She came, she created, she conquered

In honour of International Women’s Day, we catch up with Nozomi’s executive chef Tarana Malikova to talk about her rise to the top

She came, she created, she conquered

One bite into the most popular dish on Nozomi’s exquisite menu – the Arabian Gulf tempura prawn maki with its incredibly delicious spicy sauce on top – will leave you wondering whose dextrous hands could possibly create such a thing. The real feather in Nozomi’s cap is chef Tarana Malikova, one of the world’s only female, Japanese sushi school-certified sushi masters.

Malikova was first introduced to Japanese food in her home town, Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1999, while working in housekeeping at an ambassador’s residence. It was during this time that she met “a very interesting Japanese man”, who was the in-house executive chef. “He did a wonderful job with sushi and even though I was never the type of person who would spend hours in the kitchen, I was truly impressed by his talent and demeanour,” she says. And it was then that she fell in love with Japanese cuisine.

This chef began to teach Malikova the skill of sushi-making, and after four years, she visited Japan for the first time. She then enrolled into a sushi school. “I acquired the certificate and went back to Baku to work for three different ambassadors,” she says. “I also continued to visit Japan to develop my skills and, finally, in 2011, I opened my first Japanese restaurant in Baku.”

A few years later, she got a job in Doha and started out as a sushi master before being promoted to executive chef for Nozomi.

Back when she was studying, she says, women weren’t allowed to enrol into sushi school. She was, in fact, the first, and became the only female chef of Japanese cuisine certified by a sushi school. The old wives tale in Japan is that women have higher body temperatures, making their hands warmer, therefore making them unable to prepare sushi. “If we touch raw fish, it will affect the temperature of the fish and consequently, the taste,” she says. “That’s what they say, but I just think they’re trying to keep all of us away from their sushi counters,” Malikova laughs. “Luckily, the situation has changed now and sushi schools are allowing women to enrol.”

Malikova speaks conversational Japanese but has mastered the culinary lingo. “I can fluently discuss ingredients and comfortably work in a Japanese kitchen,” she says.

So what does Malikova love most about her job? She says it’s the creating and people’s reactions when they enjoy the food she prepares with her team. “You first eat with your eyes, and then your mouth, so I pay attention to detail and presentation. What’s on the plate is like a piece of art and that’s one of the most important things I learned. Everything has its importance from the colour to the plating.” The ingredients are important to her, too. “Taste is everything,” she enthuses. “I never use chemicals, artificial flavours or enhancers. We keep everything as healthy as possible.”

The cuisine at Nozomi is a fusion of Japanese and Mediterranean flavours, with minor influences from Mexico and pays close attention to the freshness of ingredients and the way the team cook them, for example, changing the oil twice per serving, if necessary. “We always ensure the food is perfect when it reaches the table,” Malikova says.

The variety of flavours the cuisine is based on allows Malikova to be inventive when it comes to making sushi – and if you’ve tried that Arabian Gulf prawn tempura maki, you’ll know what we mean. “I love to play with different flavours and flavour combinations,” she says.

“For instance, now, I use chicken. People love shawarmas here, so I wanted to bring this taste to the maki. Even the sauce on top is made with labneh and garlic.”

Malikova gives us some insight into the traditional Azerbaijani cuisine which is similar to Middle Eastern food. “We are big on rice and meat, so you’ll almost always find meat, especially lamb, in any traditional dish. We have around 15 different ways to prepare rice – with vegetables, lamb or spinach leaves – we call it pilaf. We also have dolmas, which are very famous among Greek, Turkish and Arabic people.” She has tried her hand at fusing traditional sushi with Azerbaijani levengi (stuffing). “It became really popular, so when I was in
Germany, I experimented with a Caesar futomaki, with lettuce, chicken and the Caesar dressing inside the sushi roll,” she says.

But what makes Nozomi’s sushi so good isn’t just the flavour combinations. It’s also the superior quality of fish. Malikova says she checks its freshness at least three times a day, because they serve it raw. “We constantly communicate with our suppliers and if I don’t get the quality that I want, we don’t serve it.”

Although serious about her art, the chef also has a playful side. “On my first day in the Nozomi kitchen they asked me to mix wasabi,” she begins. “Wasabi always needs to be mixed with cold water to avoid burning eyes, but they gave me hot water. I’ll never forget the way my eyes watered that day. Of course I passed on this ‘love’ for wasabi. Whenever a new member joins the team, we welcome them with chocolate, filled with wasabi. Their reaction is hilarious,” she laughs.

So what’s next for Malikova? She says a trip to Japan to bring back some creative new ideas to Nozomi’s cuisine is high up on the agenda. “I got in touch with my chef friends there and I intend to spend ten hours, if not more, in their kitchens to make a few new discoveries.

“This job is always a learning process and that’s what I love about it, she says. “There are new innovations in the kitchen every day.”

We can’t wait to taste the results.
Open Sun-Wed 7pm-11.30pm; Thu 7pm-12.30am; Fri noon-4pm, 7pm-12.30am; Sat noon-4pm, 7pm-11.30pm. Marsa Malaz Kempinski, The Pearl-Qatar (4035 5089).

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