trying to see how the land presents itself and then accordingly create these recipes. So where have you been kind of out and about?
[19:04 - 19:20] Where have you been foraging? So we went to two sites. One is Hatta. So Hatta is absolutely amazing. We visited a farm where he, like I can't even call it a farm as much as I would call it a museum.
[19:20 - 19:40] His entire kind of collection or effort has been into planting trees and plants that grow natively. The next site was in Jabal Yanas. So this is in Ras al-Khaimah where the keepers of that particular mountain have had this
[19:40 - 19:56] lodge where they also plant local plants that can survive in those higher altitudes. But the reason why they also do that is because they had been creating this pellet to feed
[19:56 - 20:12] wild bees to make a particular honey. That's amazing. Yeah. So you tasted the honey? We tasted it and it was magical because we also saw how these wild beehives were excavated.
[20:12 - 20:29] Wild bees are harmless. You could touch them. You don't need to protect yourself. It's actually the bees that were imported here that are a lot more aggressive. The ones used for commercial use. That sounds like a magical experience. I wouldn't have thought that you could do that without.
[20:29 - 20:47] I did not realize that either. But this is, you know, I think that's like one of the most humbling or magical things about working with the land, right? Entrusting yourself to be in the arms of these things with people who have been practicing
[20:47 - 21:03] this particular practice for centuries have almost made a pact. Like there is that silent agreement there. There is the symbiosis between the land, the bees and the people. And you could really see that system.
[21:03 - 21:21] Is that honey something that people can pick up from somewhere? Yes. So Maktoum sells this honey. It's super valuable honey. It's not the most affordable, but it's definitely something that you can access.
[21:21 - 21:38] What's the thought right now of you kind of like interacting with the bees without any protection? It's genuinely blowing my mind. It was magical. Yeah. I mean, things like this, for example, you know, it's a great experience. Was there, you know, through the course of these projects that you've talked about or
[21:38 - 21:54] interaction with other people in the art and food space, maybe what has been the thing that has surprised you the most, you know, through learning about different things through this journey? I suppose just how connected everything actually is.
[21:54 - 22:15] Food feels like a glue. I mean, we've always felt this even with frying pan adventures. And we say this like food is a lens in which to see the world. It's also the lens that others, people, marginalizes people. It highlights accessibility, colonialism, fusions.
[22:15 - 22:30] So it's a bridge, but it's also a broken bridge, too. And I think the other thing that's maybe surprised me the most is that I think this is maybe like a more introspective thing.
[22:30 - 22:48] When I first moved here and I didn't have access to an art studio, let's say like I was, you know, I was dealing with my full time jobs. I had put being an artist kind of on the sides. And yet the maker in me, the person who just needs to use their hands obsessively, like
[22:48 - 23:10] is constantly thinking of like the mechanics of building something, found that in the kitchen. So I really do consider the kitchen to be a huge part of my studio, let's say, or it was my studio for many years. And that also makes me realize how accessible a kitchen can be.
[23:10 - 23:30] I think what doesn't surprise me is that for you to want to cook or commit yourself to food, it's a very caring practice. You have to clearly want to, I suppose, give and give and give. You're producing something that is then literally inhaled by someone else.
[23:30 - 23:46] You don't know how present they are and like what time you took to like ferment this yogurt or like soak this thing. But then what surprised me as well was that actually chefs or people working in the food
[23:46 - 24:02] industry practice the least self-care when it comes to themselves, because they're so busy putting something else out there. And another reflection I had with Mehru lately and the alchemy of dying is that we're teaching
[24:02 - 24:20] all these things about surrender and the magic, and yet here are me and you exhausted and kind of burnt out and not really applying these principles to ourselves. And so I've had to learn to really like lean into the fact that, OK, if I'm going to practice
[24:20 - 24:36] all these things, I need to make sure that I consistently do it for myself. We've talked a bit about some of the projects that you've been working on over the last couple of years, but what's next for you?
[24:36 - 24:53] What are you working on now? What can you tell us? Well, I'm actually taking a bit of a break from being in Dubai for too long, mainly because my calling right now is to work with farms or be in nature a little bit more.
[24:53 - 25:11] I can't keep traveling to these places to get that experience. I grew up in the countryside in Jordan and, you know, through that, it just taught me so much. Like I think I don't want to, how can I say, like snub that knowledge because it's been
[25:11 - 25:31] such an integral part of my life. And I am hoping to go to culinary school as well. We were discussing that with Tiffany earlier and again, that's really to upscale, to really get an understanding about how to be more efficient in the kitchen.
