While everyone was busy experimenting with banana bread recipes during the Corona crisis, Haiya Mughal – better know to Dubai’s culinary cognoscenti as the foodie behind @passmethedimsum – filled her recipe and review website with eagerly devoured content for her fans. We sat with the social media maven and digital diva, who moved to the UAE seven years ago from Jeddah, to learn about her storeroom hacks, why you’ll never get that perfect food shot when hangry and why giving up your day job might be just the push you need to soar.

You actually had a day job at the start of the year and your social media musings were more of a side project; were you planning on sticking to your nine-to-five in 2020?
I was. I did miss cooking, doing more for my blog, styling and clicking a picture exactly how I knew it would look the best but I was very happy at my job as the Marketing and Communications Manager at Tavola, for all 33 branches in six countries. I was always made to feel like a very valuable asset. The environment was dynamic and challenging, and I looked forward to meeting my colleagues every day. I found marketing strategy planning based on seasons, geography and inventory levels absolutely exhilarating.

When did you first realise 2020 was going to take a very different path?
Interestingly enough, it was at the start of this year that I started feeling like I was paying a heavy price for the comfort of routine and security that comes with a corporate life, and while I felt self-actualised in many ways, the creative side of me felt largely unfulfilled. I longed for more time and energy for the wholesome experience of cooking a complex dish with my own hands, styling it beautifully and clicking a perfectly lit image to put down in the books. I also missed the variety of consulting on various different concepts and clients.

What was the biggest challenge you faced?
When working from home was first imposed due to COVID-19, almost the entire company was put on unpaid leave for a period of time ‘to be determined by the company’. It started off as two weeks, and I was sure I would be bored out of my wits and dying to return to my desk. I also realised this was a gift of time, so decided to cook and blog as much as I could. The two weeks turned into four and then six, and I still didn’t feel bored. I felt happier than I had in a long time, and I was getting offers for commissioned projects as a food photographer and recipe developer.
It was then that I decided to put in my resignation, walk away from a stable income and take a leap of faith at a time when the global economy was in its most unpredictable and volatile state. I knew I had the discipline and self-motivation to monetize my creative side and make it more successful than ever before.

Going it alone must have been daunting!
It didn’t feel daunting at all to be honest, because I’m a really firm believer in hard work always paying off and listening to your gut. My gut told me it’s time to move on.

So what did you decide to do?
A few things! I decided to revive my food blog, through which I not only offer consultation to restaurants (ranging from marketing strategy to menu scrutiny), but I also do recipe development content for consumer brands. Most importantly, I started utilising my time more efficiently. No more Netflix, only YouTube tutorials on taking better pictures and shooting better videos. Way less time on Instagram, way more time on the Kindle. Less time lazing on the couch, more time working in the kitchen. I absolutely hate it when people complain about not getting enough opportunities or there being bias in the industry. I knew that in order to get more work, I need to start putting out a product that my clients would feel they must have, and so I started investing in learning, practicing and improving the quality of my recipes as well as my Facebook ad strategy analysis.


Was it an instant success?
As my blog isn’t exactly new and has been around for over five years (it has just been rather dormant for the last couple of years), I must admit that I already had the advantage of having an established, familiar brand and the respect of industry peers. However, as is true with marketing any product or service, I needed to revive it in order to ensure top-of-mind brand recollection with my potential clients. Within the first month of leaving my job, I made more than I was making at my previous 9-5. That said, the freelance life is always unpredictable and there are good months but also bad months.

Anything else you’ve been working on?
There are so many things I wanted to do and learn but either lacked the time for or the energy for and now I’m doing all of them. I’ve just completed an online Food Science certification at Harvard, and am studying to become a certified Tea Sommelier with the International Tea Masters Association.

The businesses you support that have adapted to the new normal best are…
A lot of food and beverage suppliers took a major hit when the lockdown was imposed, and how they quickly developed e-com sites and pivoted their sales models more to the business to consumer side has been a good example of making lemonade with life’s lemons. The best example is Valrhona. They used to sell chocolate feves only in 3kg bags, but quickly repacked them into 1kg bags for the curious but delectable home baker.


The people you think have risen to the challenge are…
I’d have to say that Nadia Parekh of @MelangeDubai really rose to the challenge because when she could no longer make wedding cakes, she started making quarantine cakes and pushing her cookies more. I respect that kind of agility.

Anyone who has motivated you through this time?
My husband. He has always been my biggest cheerleader.

Who inspires you?
My younger sister. She’s doing her PhD in Artificial Intelligence, and is working on a software which, through machine learning, will hopefully be able to detect mood changes and depression in geriatric patients, thus alerting their family members or caretakers to take corrective measures.

Some of the work you have done recently includes…
I’ve been working on a lot of recipe development content for various consumer brands. Some of my favourite brands to work with are Fruitful Day, Malek Seafood and Carnistore. I also enjoy a challenge, like having to work with a tetra-pack juice, and turning that into Agar Agar Koi Fish.

Any words of advice for other entrepreneurs?
The biggest investment you can make is in educating yourself. Keep learning. Read, read, and read some more, and if your service or product requires it, then practice, practice and practice some more. Don’t be shy to ask questions.
More specifically for food stylists and recipe developers: never photograph on an empty stomach. If you’re in a hurry to eat what you cooked, you’ll be impatient with the styling and photography.


The biggest lesson you have learnt?
Visibility is as important as results. Results don’t always speak for themselves and sometimes, being humble isn’t always smart.

The comfort food you have craved during quarantine has been?
Pizza! I must’ve made and eaten over 20 pizzas in five weeks, because I just wasn’t entirely happy with the dough and kept trying alterations in the recipe, slow-fermenting the dough for a different number of hours each time. I enjoyed eating the fruits of my labour.

The soundtrack for your life this year would be? 
Rockstar by Pink; I just feel happy and awesome.

What are you looking forward to?
I’m currently consulting on the social media strategy and execution of two brands I really respect and am simultaneously working towards becoming a certified Tea Sommelier under the International Tea Masters Association, after which I’ll start studying to become a Tea Master. Tea is such a complex world and I am completely obsessed.

If there was one thing you have learnt about yourself, it is that…
I crave variety and really struggle with monotony.

The dish you could eat a hundred times is?
My mom’s Chicken Karahi.

Every kitchen should have?
A sharp knife, a Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer, and chopsticks.

You can always make a meal if you have the following ingredients…

Garlic, miso, and sesame oil.

Food-based pet peeve?

Anything coated in processed chips of any sort. Or drowned in Biscoff or Nutella.

The dish you’ll always order if you see it on a menu is?


Your favourite meals during quarantine have been…
During lockdown, I’d have to say Carnistore for their smoked brisket, as I can turn a single order into pizzas, pastas, tacos, the works, really. If we’re talking restaurants, I’d have to pick Tresind Studio, because I was really rooting for these guys to come out the other end, and they not only survived but they adapted to tighter budgets and they’ll always have my support.

Support Haiya Mughal by visiting passmethedimsum.com and to enquire about food styling, recipe development and restaurant and hotel reviews.

Photos: Supplied