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Recipes for success: Chef Roaya Saleh offers advice, ‘comfort meal’ recipe 

TORONTO: Former banker Roaya Saleh is now better known as the ‘mama’ of Villa Mamas, where she has been a pioneer of home-style, Khaleeji cooking in Bahrain. Now she’s on a mission to show the world just what Bahraini cuisine is. After the success of her family-run ventures in Manama, Abu Dhabi, London, and now Riyadh, she is setting her sights on New York or Los Angeles. 

Villa Mamas is in Manama, Abu Dhabi, London, and now Riyadh. (Supplied)

Even before beginning her career in banking, Saleh gravitated towards cooking. She was raised in a multicultural household with her Bahraini father and Iranian mother, and her travels around the world, and the multicultural cuisine of her homeland all influence the Villa Mamas menu, from the Zereshk Polo garnished with barberries and served with a saffron sauce to the smoked lamb Mansaf.  

What excites Saleh the most is the quality of the ingredients she uses. She’s a stickler for seeking out ingredients at origin, be it herbs sourced from organic farms in Manama or olive oil from a local farm in Sicily.  

After the success of her family-run ventures in the Middle East, she is setting her sights on New York or Los Angeles. (Supplied)

Q. When you started out as a professional, what was the most common mistake you made? 
A. At first, everything was created out of a complete passion and love for cooking. I wouldn’t say it was a mistake, but a shortcoming that I wanted to offer everything to everybody. Now I know better. 

What’s your top tip for amateur cooks? 
Know the source of your ingredients. Even a child can cook a good meal if presented with fresh ingredients, versus a frozen chicken that you don’t know where it was farmed. You’ll see the difference.    

What’s one ingredient that can instantly improve any dish? 
Olive oil. It’s found all over the Mediterranean, but I chose to partner with a Sicilian family-run business to source extra virgin olive oil with 0.4% acidity. This is gold; the land and water make all the difference to the acidity and bitterness. 


When you go out to eat, do you find yourself critiquing the food? What’s the most common mistake that you find in other restaurants? 
I don’t go to restaurants where I don’t know the chef or the ethos behind the restaurant. I will frequent a restaurant or work with a chef who knows and values their staff, sustainability, and how to protect and preserve the environment. It’s about a lot more than just food. 

What’s your favorite cuisine? 
Japanese. Without a doubt. 

What’s your go-to dish if you have to cook something quickly?  
I have teenage boys, and they love a simple pasta with marinara sauce. I always stock my fridge with pre-prepared sauces, and I always, always have marinara sauce and fresh parmesan cheese. These things make cooking so easy. 


What’s the trickiest dish on your current menu? 
The chicken tahchin. It’s a crispy, rice cake. But it doesn’t taste like traditional tahchin. I use my own spice mix, and the dish has five different elements which makes it complicated to put together. 

As a head chef, are you a disciplinarian or are you quite laid back?  
I’m very strict, but it’s for the benefit of the staff. My kitchen is always clean and well-kept. Nothing escapes me. 

Chef Roaya’s Chili-roni 

(Serves 2-4 people) 


200g macaroni; 4 tbsp vegetable oil; 1 tbsp ginger purée; 5 curry leaves; ¼ tsp turmeric powder; 1 small red onion, finely chopped; 1 tsp garlic purée; ¼ tsp ground cardamom; ¼ tsp ground cinnamon; ¼ tsp ground coriander; ¼ tsp ground cumin; ¼ tsp black pepper powder; ½ chicken or vegetable stock cube; 200g lamb or beef mince; 1 and ½ tbsp chopped dill; 1 and ½ tbsp chopped coriander; 1 tbsp tomato paste; 100g fresh tomato purée; 5-6 green chilies; ½ tsp sea salt; 100g fresh or frozen peas (optional) 


Cook the macaroni until al dente, rinse with cold water and set aside.  

In a small frying pan, add oil and heat over medium flame.  

Add the ginger, curry leaves, and turmeric powder. Fry for 2 minutes until golden. Add the onion and fry until it has softened.  

Add the garlic and the rest of the spices, stock cube, and minced meat. 

Fry for 3 minutes, until the meat has browned.  

Add herbs, tomato paste, tomato purée, chilies, and peas (if using). 

Turn heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes.  

Stir in the cooked macaroni and salt and stir until the chili-roni has thickened and fully cooked. 

Serve immediately. 

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