When the large Israeli delegation, with dozens of observant Jews, landed in Abu Dhabi on the first direct flight from Tel Aviv on August 31, they needed a way to get kosher food for the gala banquet the United Arab Emirates hosted for both the Israeli and the American delegations. Both National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat, the head of the Israeli delegation, and White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner, who was at the helm of the US delegation, keep kosher.
To the rescue came Elli Kriel, of Elli’s Kosher Kitchen, the only kosher caterer in the UAE. Although Dubai is an hour’s drive from Abu Dhabi, Kriel partnered with the US-based Orthodox Union (OU) to make a hotel kitchen in Abu Dhabi kosher and provide three kosher meals for the delegations during their two-day stay.
So what did they eat, you ask? The lunch menu for 100 people included salmon in a lemon butter sauce, with a vegan option of wild mushroom risotto with fresh truffle. Dinner, also for 100, featured appetizers of feta coated with almond dressed with honey-infused pomegranate, and salmon kunafe (the thin noodles with cheese usually served as a dessert) with tomato marmalade, followed by main courses including Greek grilled sea bass fillet with sour lemon marmalade and mushroom cannelloni with truffles and mushroom. For breakfast there were omelettes, hash browns and even vegetarian sausages.
“It was a thrilling moment to be included in this historic event and I was extremely proud to be able to welcome the delegates to the UAE with my kosher food,” Kriel said in an interview. “There was a feeling of elation and celebration like the coming together of two families connecting together after a long absence. Elli’s Kosher Kitchen partnered up with OU Israel to deliver the best quality kosher food. I am extremely proud of my team and especially grateful to chef Alex Pavlopoulos in making sure that the guests could receive such wonderful kosher food.” Kriel, a South African with a PhD in sociology, has lived in Dubai since 2013 with her husband, Ross Kriel – who also happens to be the head of the Jewish community – and their children. They are the first kosher family in Dubai.
“We landed in 2013 just before Rosh Hashanah and it was really crazy,” she said in a Zoom interview. “Two weeks later we were hosting Rosh Hashanah services in our apartment. It was a bit of a shock to the people around us, because they were used to things not being kosher.” For the first few years, she focused on getting her family acclimated to Dubai, and organizing daily Hebrew and religious lessons on Skype. She said that while they never advertised that they were Jewish, she was open with the teachers at school. For example, she made sure to give the teachers a box of kosher snacks so her kids wouldn’t feel left out from birthday parties and other school events.
Whenever observant Jews came through Dubai, including Israeli businessmen, journalists and students, they often ended up at the Kriel’s home, especially for Shabbat dinners.
“There were rabbis doing interfaith work coming through or travelers or other people and they would contact my husband and ask, “Is there kosher food available?”, she said. “My husband would say, “No, but we have a kosher kitchen and he would invite them to come and eat with us.” The Jewish community eventually rented a villa in Dubai for their growing synagogue, which became public in 2019.
Even before that in November 2018, the UAE government organized a conference on Interreligious Freedom, and invited religious leaders, including some 15 rabbis, to attend.
“They arrived at the conference and there was nothing for them to eat,” Kriel said. “So there came a panicked call from Abu Dhabi asking, “Can you help us feed our delegates?” My husband asked me and said they were willing to pay me, and I said, “In that case, I’ll be right there.” That was the beginning of Elli’s Kosher Kitchen, a food delivery and catering service based in Dubai. Her culinary background is eclectic. She herself is Greek, grew up in South Africa, and has lived all over the world, including time in Argentina. She says the food she offers is “kosherati”, meaning a fusion of Jewish food and Emirati food.
For example, there is am Emirati dish called balaleet, which is very similar to kugel. There is a dessert similar to rugelach, but instead of being filled with chocolate, it’s filled with dates, orange blossom and cinnamon. There are even burekas filled with a sweet Emirati pumpkin filling.
“These are Emirati recipes for a kosher home,” Kriel said. “It’s blending the commonalities in our food.”
The business gets kosher certification from Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, a chaplain at New York University, who has now become the “chief rabbi” of the UAE.
Food is not just about food. It is about culture,” Sarna said. “Elli’s fusion of Emirati and Kosher cuisine signifies the blending of cultures, the place Judaism is rediscovering on the Arabian Peninsula.”
Kriel’s business is expanding quickly. She has a cookbook coming out with an Emirati partner, and is planning to open a café near the tourist area and hotels. She says she sees food as a way of bridging gaps between people, and says that Israelis and Emiratis have a lot in common.
“We share the values of togetherness, warmth and hospitality,” Kriel said. “We both like good food and family traditions, of being around the table and being able to celebrate together. It helps us to see each other’s humanity and embrace each other’s culture.”