Abu Dhabi Tex-Mex: the secret of Maria’s kitchen

When we first moved to Abu Dhabi, I binged on Middle Eastern food: humus, moutabel, babaghanoush, tabouleh, chicken shwarma.  Yum.  And when I could no longer look a chickpea in the face, there were other foods to choose from…but I couldn’t find good Mexican food in a restaurant, and in the grocery stores, all I could find were the Old El Paso taco “kits,” replete with stale corn tortillas and “taco mix” made with an ocean’s worth of salt.

Then someone who lives in Abu Dhabi read my blog (imagine! an actual reader who isn’t my mother or my sister!) mentioned Maria to me, and then a friend in my building mentioned Maria, and then someone else mentioned “Maria…” They sounded like maybe they’d found the Grail—a Grail made of masa, chipotle, and black beans.

Maria doesn’t have a website or a restaurant or even one of those New York-style high-end food trucks.  She’s more like having a friend who also happens to be a fabulous chef. To order from Mari, someone has to give you her email address, then she sends you a menu, you  put in your order, and then once a week, you go collect your delicious, home-made Tex-Mex meals.

Maria’s salsa makes even rice cakes taste good

When I went to pick up my order, I had a moment of cultural confusion: sitting at a low table was a dimpled woman wearing bright-red lipstick and wearing full hijab: black abaya, black sheyla. She was checking orders and handling the money while three teen-age boys in dishdashes gathered each customer’s cartons and containers.  The food smelled delicious—but how on earth had an Arab woman learned to cook really authentic Mexican food?You’d think that after almost five months in this part of the world, I would stop leaping to conclusions based on what people are wearing, wouldn’t you? Here’s the secret about Mari: she’s from Texas. Born and raised in El Paso—“you don’t get much more Tex-Mex than that,” she said with a laugh.

Mari took time from her busy cooking and catering schedule to have breakfast with me last week, because I wanted to know more about her story: how does a nice Catholic girl from El Paso end up in Abu Dhabi speaking fluent Arabic?

The beginning of her journey starts, as journeys so often do, with love. She met an Emirati man at Fort Bliss (what a name! what an omen!); they got married and moved to Abu Dhabi in 1989, when the tallest building only rose about ten stories (I live in a fifty-story residential tower, and it’s not the tallest thing on the skyline) and traffic jams were unheard of.

When Mari first moved to Abu Dhabi, she did not wear the hijab, but, she says, she dressed “modestly” out of respect for her in-laws, with whom they were living.  Her long-sleeved shirts and long skirts gradually were replaced by jellabia—long traditional dresses, “like nightgowns,” Mari says, and then, finally, she began wearing the abaya and headscarf.  Her mother-in-law was pleased, she said, when she finally converted to Islam, mostly because it meant that the grandchildren (five boys and two girls) were being raised as Muslims.  The lovely boys who were helping Mari the day I picked up my order are her sons—all of whom have helped out with “mom’s business.”

I asked if her mother-in-law, or anyone in the family, frowned upon her entrepreneurial spirit and she said not at all. Her oldest son, who is now twenty-three and working here in Abu Dhabi, told her “it’s your drum, mom, go ahead and beat it.”  Her mother-in-law supports the work Mari does because that extra income helps provide extras for the kids—and with seven kids, there are a lot of “extras” (not to mention shoes, books, diapers, and all those other kid-related essentials).

During our conversation, I fell victim to yet another assumption: that all Mari’s recipes came with her from El Paso. “Oh no,” she said. “I learned to make tortillas from a Latina woman who was living here but was originally from Seattle.”  Another assumption bites the dust.  It seems that when Mari moved here, she found an entire community of Latina women here, including some from El Paso.  Although Maria now counts herself as an Abu Dhabi “local,” she also says that it’s only in the UAE that she has justify being “American because she doesn’t have blonde hair and blue eyes.”

So how does a Tex-Mex Emirati learn to cook Mexican food?  She reads cookbooks, talks long-distance with her mother, and good-old-fashioned trial and error. Over the years, Maria has developed an entire repertoire of Mexican recipes, so everything on her menu is made by hand in her kitchen—just Maria and her Indonesian maid, Itoh.  They’ve been cooking to order for about nine years and have inspired a devoted following—so much so that when Mari tried to retire last year, due to health reasons, her clientele was willing to drive out to her house, pick up the food, deliver it themselves, and even serve as sous chefs, if she needed.

Thinking about my own futile attempts to find Mexican ingredients in local Abu Dhabi grocery stores, I asked Mari where she got her raw materials.  She smiled and said that sometimes, on her rare trips home, she will bring back chipotles and other spices; but the tortilla chips and a few other things are made by two companies in Sharjah, of all places (Sharjah is a much smaller, less Westernized Emirate).  With the help of Itoh, all the sauces, fillings, salsas, and guacamole are made right in Mari’s own kitchen and stored in one of three refrigerators she’s accumulated over the years.

On Thursday and Friday, Mari processes the orders that have come in through the week, while Itoh does prep work. On Saturday, they do the shopping and more prep work; Sunday they make sauces and tortillas; Monday morning they put together the enchiladas, salsas, guacamoles; pack up all the orders, drive into Abu Dhabi (Mari lives about ½ hour outside the city), and deliver their Mexican deliciousness to their hungry clientele.

In addition to her deliveries to people in the Khalidiya area, Mari delivers to the Emirates College of Applied Education, and—as if that’s not enough—she’s now at the Ripe Food Market every Friday.

Now that I’ve met Mari, I can see why the expats who live here are so protective of her culinary expertise—if she tried to retire again, I’d be one of those people lining up to help her in the kitchen.

if you’re interested ordering from Maria’s Kitchen, please email me or leave a note in comments, and I will get you the ordering information.  Maria is at the Ripe Farmers’ Market in Khalifa Park on Fridays. Update Feb 2013: There is no longer a Ripe Market in Khalifa Park, alas, although we all wish there were.

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38 Responses to Abu Dhabi Tex-Mex: the secret of Maria’s kitchen

  1. Karen January 27, 2012 at 9:40 am #

    What a great story. Good things come from El Paso (not many people would say that). My sister was born there (while my father was stationed at Fort Bliss) and my mother learned to make amazing enchiladas and chile rellanos. Yum!

  2. Arnebya January 27, 2012 at 10:09 am #

    I sincerely enjoyed this story. How often we tend to assume (I love it when we’re proven wrong; it opens our minds that much more). And wow. Just on description alone, I want Maria’s food. I don’t think the enchiladas would fare so well traveling to DC :o)

  3. Dick Horwich January 27, 2012 at 11:36 pm #

    Arroz con camel?

  4. Alexandra January 28, 2012 at 12:00 am #

    OH, I love to cook.

    I”ve had to replicate my grandmother’s recipes from memory.

    I really do need to write them down for my kids.

    Tonight, we had shrimp with pico de gallo. I make it and keep it by the quart as a base,top, garnish on meals all week.

    Can Maria make you some pico de gallo? If yes, stock it up in the fridge.

    We had spaghetti noodles, then after I prepared them, I stirred in sauteed large shrimp, olive oil and some large spoonfuls of pico de gallo.


  5. ava January 31, 2012 at 9:46 am #

    Wow! I was drooling over the salsa picture. This is a great post Deb! 🙂 The reference to other readers aside from your mom and sister was hilarious! I started like that too. And Ma rarely comments, my sisters? Never. Tsk..tsk..

  6. Adam W March 3, 2012 at 3:40 pm #

    We are moving to Abu Dhabi in about two months. My wife is Mexican, also from El Paso and nearly fell out of her seat when she read this! Please send us the email address because we were wondering what we were going to do without our regular dose of Tex Mex in Houston.

  7. nasser March 16, 2012 at 1:12 am #

    hi, would appreciate it if you could send along email. btw intresting blog.

  8. Jen April 16, 2012 at 1:02 am #

    I have lost her contact info and am desperate! Would you mind shooting me an email w/ her contact info? Thank you!!

  9. Lea Arnold May 21, 2012 at 7:05 pm #

    Hi, could you please send me Mari’s contact details as I would love to book her for an event. Thanks

  10. Melissa November 30, 2012 at 11:11 am #

    We just moved here from Texas spent most of the day yesterday looking for corn tortillas to use for pork carnitas which I am making tomorrow. Love the post!!! Would lover Mari’s contact info. Thanks for the blog.

  11. LM Fleming December 2, 2012 at 3:05 pm #

    Great Post. Would love to get Maria’s contact info too!

  12. Victoria December 5, 2012 at 2:55 pm #

    I’m a native California girl and have had Mexican my whole life, (since I am Mexican/American) And I ordered from Maria when I first moved here from the U.S. Keep in mind Maria is now muslim and does not use pork products (something I really didn’t think about at the time of ordering) Pork was not only missing from some of the traditional food but it was missing from some of the taste. Mostly in tamales that is cooked traditionally with pork and the pork drippings are in the masa. I think the word authentic is used too freely with Maria’s cooking, her food is good but I wouldn’t say authentic. Part of living in the UAE I suppose, but I make my tamales with pork and the taste is drastically different.

