On a recent Sunday in Emeryville, chef Hanif Sadr started a cooking lesson with a brief geographical description of Northern Iran and the Caspian Sea, while nearby, chef Nafy Flatley held forth about the baobab tree and the many ways it’s used in Senegalese cuisine. Meanwhile, in the same kitchen, chefs from India, Israel, Mexico, Chile and Korea helped small groups of people crimp dough, stuff empanadas, dab egg wash on puff pastry and wash mint and cilantro, among many other cooking tasks.
“It’s organized chaos, isn’t it?” asked Doug Eng as he surveyed the scene. Eng is owner of In the Kitchen (ITK) Culinary, the venue where it all took place.
For Eng, an immigrant from Hong Kong, it was clear that he couldn’t think of a better way to make use of the space than by hosting an event in which immigrant chefs could teach an appreciative crowd about their culture using one of the most accessible mediums possible: food.
“Nourishing Roots: Celebrating Immigrant Food Traditions” was put on by Slow Food East Bay as a way to kick off and raise money for its Cultural Food Traditions project, an almost-year-long series that will showcase the culinary traditions of mostly immigrant chefs. At each event, chefs will cook the cuisine of their homeland and share their cultural backstory with attendees.
The idea for the project came to Willow Blish, a co-leader of the Slow Food East Bay chapter, when she was walking down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. Noticing the wealth of cuisines from around the world available on the strip, Blish realized that having access to this variety is the result of an America that has historically been welcoming to immigrants.
She told this story to those assembled at the launch event, adding, “You can eat the way you want the world to look. By using our power as diners, we can make a political statement.”
The upcoming Cultural Food Traditions dinners will take place monthly, starting May 12, at various locations in Berkeley, Emeryville and Oakland. Each event will also highlight the work of a local non-profit working in the community. Proceeds from ticket sales will be split between the participating chef and the partner organization.
“While we want people to eat the food and connect with the chefs, we also want diners to understand that these groups can use more volunteers, whether it’s their time or money,” said Blish. “We want people to leave knowing that if they want to get more involved, there’s definitely tangible things they can do.”
The series will feature cuisines and chefs from Syria (May 12 with Old Damascus Fare), Indigenous America (June 30 with Wahpepah’s Kitchen), Northern Iran and Iraq (July 28 with Hanif Sadr of Komaaj), Black America (Aug. 25 with Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement and Crave BBQ), Vietnam (Sept. 29 with Chef Tu David Phu), Afghanistan (Oct. 27 with the Refugee Women’s Empowerment Group), Mexico (Nov. 24 with chefs from Fruitvale and Mexico), Senegal (Jan. 26 with Nafy Flatley and a surprise Senageles chef), and another around the world type of event to close the series out on Feb. 23.
The recent launch event was facilitated by Jesse Bloom of Sacred Kitchen, a chef who focuses on team building events. Bloom told the crowd how frustrated and angry he was after Executive Order 13769, a.k.a., the Muslim travel ban, went into effect, and how highlighting the food of immigrants was something positive he felt he could do.
Bloom spoke of how both his professional and personal life have been made better by immigrants, like the Cuban dishwasher who has worked many events with him and has “always kept every inch of our kitchen dialed in.” He also invoked his grandmother Ruth, for whom “there was always room for one more at the table.”
Participants also shared their personal stories in a team building exercise before being split into groups to help the chefs make an appetizer. Each chef had also prepared a main dish in advance.
The “organized chaos” remained a constant as participants helped prepare foods, many of which they had never tasted before, like dalaar, a Persian herb paste made from mint and cilantro. After whirring the herbs with salt in a food processor, participants spread the paste on cucumber slices, which they then garnished with barberries and drizzled with olive oil. While no cuisines were the same, chef Selina Lee of Korea also made use of cucumbers, stuffed with spicy shredded daikon, to make a quick kimchi. There were a plethora of other stuffed things, like the borekas made by chef Aliza Grayevsky Somekh of Israel, the empanadas made by chef Carmen Figueroa of Chile, the sev puri by chef Prakash Patrapanda of India, and the quesadillas made by chef Cecilia Chiarez of Zacatecas, Mexico.
Before digging in, each chef introduced their dish. Chef Flatley, for instance, said that when it came to maafe, a ground nut stew, there’s a fight in West Africa over which country started making it first, and “of course Senegal has won.”
Over dinner, guests shared their reflections about the evening.
For Lorraine Stiller, who came from Stockton to volunteer at the event, she said it reminded her of her childhood, when she’d go to her classmate’s homes, where so many of their parents were immigrants, and she’d try foods she had never seen before.
Paula Newton of Walnut Creek said eating foreign cuisines made her want to travel to these places; Northern Iran is now at the top of her list to visit.
Interestingly, Marlon Maus, an adjunct professor of public health at Cal, found himself at a table with a few other public health professionals.
“In public health, we often are approached by people asking if a certain food is good for them or bad; many look at their meals as a medical regimen,” he said. “But food is not medicine, no matter what so many people try to make you believe. Food is, and should be, a sensory, social and personal experience. When looking at traditional cultures, food is an expression of their identity.”
When it came time to eat the main courses, it was beautiful to see all the dishes running together on one plate. Relations between Iran and Israel are tense, to say the least, but it was nothing but harmonious when the sauce of Sadr’s Persian eggplant and walnut stew called aghooztareh mingled with the sauce of Somekh’s fish in spicy red sauce called chraime, a dish that Jews from Tunisia brought to Israel.
For Somekh, this peaceful union made her appreciate the event — and living in the Bay Area — even more.
“The smells of what [Sadr] brought were so familiar, they took me home. There are so many points of connection between our food,” she said. “Whenever I meet Palestinians or Syrians here, we are always able to talk, it’s part of the privilege of my living here.”
The next Cultural Food Traditions event takes place May 12 at Bauman College. It will focus on Syrian cuisine, featuring Old Damascus Fare. Tickets are $45-$85. Find out more about the Cultural Food Traditions project events on the Slow Food East Bay website and Facebook page.