Changing the image of healthy eating: an interview with Malika – food ambassador and chef

At Healthy Living Platform we have a super team of chefs and volunteers in our Healthy Living Kitchen from a range of backgrounds. Zoe, our Community Food Coordinator and Kitchen manager spoke with Malika, who is one of our brilliant new chefs  about her journey with food and healthy eating tips. She first became involved with Healthy Living Platform as a Food Ambassador. Our Food Ambassador course involves training people in the community to give them the skills and confidence to run healthy cooking sessions for families in their community.

Can you tell us a bit about your background:

I am French, of Algerian origins and moved to the UK 12 years ago, alongside my husband and 3 children to study.

I have been involved in Community work for a few years. I was a parent representative before LEAP was born and have been involved with LEAP since the beginning – around 2013/2014. I was one of the leaders of the Children’s Play & Stay located in Brockwell park where we delivered many successful sessions. This was one of first places dedicated to the women of the community, where we had up to 150 children and carers attending each session. I then started my own Healthy cooking project at Myatts Field North. For 4 years we ran once a week, healthy cooking classes where we welcomed women in the community who were suffering from mental health issues. Cooking was a good way to learn about nutritious food, discover new recipes, but overall to socialize, laugh around and make new friends. It was a good way to bring these women together.

I was always interested in medicine, nutrition and healthy eating. Failing to pursue my goal of completing my medicine studies in my twenties, I decided to start a course online on nutrition and nutri-therapy with the idea to create workshops and pass on this important knowledge to parents. I love food and love tasting different flavours. When we speak about healthy eating, people have this image of boring plain food. I wanted to change this image.

Tell us about your involvement with Healthy Living Platform and the food ambassador course.

I found out about Healthy Living Platform at an Eid session at Myatt’s fields and joined the food ambassadors course. I really enjoyed the fact that parents were given this opportunity to learn about healthy eating. The concept was really interesting – about passing knowledge to them. The idea of cooking together, and that parents will have this knowledge and understanding to use more fruits and vegetables. The idea of no waste – I liked this. The programme gave me some ideas of how to plan ahead with my own workshops.

Tell us about your recent involvement in our Healthy Living Kitchen?

It’s the same vision as what I want to do. Joining the HLP team is not only an opportunity to learn new skills but also to apply my skill on the ground. I really enjoy working here.  I love the concept of giving back to the community through my food, made with ingredients from over-stock in a range of different shops. Food is like an art. I feel gifted when I cook with fresh seasonal vegetables, especially when they are organic. I feel that I have the duty to honor them and give them the place they deserve on the plate.

 You recently cooked a delicious North African tagine which was sent out as part of our free healthy cooked meal service, and asked one of our volunteers to shell all the chickpeas! Can you tell us the reasoning behind this? 

In my family and the part of Algeria my parents come from, when they cook chickpeas, they usually soak them for 1 day in water, then cook them and remove the skin. The shell shouldn’t float in the couscous, when this happens they will refer to this as ‘the black sheep of the couscous’. Your body will also digest more of the nutritious value if you remove the shell. As a child, my mother would ask us to remove the skin of the chickpeas – it was fun as kids. But as I turned a teenager this task was not so exciting anymore, as I was focusing on making my life as easy as possible (laughter!). It was an opportunity for our mum to discipline us for our laziness! I hope I didn’t give too much hassle to our kind volunteer that day.  

 I have noticed that a lot of care goes into the food that you cook

Everything on your plate and your spoon – everything has to be a pleasure to taste. It is the care of it – people  eat with their eyes. Every ingredient must be in harmony. A lot of love is put in my food.

Do you have any tips for families who find it difficult to get themselves or their children to eat healthily?  

 It has to be good, nutritious and easy. To cook something quick and cheap, and why not to cook with your children. We shouldn’t be too ambitious, for example cooking something that takes 3 hours. Find an easy recipe with what you have in your kitchen. You don’t need to be a chef. There are a few basis to help you understand the balance in food – when you understand these, it’s easy to make great tasty dishes. In general my recipes are a mix and balance of these 5 flavours; sweet, salt, spice, sour and acid . You don’t need to be rich to be healthy. You are what you are eating.  

My parents have some olive trees in a small village in Algeria and once a year the whole village gathers to cold press the olive for the oil, following a technique old of hundreds of years – it preserves the precious properties of the oil. Olive oil is one of the healthiest oils to cook with. When a tomato is cooked with olive oil the property of the tomato is doubled. It makes the food tastier and easier for nutrients to be digested.

Can you give us an example of one of your favourite simple recipes?

 We always have onions, garlic tomatoes and eggs in our house. So when I fancy something tasty but quick to prepare, I make myself the super delicious egg-tomato sandwich my mother cooked us, when we were in a hurry for school. Here is how to make it. Put some olive oil in a pan, when the oil is warm put in some crushed garlic, a tomato cut in cubes, leave to cook for 1 minute, crack an egg, scramble it and sprinkle some fresh parsley leaves. Voila! Eat it with some nice sourdough brown bread. It’s something very simple and super tasty.

How did you learn to cook?

I learnt from an early age looking at my mother preparing our favorite  dishes.  I recall having great fun mimicking my mum rolling and flattening a mini piece of fresh dough that she kindly shared with me every time she cooked fresh bread. I loved it so much that I continued and passed it on to my children. Also I am the 5th of a family of 7 children and  biscuits would last just a few minutes in the cupboard. My mother would not trust the added preservatives in the preparation of the “fake biscuit”as she called them. So as a child if we wanted to eat a cake we had to make it.

My friend Sourya was one of my inspirations and probably the booster in my interest in the art of cooking. She was only 18 and cooked like a chef! I was always impressed with her cooking skills and how she would turn a simple tomato into a piece of art!

I was certainly lucky to learn from my mother-in-law who was an amazing Moroccan cook. She taught me much of what I know today about this wonderful cuisine. Each ingredient in the tagine is sublimised and has its proper place in the dish – you can taste every single flavour inside. Food has to be simple, if it is too complicated you lose the flavor of its single ingredient.

Join Malika via zoom on Wednesday  16th December, 10.30am-11.45am when she will be sharing her tips on how to bring more joy into your lives at this time of year, and inviting you to share your own. She will also show you how to make a delicious and simple ‘tarte au pomme’ (a French apple tart), using just apples and puff pastry and a savoury ‘tarte provencal’.