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.