EXCLUSIVE: Serving up kosher Emirati fusion thanks to the Abraham Accords

“When it comes to kosher, the spotlight is on Dubai now because of the Abraham Accords,” says Ellie Kriel, a food entrepreneur living in the Emirates.

By Joseph Wolkin, World Israel News

Elli’s Kosher Kitchen is spreading throughout the United Arab Emirates. What started as a small catering service just over two years ago is now a booming business, growing in popularity by the day since the Abraham Accords in September normalized ties between Israel and the UAE.

Elli Kriel, a sociologist, moved to Dubai from Johannesburg in August of 2013 with her husband and three children.

What began as a desire to provide kosher food for her family quickly expanded. This year, Kriel will have a kosher for Passover kitchen in Dubai’s V Hotel Dubai by Curio Collection in Al Habtoor City.

World Israel News recently spoke with Kriel.

Q: What made you move to Dubai?

“My husband got a job working for an energy company based here. We were living in Johannesburg at the time, and he started commuting to Dubai for about two years. Then, they said it’s time for him to move to the region. With my outlook on life – I love traveling – and thinking about raising my kids, I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity for my children to experience something new and have a different level of diversity. That’s what brought us here.”

Q: Were you nervous for the move?

“Not really because he had been coming here and we knew the environment. We did a visit together to see if it was a place we could live. We found a beautiful, calm, stable high-functioning society. That was attractive with good quality schools for the kids. There would be some trade-offs, leaving behind family, which is always hard to do when you have young kids and you separate them from their grandparents and cousins. We were deeply embedded in the Jewish community in South Africa. Coming to a place where there was no Jewish community put us in a situation where we had to put more of an effort in creating it.”

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Q: How did the Dubai community first accept you?

“There were a number of families here before us, and they were very welcoming. The thing about Dubai is it’s a very international community. The Jews who were here were very diverse themselves. Some Jews here grew up in Dubai themselves. But because of the ethos in the city to welcome people from all around the world, we encountered the same thing in the whole community.”

Q: What made you open a kosher restaurant in Dubai?

“It was a result of a personal need. Our home is kosher and we raise our kids kosher. When we got here, we needed to create a kosher environment for our kids. It first started in the home. When people heard there was a kosher family here and they needed kosher food when traveling, they contacted us. Initially, it started from the home and assisting others. It escalated and word got out, and it led to catering service, home delivery service and then pop-up restaurants in December.”

Q: How difficult was it to get started?

“It’s been almost a decade’s worth of work. Since normalization, people think it just popped up with an established market of kosher food. It’s been eight years in the making, even though my business only started two years ago. I know what’s available, what isn’t available and where to get stuff. There were restrictions. Even now, you can get kosher meat, but it’s not readily available. There are two suppliers that supply it and there’s only one local chicken supplier. The meat happened in the last three months and the chicken in the last year. I started as a dairy operation. Now, I switched to meat since I can get it and more people want meat.”

Q: Now people know your name around the world.

“I would have never anticipated that. If there’s anything that at the current moment I could feel most proud of it’s that I was ranked as one of the top 25 women in the food and beverage industry in the UAE. For me, as a woman entrepreneur in this environment, I’m just thrilled.”

Q: What’s the latest with your new cookbook, Kosherati?

“Hopefully, it’ll be a book on Kosherati recipes as I call them. It’s a fusion of kosher and Emirati foods. That’s what I’m exploring with an Emirati woman, May Al Badi.”

Q: How did you two meet?

“Shortly after I launched my food business online, she found me. She texted me and said I’d love to buy two challah from you. I delivered the challah, and she emerged with this big beautiful basket of dates. From there, a friendship blossomed. The dates were from her farm, and they were absolutely incredible.”

Q: What will it mean to you when this book is published for the world to see?

“I think it has great significance. We met a full year before normalization. There was a separation between Israel and the UAE. For an Emirati Arab woman and a Jewish woman to come together and connect through food, it was very significant for us. We perceived it as a bridge of getting to know each other’s culture through food, and it helped us develop a friendship. We want to use food as a platform to bring people together and exploit others’ identities and cultures.”

Q: How have the Abraham Accords pushed this idea of building that bridge?

“When it happened, we were all shocked and no one anticipated it. It’s opened the doors and allows us to explore openly and proudly. Before, we could explore, but it was always done privately.”

Q: Who’s supported you the most on this journey?

“The people who have supported me the most are my female friends. One of my closest friends is a Palestinian-Lebanese woman and she is not only a mentor for me, but a role model. Given she’s a Palestinian-Lebanese woman, the fact that she supported me is incredible. I’ve had a number of other female friends who have helped me in different ways. The Orthodox Union has been instrumental and Star K was the first one to find me. They took me to Kosherfest, the world’s largest kosher trade fair in New Jersey. My family and my parents have been incredibly supportive. Lots of people.”

Q: What gets you excited about the future of kosher dining throughout the Middle East?

“Well, I think it’s an unexplored market. What makes me so excited is Dubai is known for its high quality in terms of service, food production and its restaurants. When it comes to kosher, the spotlight is on Dubai now because of the Abraham Accords. There’s an opportunity to shine, not just to present another kosher food offering, but something unique.”