Dubai, the city and emirate in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) known for luxury shopping, ultramodern architecture, lively nightlife and as an international airline and financial hub, is also notching up a reputation as a foodie paradise. The figures tell the story. At the start of this year, there were 11,813 “operational restaurants and cafes” with the number growing by around 100 new restaurants and coffee shops each month.
“The culture has changed. There is a greater number of people visiting restaurants and cafes to experience new things. This has encouraged people to explore new varieties of food and consequently has encouraged investors to open new branches and new restaurants in Dubai,” to quote Sultan Ali Tahir, a spokesman on food.
It is no small achievement given the superabundance — and diversity — of eateries that South African chef Kuhle Swana placed first in the Professional Chef Middle East 2019 “African Specialty Chef” category.
Swana is head chef at KIZA, the first authentic African fine-dining restaurant in Dubai, the most populous city in the UAE and capital of the Emirate of Dubai.
Kiza, located in the prestigious Dubai International Financial Centre — a vibrant business ecosystem of over 24,000 professionals working across more than 2,200 registered firms — features a Pan-African menu of popular dishes from across the African continent.
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Dubai, meanwhile, resolved in October to grant up to 200 UAE golden permanent residency visas to “prominent” African investors to strengthen ongoing efforts to attract and retain high net-worth businessmen from Africa.
“Globally, African cuisine is still under-recognized,” confirms Chef Swana. But in Dubai, the same as in the U.S., Europe and worldwide, this is changing. “In recent years a new wave of culinary enthusiasts has been urging the world to seriously consider our cuisine,” she adds.
Swana, an ebullient kitchen presence who concedes that the kitchen is her playground — “where I become myself and let loose” — is contributing to this global movement.
African Gastronomic Narrative
At Kiza, she heads a team of chefs: mentoring, creating. “The UAE is a great place to promote African food and we strive to push the African gastronomic narrative by serving the best from across the continent.
“We serve Pan African cuisine (loosely, cuisine that uses ingredients indigenous to Africa as their base) and welcome the world. We've created a menu to feature the most popular dishes from across north, east, south, west and central Africa. Our guests play a vital role in influencing our menu; based on their feedback and recommendation, we work tirelessly to create and recreate our menu.”
In the kitchen: “I give the team creative space while pushing them to be perfectionists. Cooking is a passion-bordering obsession for me. I am hands-on. Involved. And I strongly believe that food, when shared, is tastier than when eaten alone.”
“Dubai never sleeps and neither does Kiza,” says Swana. “Our kitchen operates 22 hours with different shifts. We are open from 12 p.m. [noon] onwards till 6 a.m. We serve lunch as well as dinner and we’re working on a new breakfast menu. Our night events are the best in Afro entertainment; they have become the highlight of the city’s calendar.”
Africa on a Plate
Dubai, she adds, is an epicurean's delight. “The continent has such a diverse culinary heritage, which ranges from the Arabic tastes of the north to Indian, Dutch, Portuguese and French influences. Our menu taps into this gastronomic inheritance. Africans feel home away from home at Kiza while other diners get a culinary excursion to experience the cuisine in its totality. Foodies are always in search of world taste. We cover the entire continent.”
African cuisine — depending on the region — has different staples. “We use plenty of coconut, crayfish, groundnuts, hot peppers, maize, matooke (green banana), plantain, sukuma (collard greens). Our menu is inspired by the entire African continent. Our popular egusi, oxtail, Efo Riro and our special coconut beef stews are just a few of the mouth-watering experiences offered.
Says Kiza’s Nigerian CEO, Joe Osawaye, “Our business is focused on bringing the Africa experience to the world through sight, sound and taste. Looking at the market transition towards Africa in the last six years, the world has begun to take notice, and the UAE with its forward-thinking spirit is no exception. From music to the arts and crafts scene, the emergence of African culture is clear.
“Once we get people through the doors of Kiza, the ambience gets them. Most people cannot describe it; we call it the ‘spirit’ of Africa. It does not matter if they are Africans or not, living in or visiting Dubai; they sense a belonging that transcends cultures.”
Meet Chef Kuhle Swana
Swana, South African-born, studied culinary arts at the International Hotel School in Durban. She graduated as a chef in 2011 and seven years ago she headed for Dubai. She was the first in her family to venture abroad to explore the world. Her younger brother has followed in her footsteps and travels throughout Africa and Asia for work.
“When introduced to Kiza, I realized how close to my heart their vision was. They weren't recruiting, but I kept returning — almost every day — for about six months asking to be part of the amazing team. I was relieved to finally get the call and land my dream job.”
Kiza celebrated its fourth anniversary in October. It is ranked on Trip Advisor as one of the top 10 African restaurants in Dubai, on a list that includes Moroccan and Ethiopian eateries and steak houses.
“We source our ingredients from all over Africa; our spices come from both West Africa and East Africa and the meat is from South Africa. We source locally for our Arabic dishes — such as the Sudanese Tamiya falafel salad, the couscous salad and our lamb tajine.
“Our menu has great dishes to suit every palate. I absolutely love Awaze Tibs, an Ethiopian dish served with injera bread: their sourdough flatbread made from the world's smallest seed, teff. Awazi Tibs is a take on beef stir-fry with berbere, a traditional blend of aromatic spice and niter kibbeh, a clarified butter, for richness. We then add our own blend of herbs for that Kiza flavour.”
Chef Swana’s Journey to Dubai
“I was privileged to grow up in a household filled with women who loved to cook. They made it seem so effortless. To start with, being raised in an African family means chores are part of growing up; all siblings get to participate in cooking and cleaning. The kitchen was always the converging point — the centre of it all.”
As a nine-year-old Swana was cooking traditional phuthu (a type of porridge made from cornmeal) and amasi. It certainly wasn't the easiest dish to learn. “During our school holidays, we got to pick and cook vegetables from my grandmother's garden. Furthermore, my aunts ran a catering company, where we used to help; this exposed us both to cooking and the business aspect. We also used to help in my grandma’s soup kitchen for orphans. I still do this every time I’m back home.
“As a teenager, my first job was as a waitress. Seeing people’s reaction towards food fascinated me — still does. With so much food around me, becoming a chef came naturally.”
Her favorite childhood foods were the traditional South African comfort foods.
“I believe childhood food molds your taste palate in adulthood. While growing up I had my ultimate favorites from my mum as well as my granny. Grandmother cooked a mean samp and beans; this would cause a massive food war at home. Literally we would all be licking our fingers for more.
“My mum’s oxtail stew and dumpling continue to be what I crave when I visit. I also loved cabbage and potato stew. My everyday favorite was the amasi with phuthu.”
Swana lives in the heart of the city of Dubai. “This gives me access to the best of what it has to offer. I love food and Dubai’s gastronomic options are unique. Come weekends my friends join me and we take advantage of amazing restaurants around town, exploring world tastes.
“While food has captured my heart, I’ve fallen in love with dancing. I’ve joined a dance school, so on my days off you’ll find me over there, getting my moves and groove on.”
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Learning new steps to further energize her dance to the top of the culinary tree in Dubai and beyond.