The Rise of Refugee Cuisine
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I’m speaking to Tatenda Ngwaru, a very tall, very beautiful 30-year-old from southern Zimbabwe, who is gently stirring a pot of fragrant chicken stew. She is at once exuberant and composed, and casually stylish in stone-washed black jeans, black Vans, and a black caftan.
She’s also in the midst of cooking for 28: tonight’s by-invitation-only Displaced Kitchens dinner, an installment of a popular series by the food-event start-up Komeeda. I’ve volunteered to be Tatenda’s sous-chef—which so far largely involves staying out of her way as she measures curry powder, soy sauce, and salt and gets her stew to a proper simmer. This is a high-stakes night for Tatenda, the first time she’s brought the flavors she grew up with to a fickle New York dining crowd. I fetch her mixing bowls—to be filled with sweet boiled butternut squash and sautéed spinach—and ferry cutting boards to the dishwasher, easy assignments that don’t make her anxious. “I speak my mind,” Tatenda warns me. “That’s what got me here!”
Here means a combination of couch-surfing, cat-sitting, enduring nights of homelessness (“That was hard,” she says), and, recently, scraping together enough to rent a Brooklyn apartment while she awaits asylum status. It has been a fraught existence, but still an improvement over life in Zimbabwe, where she was blamed by neighbors for drought and incurred threats of arson to the family home. Why? Because Tatenda was born intersex: with genitalia of both genders. Zimbabwe is a patriarchal society, and her parents chose to raise her as a boy—until, at age eleven, she developed breasts and started menstruating. Tatenda refused to hide what was happening, which her parents eventually accepted. Their community in Gutu district did not. When Tatenda founded an advocacy organization aimed at educating fellow Zimbabweans about intersex and transgender issues, she received death threats and fled the country.
Hers is one story among many. Last year, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 68.5 million people were uprooted from their homes—the vast majority from developing countries. It’s the worst migrant crisis in history, and the numbers are only getting more grave. The UNHCR reports that one person is displaced every two seconds: an average of 44,500 a day. Against such harrowing data, tonight’s dinner is, in its very small way, inspiring. Here are savvy, open-minded eaters aligned with a refugee who—even while unmoored and grasping for security—is a guardian of culinary wisdom in danger of vanishing. It is unlikely anyone here tonight has had stew and sadza, or bota. “You are about to taste the food of my childhood,” Tatenda says, suddenly bashful as she faces a long, expectant table. “This is what we ate while we lived our lives.”
Komeeda is the brainchild of Palestinian and Yemeni business partners Nas Jab and Jabber Nasser al Bihani, who, in response to President Donald Trump’s first travel ban, in January 2017, began hosting refugee-chef dinners on the Lower East Side. The dinners sold out—as have subsequent ones in New York, Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C. Interest in the cuisines of refugees, here and in Europe, amounts to something of a culinary fervor. In 2016 an ingenious French catering company called Les Cuistots Migrateurs co-organized a festival at which newly arrived immigrant chefs took over dozens of restaurants around Paris, Lyon, Madrid, and Rome. For three years running, the UNHCR has organized refugee food festivals in collaboration with dozens of buzzy restaurants everywhere from Amsterdam to Madrid to New York City to San Francisco. In London the acclaimed Mazí Mas pop-up is staffed entirely by refugee women, cooking their native dishes. In Los Angeles, the New Arrival Supper Club has been treating diners to the home cooking of Homs, once the third largest city in Syria; Detroit will soon be home to the Midwest’s (and perhaps the entire country’s) first Burundian restaurant and market, Baobab Fare, founded by refugees; in Durham, North Carolina, the Sushioki chain opened explicitly to “offer stable, flexible, living-wage jobs to refugees.”
“It’s a great match of symbiotic needs,” says Padma Lakshmi, a refugee advocate who worked with Susan Sarandon to promote the recent documentary Soufra, about a group of refugees finding hope through food. “The culinary world needs people who know and value the importance of hospitality, who relish creating nourishment and, in doing so, nourish themselves. Food is the thing that feels most like home. Eagerness to create a home starts with the job of creating food.”
A cross-cultural perfume pervades Tatenda’s dinner. It begins with Palestinian specialties (“Africans don’t do appetizers,” Tatenda jokes) cooked by Nas Jab—fresh hummus, fat Medjool dates stuffed with haloumi, and tightly rolled grape leaves encasing fragrant rice. The main course, Tatenda’s chicken stew and sadza, a starchy, polenta-like mass for dipping, is gone in seconds. Offerings of more spinach and butternut squash soon vanish, too, and the whole thing ends not with a Zimbabwean sweet but with tiny crisp triangles of baklava and ice cream.
Several weeks later, I visit Charleston, South Carolina, to meet chef Michael Shemtov, owner of the popular Butcher and Bee, who I’ve heard has attracted a stream of refugees to his kitchen. “It was partially selfish and partially altruistic,” he tells me over a breakfast of avocado toast, eggs, and hummus. “I was consumed by news about ISIS and sad about Syria. I was also trying to make really nice pita and flatbread.” None of Shemtov’s employees has yet been Syrian—but he has found himself in an otherwise unlikely cultural exchange with people who are, by his own account, extraordinary. Two Afghans on his staff, Sabir and Mustafa, both from the terrorized Ghazni province, now make his cold-pressed juices and work in his bakery. I ask them whether they cooked in Afghanistan. Both nod. Sabir, who is fluent in English and dressed immaculately in slacks and a clean white T-shirt—even after hours of rinsing vegetables and making juice—chuckles. In Afghanistan he built a microlight airplane, from scratch, alone, with no education or aircraft training, relying on a video and bits of rickshaw and an old Toyota. His maiden flight was reported by The Guardian and The Christian Science Monitor—which referred to him as “Afghanistan’s Wright Brother.” He left Afghanistan because his fame made him a target for kidnapping by the Taliban. Shemtov says it’s hard to watch him peel vegetables, as it was with an Iraqi refugee he hosted for a time. “He’d worked on electrical substations in Iraq, and I handed him kale.”