    • Deborah Quinn December 5, 2012 at 11:40 pm #

      well, no, that’s true, no pork. which makes me sad…I do the walk of shame into the pork room at Spinney’s in order to fill my cravings. But given what the other options are here in town – and my own not-so-much-making-my-own-tamales…I’m pretty happy with the thought that there is a pan of chipotle chicken enchiladas in my freezer for weekend dinner!

    • ADMT January 22, 2013 at 10:35 pm #

      Just because (for religious reasons) someone doesn’t cook with pork doesn’t make her less authentic. I have been ordering Mari’s food for 9 years and it doesn’t get much more authentic. I am so grateful to have someone like here in the Middle East of all places. You are welcome to your opinion but I disagree with your statement and I know am not alone in my support for Mari’s authentic cuisine. Authenticity aside, she is a brilliant cook and deserves every bit of credit this blog article has given her.

      • Deborah Quinn January 27, 2013 at 7:45 am #

        We loves us our Maria!

        • Alia March 3, 2015 at 6:53 pm #

          Would also really love the email address. I love mexican food!!

  13. Elaine January 29, 2013 at 9:19 pm #

    What time is she there at Khalifa Park on Fridays?

    • Maria Isabel February 16, 2013 at 2:51 pm #

      There is no market in Khalifa Park anymore. Contact Deborah and she will give you my contact info.

  14. Maria Isabel February 20, 2013 at 10:28 pm #

    I have opened a FB group, please check it out. You will find the menu and some pics of the food on there.

  15. Kristen March 4, 2013 at 9:28 am #

    We had some of her food at a party… they had just mentioned it was from a wonderful woman Maria! We would love to order from her and get her info, please send along to us 🙂 Thanks for the fantastic post!

    • Deborah Quinn March 4, 2013 at 3:18 pm #

      Kristen, look in the comments section: Maria has a new facebook page, with menu & ordering information. Enjoy!

  16. Janelle April 5, 2013 at 3:42 pm #

    Hello, I would very much love to get her contact info. I am from Texas, usually studying in New York but currently in Abu Dhabi studying Abroad for the spring, and would love to meet this woman and taste her food!

  17. Janelle April 5, 2013 at 3:44 pm #

    ahh sorry, I was so excited that I didn’t notice the facebook page!

  18. Annie lopez April 15, 2013 at 5:02 pm #

    Hi, love this, please send her contact info

  19. Scott September 14, 2013 at 5:35 pm #

    Hello, I lived in a small town in the Hill Country in Texas and I now have lived in Abu Dhabi for a year. I have had the same issues/frustrations that are mentioned in the article. It’s even hard to find cumin or green chiles here. Any updates on how to order or what stores stock more Tex-Mex foods than others. I would love an email back so I can get some of the delicious foods mentioned. – Scott

    • Deborah Quinn September 18, 2013 at 5:59 pm #

      hello & sorry for the delay–Maria supplies home-made corn tortillas, actually, which are great (and freeze well, so you can buy A BUNCH). I’ve found some stuff at Lulu’s Khalidya, and also at Waitrose on Reem. Otherwise, I import (shsssh) from the States: cans of contraband adobo chiles, for example, and dried chiles that cannot be found here. Good luck!

  20. Nora September 19, 2013 at 11:38 am #

    I am also from El Chuco (slang for El Paso, TX) and a very recent transplant to Abu D (1 month) I already miss the tacos! Could you get me information about ordering from Maria? Thanks

    • Deborah Quinn September 21, 2013 at 9:54 pm #

      You can email maria at marias.kitch@gmail.com — and you can ask her for the link to her facebook page, where you can also do ordering. Enjoy! And I hope you’re slowly finding your way around AD.

  21. Shawn January 23, 2014 at 7:05 pm #

    Hello! I would love to have this ordering information. Thanks so much 🙂

  22. Karen May 27, 2014 at 5:57 pm #

    It has been a true search to find Maria’s Kitchen! Looking forward to the menu and then the enchiladas!!

  23. Emma September 6, 2014 at 9:56 pm #

    I would love, love, LOVE to order from Maria. If you’re still checking this, please send me her info?

  24. Al September 13, 2014 at 9:29 am #

    Very interesting read, and I am interested in contacting and ordering from Mari, if she is still in business.

  25. Katija Hassen December 9, 2014 at 1:34 am #

    I would like to know if Maria has masa harina

    Please respond to my request



  26. Mia December 14, 2014 at 10:49 am #

    Hi can I have her email please I would like to try it thanks

  27. Judi April 22, 2015 at 7:01 pm #

    Are you still in business?

  28. Kristina August 9, 2015 at 7:44 pm #

    Great story!!! I am also from EP!!! So many of us here!!! Is Maria still in business???


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