How food writer Lamees AttarBashi went from Dubai to Sacramento

Lamees AttarBashi, a food blogger and host of a Middle Eastern cooking show broadcast on Dubais Al Sharquiya Network, sits in her Sacramento home with a traditional Iraqi dish of roasted lamb leg with carrot rice on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021. She is preparing to launch a snack company called Bashi’s Superfood Snacks.

Lamees AttarBashi, a food blogger and host of a Middle Eastern cooking show broadcast on Dubais Al Sharquiya Network, sits in her Sacramento home with a traditional Iraqi dish of roasted lamb leg with carrot rice on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021. She is preparing to launch a snack company called Bashi’s Superfood Snacks.

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Despite the fact that she’s been up since 3 a.m. and caught about five hours of sleep, Lamees AttarBashi picked up the call with an easy laugh and a boisterous personality that bubbles through the phone.

“It’s the only way to have my peace and quiet. I love my kids to death, but please shush,” AttarBashi laughed.

This is AttarBashi, 38, an Instagram food blogger with a budding snack food company. Her Instagram page is testament to the hours she spends each day on her culinary creations, full of rich, smoky and hearty recipes whose fragrance practically floats off the photos, from the flaky sticky-golden basbousa to charred eggplant boats stuffed with pomegranate molasses and browned beef.

Her dishes are mainly Middle Eastern, but her page is also scattered with the British food of her youth like Scotch eggs and scones, as well as more whimsical offerings, like cookies piped with frosted mummy faces for Halloween. But what many Sacramentans new to her page may not realize is that she’s also a TV personality, having already made a name for herself years ago in Dubai.

It all started with a cake recipe in a children’s book when she was a kid. Her mother, whom AttarBashi credits with planting and nurturing her love of cooking, guided her through the steps as she created her own dish from start to finish for the first time.

“I was so fascinated, like how can you create something from nothing?” AttarBashi said. “Forty minutes in the oven … I just sat in front of it waiting for it to bake. That was the spark of how it led to where I am right now.”

AttarBashi has been chasing that spark ever since, letting it guide her out of an unsatisfying engineering job to culinary school, a business degree and Dubai cooking TV shows. In Sacramento, where she, her husband and two children settled four years ago, AttarBashi is moving into food blogging and a forthcoming snack food company in the U.S.

Her goals have shifted since moving, going from developing a fine-dining twist on Middle Eastern cuisine for an Arabic audience to guiding any unfamiliar American followers through the same dishes. Now, her focus is on showing anyone who comes to her page that her recipes are nothing to be intimidated by. Like any other cuisine, learning how to cook the food simply takes a little guidance.

“My one goal is to make people not be afraid of this cuisine, or skeptical,” AttarBashi said. “I understand that feeling of a cuisine they’ve maybe never heard of or tried. I want to eliminate that (intimidation). It’s like holding their hands. It’s so easy. Just follow these simple steps. That’s my goal.”

Following a passion to an empire

Home for AttarBashi is a fluid concept. Born in Iraq, she was raised in the United Kingdom, which laid the foundation for the food she considers her comforts. She then moved back to Iraq before settling in Dubai for college and work, where she lived for 10 years. She’s also spent several years in Malaysia, where she got an MBA in 2017.

AttarBashi comes from a family of computer engineers, and for a while, that’s the future she saw for herself too. She worked her way up to program manager at Microsoft, where she stayed for four years — and she hated it almost every single day.

“It was that question I kept asking myself: ‘Can i do this for another five years?’” AttarBashi recalled. “But I couldn’t. Every single day was hard for me to continue”

It was her husband who urged her to take the leap, quitting her job to go to the International Centre for Culinary Arts in Dubai in 2012. Going from a dual-income situation to a single paycheck was scary, she said, but the joy she got out of honing her cooking skills outweighed the uncertainty of the future.

“You have to be fully committed. It’s hard,” AttarBashi said. “If you don’t love food don’t love cooking, you’re in the wrong field. It takes you away from your family, other obligations. If you don’t love it, it’s going to be hard to do it every single day.”

Toward the end of culinary school, AttarBashi created a Facebook page and started posting pictures of the recipes she developed. Most of the dishes were Middle Eastern, she said, but what set her content apart from typical Middle Eastern fare was its presentation — small dishes artfully presented and tightly proportioned, rather than the large, sprawling family-style platters typically shown.

Her posts took off and caught the attention of TV producers in Dubai, who invited her as a guest for a morning cooking segment. That first appearance in 2014 led to producers offering her a regular weekly cooking segment, and shortly after she became the host of her own cooking show, “Lamees’s Dining Table” on Dubai’s Al Sharquiya Network.

Between TV segments, she also hosted cooking classes and did demonstrations at food festivals. With her empire firmly established in the UAE, making the decision to leave all that to move to Sacramento with her family for her husband’s job wasn’t an easy one. But like everything else in her life, AttarBashi is starting over and revamping her work — this time for an American audience.

Moving to America

Though the decision was a difficult one, moving to America became as much of a career jolt for AttarBashi as it was for her husband. Television gigs can be unstable, AttarBashi said, and she wanted more control over her work. She also relished the opportunity to bring more Middle Eastern recipes to an American audience.

“I wanted to build something for myself,” AttarBashi said. “(With TV shows) at the end of the day, you’re still working for someone. I thought, ‘You know what I want to come here and make something for myself.’”

AttarBashi’s biggest adjustment has been learning how to shift her content into Instagram. She shoots and edits all her photographs and videos herself, which is a chore — and part of the reason why she wakes up before sunrise. She also teaches the occasional cooking class, such as the one she hosted for the Arab American National Museum in Washington last summer.

As the scope of AttarBashi’s content has grown, so has her visibility, bringing with it some unexpected challenges. First, it was Arabic audiences in Dubai who made mean comments about her less-than-perfect Arabic on TV. Then, it was the need to please Arabic fans confused about her switch to English-language content once she moved to the U.S.

Though AttarBashi speaks, reads and writes Arabic fluently, English is actually her first language. Getting through the conflicting language expectations to please both her Arabic and English audiences hasn’t been easy, she said.

“It was a struggle for me to perfect my Arabic,” AttarBashi said. “To a point where I thought, ‘Right now I feel like I don’t belong to anyone.’ My English is not 100 (percent) and my Arabic is not 100 (percent). I’m in between.”

It’s an ongoing question tied to her own conflicted sense of geographic identity, she said. She’s embraced her multicultural upbringing, but some of her longtime followers didn’t take the switch quite as smoothly.

“People saw me speak Arabic on TV, and now when they see me speak English, they ask why,” AttarBashi said. “It’s hard for me to explain this is who I am … I don’t take it to heart. If you’re attacking me, you don’t know my full story.”

To that end, every single recipe AttarBashi posts on Instagram is translated in both English and Arabic, with Arabic translations posted on a separate account. Recording her video demonstrations in two languages is arduous, as she pauses dozens of times throughout her demonstrations to translate her own instructions.

AttarBashi’s recipes start with a basic riff on what she and her husband love eating, the elements of which she then plays with to create spinoffs and innovations. One post that recently exploded was a hummus recipe, scattered with cubes of roasted beef, tomatoes, pine nuts and sumac — a combination some American followers may not have seen before, she said.

Recipes will usually go through two to three rounds of testing, depending on their complexity. Some, such as her intricately decorated mushroom pot pies inspired by the British meat pies she grew up with, take months to perfect and tweak.

She’s also been leaning more into the short-video format of modern food media, especially after noticing the videos where she’s just having fun and not plotting every last detail of a recipe often resonate more with her viewers — a video of her flipping a heavy pot of dolma onto her head is one of her highest-viewed videos to date. One of her biggest goals for 2021 is to keep taking this pressure off and to simply focus on creating content and recipes that make her happy and feel true to the kind of food she enjoys sharing with crowds and loved ones.

“It’s not pressure so much as being authentic. You want to be authentic with the people who are following you,” AttarBashi said.

A growing business

AttarBashi was getting ready to launch her natural snack company, Bashi Superfoods, last spring when the pandemic hit. So she pushed back the release date of her company, using the time instead to focus on doing a complete overhaul of her website and creating more recipes for her followers.

“I’m taking advantage of the situation right now,” AttarBashi said. “With people knowing me more here in Sacramento, hopefully they will be more interested.”

Each of her three products — a granola bowl, a nuts and dates mix and a date paste — have gone through more than 50 rounds of testing, both in the lab and in taste tests. All of her snacks are low-carb, with no preservatives, using only natural ingredients and sweeteners.

For food writers looking to get into the blogging world, AttarBashi urged budding writers to look inwards first and make sure it’s a passion. It’s a hard vocation to break into, she said, and requires the drive and passion to ensure writers create content that makes them happy first.

“I love cooking for other people,” AttarBashi said. “When I see the smile on their faces it makes me so happy. Even if I’m not going to see them, I want them to love it. It’s about creating a channel between me and people I’ve never met and connecting with them through my products.”

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Ashley Wong covers Sacramento’s Asian American and Pacific Islander community for The Sacramento Bee in partnership with Report for America. A graduate of University of California, Berkeley, she has written for USA Today and the East Bay Express.

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