Moroccans of the World had the utmost privilege of interviewing Alia Al-Kasimi – Moroccan cuisine’s online chef sensation.
Alia Al-Kasimi was born and raised in Rabat, Morocco. An ambitious and intelligent young woman, she obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Engineering from Al-Akhawayn University, before moving to the U.S. at the age of 21 to pursue a Master’s Degree in Computer Science and subsequently an MBA from UC Berkeley. In the meantime, as she began to miss the Moroccan flavours that had accompanied her entire childhood, Alia decided to experiment with traditional Moroccan dishes on a personal YouTube channel. Week after week, Alia posted exciting, easy-to-follow videos on preparing delicious Moroccan dishes with ingredients and utensils available in the U.S. Eight years later, cookingwithalia.com is one of the leading destinations for people all over the world who wish to live (or relive) the Moroccan experience through intricate, but easy-to-prepare food.
Despite her hectic schedule, Alia took the time to talk with us, which made it no surprise to find her very humble, very kind and extremely admirable. It was obvious from the interview that Alia loves what she does, that she is supremely proud of her Moroccan origin, and at the same time she cherishes her multiple identities. Read on to find out more about Alia, how dedicated she is to her passion for food, and her future plans.
Alia, with your busy schedule as a tech consultant plus other commitments in your life, how did you manage to find time for cooking?
I am naturally very organized and like to be efficient. In the beginning, I used to film one recipe every week. However, throughout the years, I developed a more structured approach: with my team, I film four to five videos in one day, usually during the week ends, which then gives us a month worth of videos (one video each week). And before the series ends, we film the upcoming series so we ensure that there is always new content ready. The rest of the time we create other content bi-products, such as Facebook short videos, Pinterest, tips, collages, etc.
Also, it’s not just me working on this! We are now seven people working on it part-time: one videographer, two editors, two social media managers, and one designer. Everyone is living in a different country (except the videographer and myself), but each one is awesome and super dedicated to what we do. They all are essential in making CookingWithAlia run smoothly.
You’ve travelled quite a bit and nobody can deny you’re a very versatile cook. What determined you to focus on Moroccan cuisine above others?
Moroccan cuisine is the food of my childhood. It’s a way for me to connect to my roots when I am uprooted (as I move and travel a lot). It’s a way to connect with my past and my country. I wanted to become the ambassador of Moroccan Cuisine not only representing food, but also the openness and diversity of Moroccan culture, which we should preserve at all costs, especially in a world that is trying to close up more and more.
First, you moved to the U.S. Now, you live in South Korea. Has this changed the way you cook?
Yes, absolutely. Asian flavours are different from any kind of cuisine I cooked before, and it was interesting to integrate these new techniques with my Moroccan cooking. Also, living in Korea dictates what I can cook depending on the available ingredients. Unlike in the US, where ingredients are available almost all-year-round, especially in California where I used to live, ingredients in Korea are seasonal. Certain fruits and vegetables can only be found in certain seasons. So my cooking became more seasonal.
You’ve often talked about how we are all the same, regardless of our geographical enclosure. How important is it for you to stay true to your Moroccan identity?
This is extremely important to me! Myself, I am a melting-pot. I have two passports (Moroccan and American), one residence permit (Indian) and I am now living in a country (South Korea) so different from anything I knew before, but which is now part of me! Embracing diversity is my way of life but it is easy for me because I still ‘stay true’ to my Moroccan identity. Morocco is known for its amazing cultural openness: Arabic, Berber, European and Jewish. Just an hour’s drive in Morocco reveals a whole new set of cultures, foods, and geographical scenery: mountains, desert, beaches, rivers… By being open to the world, I am being true to the openness of Moroccan culture!
You’ve also mentioned that money is not the primary incentive behind CookingWithAlia. What motivates you? What inspires your cooking?
Absolutely, money is not what motivates me. I have a successful career on the side, and for the past almost 8 years I have been extremely dedicated to CookingWithAlia. You can see an obvious growth in video quality for instance, and that is because each year I set a new goal for myself on how to improve the content, the recipes, etc.
What drives me is passion. Passion for Moroccan food, passion for sharing it with the world, and most importantly, passion for connecting with people. You can’t imagine the number of messages I receive from people around the world who share with me their personal stories. I received messages from people who thought they could never cook their favourite dishes. I received messages from people telling me how they cooked for their loved ones from Morocco and how they felt that they brought a piece of home to their friend or partner’s day. I also receive messages from people explaining how my cooking helped them revive pleasant childhood memories, or those who expressed how happy they were about eating a dish when they live far away from Morocco, etc. But the most important of all the messages I receive, are those usually sent by young girls telling me how my cooking inspires them to do more in their lives. For me CookingWithAlia is a platform that can empower and inspire, while bringing a moment of happiness to people all over the world. This became so important to me that I am actually quitting my job this month (April 2016) and will be dedicating my time fully to CookingWithAlia! Many exciting projects will be coming up in the next months!
On your blog, you talk about your husband, Amit, as a piece of your own soul. You also refer to him as your spice, your zest and your sugar. How has Amit influenced your culinary journey?
Amit opened up my world. I met him when I was 21 years old, when I just moved to the US. I never thought that I would meet and fall in love with an Indian man! I discovered a whole new world and culture by meeting him, and I gained a new country! (I am an Indian resident). He is my partner and best friend. The world has no boundaries for us and with him by my side, I feel that I can conquer it all. He never doubted me and he always supported me in whatever I wanted to do, including quitting my career and focusing 100% on CookingWithAlia. It’s very important to have a supportive partner because that can really break or make your goals, so all women out there choose wisely or just stay single!
What would you say Amit’s favourite Moroccan dish is? And what about you: What is the best couscous you’ve ever eaten?
Amit’s favourite dish is hands down Baghrir! He can eat 10 of them at once. When we are in Morocco I have to tell people to say that “Baghrir is finished” after he eats five. But then, they would give him more later when I am not looking. LOL.
Best couscous I’ve ever had is , of course, my grandmother’s!
CookingWithAlia is close to celebrating 8 years of age! You officially have more than 220,000 followers on Facebook and your YouTube channel is following closely. What advice do you have for aspiring food bloggers, vloggers and YouTubers? What does it take to succeed in this culinary adventure?
Passion and consistency. You have to really like what you are talking about to keep growing in it and also you have to be very consistent (e.g. posting weekly) for people to come back. Also, you have to connect with your readers/viewers and really understand their needs. Listen, because they will tell you!
You make us proud of our Moroccan origins and we love you for the way you represent our culture. We also miss you. When will we see you in Morocco again?
Thank you, that is really sweet of you! I go often to Morocco. Recently, I went in September 2015, then February 2016, and I am coming this May again! Now that I will be working in CookingWithAlia full-time, I will probably go very often!!!