From Muscat to London: Dina Macki's distinctive culinary journey that helped her embrace her British-Arab identity through the love of food
British-Arab Dina Macki, born and raised by the seaside of sunny Southsea, Portsmouth in the UK and originally of Omani heritage, came to realise what it meant to be an Arab in her late teens when she found herself having to navigate London life on a student budget that didn’t cater to fine dining every night. This meant it was time for her to start learning how to cook. She shares her culinary journey with The New Arab:
I had always known that I was an Arab – I grew up in a bilingual house, celebrated Eid, ate traditional food and was surrounded by the Omani community who all looked vastly different to the blonde English girls I went to school with.
However, when you are a young female trying to find your place and desperate to fit in, being “different” isn’t something you want to acknowledge – or so I have come to learn, reflecting back.
I was studying Fashion Marketing at Regents University London, surrounded by many Arab students who all spoke perfect Arabic and had grown up in the Middle East too. I must say I was always envious because trying to tell someone I was Arab never seemed to make sense when you put me next to them. Except for looking similar, I started to realise that I didn’t feel Arab, yet I didn’t feel or look British either.
"Unpacking each dish led me to learn so many things about my background such as why we use certain spices, the reason that coconut milk features in many dishes as well as things like bread and rice being such staples within our diet – each recipe began to unfold a piece of Oman’s history that has in essence explained who I am"
It was the Ramadan of 2013, that led me to begin cooking. I wasn’t able to have iftars with my family and all my fasting cravings were centred around home food, not the pesto pasta my housemates survived off.
I ended up spending a lot of my days calling my grandmother and mother to ask for recipes and have them guide me on FaceTime. It wasn’t that I couldn’t cook but I had never paid attention back home when I was forced to help in the kitchen.
However, I had always loved eating so the motivation to cook stemmed from that. I began making recipe after recipe and testing them on my friends until I could break my fast and I quickly came to learn that I was actually good at this.
Word began to circulate through my university that Dina was cooking great food and then each day through Ramadan I would have a house full of friends, enjoying a cuisine they were not familiar with but had grown a love for.
At first, my passion for cooking came from a narcissistic angle, I had fallen in love with the way people loved me for my food, the way they looked at my food and how they devoured each mouthful. I was so amazed that Omani cuisine was accepted so easily by people who knew nothing about the country. My friends enjoyed every single dish and became so interested in who I really was, where Oman was and what this unknown Arab culture was all about.
It was at that moment that I just kept cooking, learning and discovering where my food came from, I wanted to continue educating others as well as myself through food.
Unpacking each dish led me to learn so many things about my background such as why we use certain spices, the reason that coconut milk features in many dishes as well as things like bread and rice being such staples within our diet – each recipe began to unfold a piece of Oman’s history that has, in essence, explained who I am.
It helped me discover why I never looked like my school friends but gave me the reason for my huge curly hair, my distinctive features and different beliefs. Introducing food as a medium for explaining my heritage became the perfect way to tell strangers and friends who I was.
Upon my quest for authentic recipes, I came to realise that these were so important but in order to begin to show my personal identity, I had to combine it with my upbringing in the UK.
Although I never felt British enough, growing up in a very English town meant that I was well acquainted with typical local dishes such as good fish and chips. Spending time with friends at houses introduced me to meals I had never had at home and while sometimes I was confused by how they simply seasoned their roast dinner compared to how my mother slathered ours, I still liked it.
"I’m a Brit and Arab and that is my superpower"
Today I feel super lucky today to have a British-Arab identity, it is no longer something I hide but actually, a thing I shout from the rooftops – well on my social media – to everyone.
But, I do it all through food. My creativity has given me the ability to compare and contrast my UK upbringing with my ethnicity by creating recipes that combine certain flavours and dishes together that you would not necessarily find in your average British or Omani restaurant – all because these dishes are unique to my identity and how I have learnt to appreciate and understand who I am.
I now host supper clubs, write recipes for brands and online publications and last year launched Dine with Dina Spices which are sourced from Omani farmers and inspired by Oman. The spices are part of a bigger project to create Dine with Dina food products inspired by the Arab world.
My goal for starting this business was to make our food more mainstream and accessible while holding onto the true authentic flavour which I find is still not recreated well by other Western brands. Through writing, selling spices and partnering with brands I have been able to enhance people's knowledge of Arab food and my identity too.
The spices consist of Omani Baharat (spice blend), Omani Za’atar, Omani Dried Lime and Hibiscus Chilli Salt with a new salt launch in December.
"Through writing, selling spices and partnering with brands I have been able to enhance peoples knowledge of Arab food and my identity too"
Personally my go-to for everything is the baharat, it's based on a recipe my grandmother has always used and it acts as the perfect and most reliable seasoning. Omani Za’atar has been my favourite to introduce as Za’atar has become very popular, however, Omani Za’atar is extremely fresh and vibrant in flavour which is something I am yet to find among other brands. The salt has been my best seller as it is a very good everyday spice but also something fun and different. I feel the salts represent me and my hybrid life and it turns out everyone loves that too.
I think coming from two very culturally different places can be very overwhelming and understanding how to adapt and live a life that you actually want can take time. However for me, having food as a hobby at first became my distraction but then spending time, researching and learning about it, subconsciously began to help me find my identity.
It was like a lightbulb moment after so many years of confusion to be like, wow, this is so cool. I’m a Brit and Arab and that is my superpower.
Dina Macki is a British born Omani Food Writer & Developer contributing and working with brands such as Waitrose, Tescos & BBC Good Food. She began her career with the intent to combine her heritage and upbringing together as her way of unpacking her identity while introducing the UK and western world to Omani food, its deep-rooted history and culture. She now hosts supper clubs in London as a way of physically bringing people together to experience true Omani culture and hospitality. Last year she began an Omani spice brand working directly with Omani farmers. All her spices and recipes can be found at dinewithdina.co.uk
Follow her on Twitter: @dinamacki
This article is part of a special series called Arabs in the UK: An exciting new project that sheds light on the Arab population in the United Kingdom and aims to showcase their continuing contributions to communities. Follow here to read more articles from this series: