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    Thursday, May 30, 2024

    A TikTok star's Ramadan recipes helped launch him to 'Chopped' fame

    There is no "Chopped" champion quite like Ahmad Alzahabi. While his competitors raced around the kitchen during the popular Food Network competition show, Alzahabi had already assembled his appetizer plate from the mystery basket — spaghetti with mussels, micro mizuna and TikTok's viral baked feta pasta — with three minutes to spare.

    Surrounded by chaos in the high-stress kitchen set, Alzahabi did the unthinkable, that is, for anyone except a veteran TikToker: He calmly dusted off his apron, pulled out his phone and filmed the show's first live TikTok.

    Viewers are used to seeing Alzahabi, a food creator known as The Golden Balance (@thegoldenbalance) to his 6 million TikTok followers, cooking behind the camera in his Michigan kitchen. Donning a black T-shirt, he welcomes watchers with smiles and spices that dance from his fingertips with a Salt Bae-like flair. But now Alzahabi is expanding his following. In November, he was crowned champion of "Chopped," and he brought a bit of home and TikTok pride with him.

    For Alzahabi, cooking has always been a family affair. Growing up in a Syrian immigrant household in Flint, Mich., he learned to cook next to his mom, who shared the secrets behind her hummus and makloubeh when other relatives held their tongues. At age 10, he began fasting for Ramadan, the month when Muslims fast from the break of dawn to dusk. He watched diligently as his mom prepared meals for suhoor (the meal before sunrise) and at sundown when the family gathered to break fast for iftar. All the while, he was absorbing tricks and waiting patiently for the day he would create his own substantive meals.

    Of Alzahabi's most cherished recipes, he cannot keep quiet about his mom's stuffed red bell peppers, filfil mahshi. In what has become his most-watched TikTok video to date with more than 10 million views, he holds a juicy pepper up to the camera and reveals the fragrant insides: a seasoned meat stuffing boiled in a garlic, lemon and tomato broth. "Now Bismillah!" he finally exclaims, enticing viewers to dig in with what has become his signature sign-off.

    For such a simple recipe, Alzahabi was surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response the video generated — and its commonalities. "It was insane to see how many other cultures also make stuffed peppers," he says. "I did not expect something that was so simple in my household to resonate with so many people."

    It's one of many recipes he recently featured in his highly-watched series "Ramadan Chronicles," which he began documenting two years ago. Throughout the sacred month, Alzahabi highlights the diversity of recipes and flavors — everything from banana date smoothies and his family's traditional recipes to a heaping plate of leftovers for suhoor. Muslims far and wide tune in to see Alzahabi champion this familiar ritual, but for those unaccustomed to the month of fasting, he's also breaking down its misconceptions. As Alzahabi demonstrates, no Ramadan spread is the same from year to year and, he adds, his most creative, hearty recipes come out of this time.

    That's not the only personal food journey he covers. Across his channels, Alzahabi opens up about his struggles with weight loss following high school, and the recipes that nourished him then.

    "I felt like I was living in different extremes. Either I was eating whatever I wanted or I was eating an extremely strict diet that was unsustainable," he says. "That's why I started my name, The Golden Balance. I just wanted to find that balance."

    Alzahabi reassures viewers in his more recent videos that maintaining a healthy diet does not mean sacrificing cheesy pizza or butter chicken. His secret? "You have to make small substitutions in order to get very similar results," he says. "And by making those small substitutions, you're able to still eat great food while enjoying yourself."

    For more than two years, Alzahabi bounced around Florida while collaborating with other popular food creators like Owen Han and Nick DiGiovanni. But he still felt Michigan's gravitational pull, and the lure of his friends and family. So this year, he settled back in the Midwest, where he's seeing family recipes with fresh eyes, and sharing them in the name of balance.

    "Now that I'm around family and friends and all these similar flavors that I've tasted growing up, I just want to share them with people around the world," Alzahabi says. "For me, they're normal, but to other people, they might be really new."

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