This is not a conundrum felt at Eat Offbeat, a Queens, New York–based catering company founded by grad school students and Lebanese immigrants Manal and Wissam Kahi. Begun in 2015 with a $25,000 grant from Columbia Business School, Eat Offbeat hires primarily refugees and asylum seekers—mostly women, though a handful of men have slipped into the ranks—who love to cook and seek audiences for their native cuisines.
I arrive at the company’s Long Island City headquarters at 11:00 a.m., just as the day’s work is getting under way. The large professional kitchen is shared by a number of food start-ups—food trucks and other idealistic denizens of the new food economy (one company packages micro-greens from a nearby rooftop garden). Only the attire of Eat Offbeat’s chefs—long hair swept beneath scarves, limbs covered in silk blouses and printed skirts beneath their aprons—and their near silence sets them apart from the fast-moving, loud-talking, baseball hat–wearing crowd. At a shiny prep table, a sweet-faced Nepali woman named Aruna and an Iranian woman named Nasrin expertly fold rice-paper wrappers around creamy spiced spinach and paneer. These dumplings are called momos—Nepalese snacks apparently familiar to anyone who has trekked the Himalayas, but new to me. Before I can taste them fried, however, I must assist in stuffing and cinching hundreds more. This is harder than it looks. My momos are gargoyles, even after an hour of practice, which kindly goes unremarked upon by Aruna and Nasrin.
Between the two, there is the comfortable air of a support group. No one is rushing. “We aren’t worried yet about being as fast or productive as we can be,” says Kahi. “We focus on consistency, everyone feeling supported, working around their schedules, allowing for lawyers’ meetings, ESL classes, doctors’ appointments, long commutes, and chefs feeling confident enough to put new dishes on the menu.” I’m tasked with helping Nasrin and an Iraqi woman named Dhuha make baklava. Before we begin, Dhuha delivers frothed, icy lattes to everyone in the kitchen—definitively the most delicious coffee drink I’ve ever had. I don’t know if it is Iraqi, or customary only in Dhuha’s household, and the only tricks she will disclose are using non-dairy creamer (one of the world’s most underestimated ingredients) and a blender. As for baklava, Dhuha has been making it since she could walk. “For every important event of my life,” she says, in broken English, the lingua franca of the kitchen. As we work, she and Nasrin discuss how to get the vaccinations mandatory for their permanent-resident applications, and by the time I leave, full of fried momos, crisp Manchurian cauliflower fritters, and sour cherry–pistachio rice, I’ve witnessed the formation of an invaluable network. Nasrin is in a quiet hallway by the walk-in, speaking about vaccinations to a lawyer recommended by Dhuha.
I make one more stop: Emma’s Torch, an organization housed in a chic little bistro in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, where founder Kerry Brodie is dedicated to providing new arrivals with the skills they need to succeed outside the sheltered world of pop-up dinners and catering—to become, perhaps, the next David Chang, Marcus Samuelsson, or Dominique Crenn. Named for Emma Lazarus, author of “The New Colossus,” emblazoned on our Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” et cetera, et cetera), Emma’s Torch receives four students at a time via aid groups such as the International Rescue Committee. Over a two-month course, the organization offers full service-industry training, including English lessons, immersion in relevant culinary terms, tools, and techniques.
I attend a press dinner on a beautiful spring night, just after the restaurant’s opening in mid-May. The first cohort of students here includes Mazen Khoury, an accomplished Syrian chef who deftly grills branzino to accompany peppers stewed in harissa; radiant Magedda Arreaza, from Venezuela; and Shehla Shehzad, a Pakistani woman who smiles with painful shyness as she plates potato-pea samosas and crisp butter-lettuce salad with asparagus. We reporters and bloggers eat family style, at a long table chosen and donated by Rachael Ray (and her decorator). The food impresses, independent of the restaurant’s mission—herb-roasted chicken is elegantly accompanied by the season’s first zucchini; summery cavatelli, tossed with yellow squash and green garlic, has just the right chew; black-eyed-pea hummus—which I know sounds transgressive—tastes like the very best of Abu Ghosh (an Arab-Israeli village outside Jerusalem that I can attest produces the world’s finest hummus). Some students move less fluently in the kitchen than others. But the culinary director, Alexander Harris, formerly of Union Square Hospitality Group and the Pierre, corrects, nudges, guides. Graduates of the Emma’s Torch training program currently cook at The Dutch, Dizengoff, Little Park; tonight’s chefs will interview at Lafayette, Marc Forgione, Haven’s Kitchen, and Loring Place. “Then what?” I ask Brodie, anxious on the students’ behalf at the prospect of enduring such highly visible, high-octane kitchens. “Then,” Brodie says firmly, “they will choose. Our mantra here is: Dream big!”
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