[25:31 - 25:47] Like everything has been self-taught up until this point or learning through people in the industry and more collaborations, actually. So I think like the beauty of this place is how we're all connected, actually, and how
[25:47 - 26:03] open we are to working together. So I have a few more down the line as well. And some more recipe writing. I recently produced a series of recipes slash illustrations on the theme was kind of looking
[26:03 - 26:21] at monsters and ancestral monsters and whether these like deities or monsters had like an advantage to them as well. Like we often vilify the monster, but in like Buddhist practices, it was the monster that
[26:21 - 26:39] protected Buddha. So it's also just looking at this duality of it. The monster I chose to develop recipes for to feed in a sense is actually the womb and the menstrual cycle. I've been trying to practice intermittent fasting and eating for my hormonal cycle and
[26:39 - 27:00] just see how that monster slash my PMS is kind of kept at bay or like how I can really take care of myself in that way. So the recipes are these diagrams of the womb that kind of resemble medieval medical illustrations.
[27:00 - 27:21] It's kind of like a take on those diagrams and then what to feed this monster between quotations at the different seasons of our cycles. Oh, I'm fascinated by that. And how have you found that kind of trying that diet if you want to call it that?
[27:21 - 27:41] It's actually so beautiful because I think it's really about you like really listening to your body. And so it's also kind of says to like when there needs to be peaks of exercise and when you need to reduce that if you can prepare yourself to anticipate like the up moods,
[27:41 - 27:57] the down moods, how amazing you look when you're ovulating versus how crappy you'll feel like a week later. Just preparing for those changes makes a huge difference. That's number one. So it's almost the acceptance of what our body is going through rather than fighting
[27:57 - 28:15] it. And then feeding it is really all about looking at the hormonal surges and the imbalances and then eating according to that. So like in films and literature, it's always about like how when we PMS, like we want to
[28:15 - 28:30] eat tubs of ice cream and it becomes all about that. But sugar is terrible for you at that period. However, citrus fruits and dark chocolates are so important. I do crave dark chocolate. Exactly. So there's nothing wrong with that.
[28:30 - 28:48] You crave it, you eat it. But it's just learning how to like monitor that and manage it. I think for me especially the exercise part was a big one because I am someone who I don't do my high intensity workout like three times a week.
[28:48 - 29:04] I have failed in life. And it's like, well, actually, you really should not be doing this in the last two weeks. Like there's a surge for it, but then a nature walk and restorative yoga will be much better
[29:04 - 29:20] for you. Oh, this is fascinating. I'm going to annoy you about this in more detail later for sure. It's okay. I'm not I'm not perfect at it. But just having that awareness means that you've already listened to your body a ton more.
[29:20 - 29:36] Yeah, no, for sure. And we always ask all our guests this question. What is it that nourishes your soul? What is it that nourishes my soul? Building a home that's been my sacred space, I think. Being surrounded by amazing people.
[29:36 - 29:55] My cats. I love animals. They're really incredible spirits. And I think maybe as of late, what's nourishing my soul is actually being more accepting of myself, like not being overly critical.
[29:55 - 30:14] I've been balancing, I've been actually speaking to someone about this, balancing my masculine and feminine energies and really listening to that duality and just being a better team. And as a result, being able to detox things or put up boundaries.
[30:14 - 30:35] Boundaries are important to everyone. Yeah, they really are. Yeah, no, I think people, I feel like we've gotten into like this whole well-being space. It's important. Yeah, and it's so intrinsic. I think you just cannot disconnect the two. I would say also what nourishes the soul for me is the morning.
[30:35 - 30:50] I love my mornings. And sunlight in the morning, I think is a big one. Yeah, no, you notice the light in here as soon as you came in. It was the first thing you said. Yeah, and I do have a lot of plants by the sun and I'm always kind of plotting their
[30:50 - 31:07] movements. So I'm looking at that shadow over there and I'm like, sexy shadow. Okay, so I've known Nahla for quite some time, but I wasn't expecting to hear about the science of the womb and the impact of food.
[31:07 - 31:22] How interesting. Yeah, that's what made the episode so informational. I learned quite a bit. I'm sure Nahla is going to enjoy culinary school. When you'd gone, Tiff, you'd send us amazing pictures. And of course, I've been a happy recipient of many dishes you've cooked for us since you've been back.
[31:22 - 31:38] Oh gosh, I mean, that just seems like a dream. You know, going to culinary school last year was fantastic. And I think I actually do need to cook more for all of you. Cannot wait for that. This episode was brought to you by Spinneys and is hosted by me, Devina Divecha and Tiffany Eslick.
[31:38 - 31:56] We're produced by Chirag Desai and artwork is by Michelle Clements and Gihane Youssef. You can follow Spinneys on Instagram, Facebook and TikTok for more. And visit us at spinneys.com where you can shop for fresh produce and a variety of local and exclusive products. We'll be back in two weeks with our next episode, talking to food historian Ambeth Ocampo.
[31:56 - 32:17] See you then!