Safia is a food writer, photographer & creative food consultant based in London. Born to Iraqi parents, she grew up surrounded by Middle Eastern flavours and fell in love with food and cooking whilst living in Madrid in Spain. She went on to train as a pastry chef, and has spent the last 7 years carving out a career within the UK food industry, working with restaurants, bakeries and small businesses to create and capture food in her unique style. She writes a regular food column in Caffeine Magazine.
How did you learn to cook?
My first memories of being in the kitchen were at my grandmother’s house, just down the road from where we lived. I would usually do all the prep like podding broad beans and measuring ingredients out for her, and I loved it. She mainly taught me how to do the sweet stuff — I definitely inherited her sweet tooth. I learned to bake before I learned to cook!
When did you realise you wanted to make a career in food?
At 16 I started amassing a collection of cookbooks and I was given a camera around the same time, so I started a blog to document what I was making. Later on I spent time living in Madrid and got to know the food scene there and that was when I realised I wanted to make a career out of it, and I went on to study patisserie after I graduated from university. I have ended up pursuing recipe development, styling and photography work. I always knew I wanted to do something creative and I don’t think I could’ve just stuck to one thing. What I love about working in food is that it allows you to do so many different things.
What foods remind you of your childhood?
My grandma’s desserts — her orange cake and mahalabi, both of which I now make, take me straight back. I always found it crazy that stirring milk, sugar, spices and cornflour together over the heat turned the mixture into this thick custard and then after a few hours in the fridge it would be a set pudding. But I was also your average kid and fish fingers, smileys and peas followed by a choc ice was probably my ultimate childhood meal.
What would your perfect dinner party look like?
My ideal dinner party would be about 6-8 people. I would start by setting the table with some lovely ceramics, linen napkins, flowers and lots of candles. I’d make canapés, no starters, and probably a few different sharing plates for mains. Maybe slow cooked short ribs — something I can whack in the oven for a long time. I’d rope people in to finish bits off for me, or tell them to crack open the wine. Of course there will always be dessert too. Probably apple crumble and custard.
Middle Eastern flavours are central to your recipes, what’s your favourite ingredient?
I definitely have a least favourite ingredient and that is icing sugar — it goes everywhere and it drives me insane. My favourite spice is cardamom so maybe I’ll go with that as a favourite. I use it so much in both my baking and my cooking — there are very few things that it can’t make more fragrant or flavourful. Controversially I’d go as far as saying I prefer a cardamom bun to a cinnamon bun.
Your work spans food writing, styling and photography. Where do you look for inspiration?
I love being guided by the seasons both when developing a recipe and deciding how to tell the story of that recipe through my styling and photography. Light dictates so much — I love capturing golden hour in the spring, or colder frosty mornings in winter. I’m also constantly inspired by the food industry here in the UK. We have such incredible chefs, bakers and restaurants — I love eating out and I feel like I’m constantly inspired by the different dishes and flavours I try.
Which cookbook could you not live without and why?
It’s so hard to pick. Georgina Hayden’s Stirring Slowly is probably one of my most loved. Every recipe in there is delicious and full of flavour, and it’s nothing too fancy or complicated. There’s always something in there whether you’re cooking just for yourself or a family feast. I have a fair few Ottolenghi books and I always look through them for inspiration, even if I’m not directly following one of the recipes. Jerusalem is such a beautiful book and a really great one for anyone who wants to delve deeper into Middle Eastern flavours.
What’s the best baking advice you’ve been given?
Master the basics before you try to experiment. When I went to study patisserie I got so frustrated that we were doing so much classical French pastry and nothing that really reflected the contemporary food world. I only understood why afterwards — it’s so important to grasp the fundamentals of patisserie and baking before you can play around. Once you know what each ingredient does, then you can try to put your own spin on it.
And to finish…
What is your favourite piece in the Monoware collection?
The serving platter.
What is your favourite meal/recipe to cook?
I love making loaf cakes — any kind: banana bread, lemon & poppy seed, date & walnut.
Do you have a favourite cuisine?
Lebanese, always! Or Mexican.
Favourite song for dinner party?
New Light by John Mayer