Jangchup Choedon is preparing traditional food at "Kitchen Talks" workshop in Tel Aviv. Meged Gozny

Connecting in the Kitchen: Israeli Initiative Brings Asylum Seekers and Locals Together Through Cooking Sessions

The Kitchen Talks social enterprise offers workshops that showcase the cuisines of Israel’s transparent communities, the people behind them and their life stories



“Orange lentils, okra, eggplant, peppers, peanut spread, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions” – Haled Ahmed is presenting the ingredients of a meal that he will make along with 10 participants in his food workshop. Five dishes will be prepared during the three-hour workshop, being held in the kitchen wing of the Com-Unity center in the Florentin neighborhood in south Tel Aviv. A 34-year-old native of Darfur, Ahmed, whose nickname is Jalol, begins to talk in fluent Hebrew about the vegetarian and vegan delicacies that characterize Sudanese cuisine.

“Before we begin, why did you come to a Sudanese cooking workshop?” the participants are asked. “I have a family, most of whom have become vegan,” answers one woman. “I have started preparing Eritrean and Ethiopian dishes, and I’m interesting in getting to know Sudanese cuisine too.”

“I came out of culinary curiosity,” says another.

“Have any of you ever eaten Sudanese food?” asks Ahmed. Three of the participants nod; one says that she has eaten at a Sudanese restaurant in south Tel Aviv. “I’ll introduce you to our culture through the kitchen, through the food,” promises Ahmed.

Someone asks “What brought you to Israel?” – and he goes on to tell the group about his life in a nutshell.

Sigal Blayer

“In 2004, when I was 17, the war began and masses of Darfurians fled. My entire family scattered. Many of them are now living in a refugee camp in Chad. I fled to Egypt. The human rights situation there is tough, and the attitude towards refugees is terrible,” he says. “In 2008 I fled via Sinai to Israel. I’m now living in Ramat Gan.”

From there he turns to the subject at hand, to talk about kisra – “the injera [an Ethiopian flatbread] of Darfurian cuisine,” which is made of millet. With it the workshop participants sample various dips. “Preparing kisra takes a long time,” Ahmed explains. “We won’t have time to prepare it together.”

He then begins to reveal the secrets of his homeland’s cuisine, presenting the dishes we will be learning to prepare: cold Sudanese fava beans; aswad salad (“black salad,” based on eggplant); adas (orange lentils); Sudanese okra sauce; and a vegetable salad with daqwa (peanut butter) dressing. Everyone is offered African beer, Sudanese music blares in the workshop area and each participant takes a cutting board and begins to peel and chop vegetables into small slivers. “We’re your sous chefs,” jokes one person. Ahmed asks for a volunteer to fry the eggplant and explains how to prepare the right consistency of okra sauce, while placing pots on the stove.

Sigal Blayer

A social affair

The workshop led by Ahmed, who otherwise makes a living working at a supermarket, is taking place in the context of Kitchen Talks, a Tel Aviv-based social initiative whose aim is to familiarize Israelis with the cuisines of communities on the country’s social periphery, including foreign nationals seen as being “transparent.”

“The cooks who conduct the workshops serve as agents of culture, and through food they talk about their culture and their country of origin. We have cooks who are asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea, along with migrant workers from Nepal, Tibet, Ecuador and Colombia,” explains entrepreneur Yael Ravid, one of the founders of Kitchen Talks, noting that the workshop leaders are paid well for their work.

“There are many excluded cuisines in Israel and they must be brought to center stage,” says Ben Dagani, Ravid’s partner in the project. “We’re planning to expand to Palestinian, Circassian, Bedouin, Armenian and Ethiopian cuisine. Our goal is not to conduct classical cooking workshops, but to bring in cuisine that is outside of the main focus, which exists here.”

Sigal Blayer

Ravid, 40, is an artist/photographer who studied curating, and has volunteered and worked for local humanitarian organizations that assist refugees and asylum seekers, among them the Open Clinic operated by Physicians for Human Rights Israel. Her encounters with these communities prompted her to try to find a way to engage them in Israeli life, by means of food and cultural activities. In 2013 she promoted a social curating initiative that combined art and activism – a kind of early version of Kitchen Talks that organized workshops and other events, although, she says, “I didn’t find the way to make it sustainable.”

Dagani, 34, who has bachelor’s degrees in East Asian studies and philosophy, and a master’s in environmental studies, has worked to forge cooperative efforts between Israeli and Chinese firms in the technology field. After the serious earthquake that struck Nepal in 2015, he says, he traveled there and headed to the local office of IsraAID, an Israel-based nongovernmental organization that offers humanitarian assistance all over the world. “It was a great tragedy and I felt obligated to do something,” says Dagani.

Sigal Blayer

He embarked on a career in social welfare by coordinating 60 humanitarian workers in seven districts in the heart of the Himalayas, before going on to work in a refugee camp in Bangladesh and to offer art therapy to victims of sex trafficking, in India. About two years ago he returned to Israel and directed Schoolhouse, an NGO that helps adult asylum seekers to acquire an education.

Dagani: “I fell in love with the asylum-seeking community, with their food, their culture. Over the years I saw the obstacles and limitations of the NGOs and I wanted to develop an initiative that was more of a business, but socially oriented as well, which could connect asylum seekers and migrants from various communities with the general public here, by means of culinary culture.”

He began to develop his ideas within the framework of a unique program called the Accelerator for Social Entrepreneurs, created by the Beit Berl Academic College to prepare people for work in the educational and social welfare fields. After meeting Ravid, it was clear to Dagani that they spoke the same language and could work together.

Meged Gozny

“The goal of Kitchen Talks,” Ravid says, “is to create a space for getting to know one another. In the course of three-and-a-half hours the leader of the workshop, the cook, talks about himself, about the culture he comes from and about the dishes they’re preparing. The work in these sessions is shoulder to shoulder. The magic always happens when people shed a tear together while cutting onions. That always brings people closer and conversations develop naturally – because food inspires curiosity and talk, and the participants gradually get to know one another. The high point is the shared meal. In the end there’s always a sense of closeness.”

Does food act as the grease in the wheels of communication among the participants?

Ravid: “Definitely. Food is a basis for connecting people. People like to talk about food, to prepare it, to eat it. There are people for whom this is the first time they’re meeting a person from Eritrea or Sudan, the first time that they’re tasting their food, the first time that they’re listening to asylum seekers. The leader of one workshop prepared a Darfurian-style lubia (green bean) soup, and a Moroccan-born grandmother began to recall memories of her childhood. She said, ‘I don’t believe that you do it exactly the same way.’ It connects people. Everyone has the need to share his memories.”

Sigal Blayer

Dagani: “Through the cooking workshops, asylum seekers and migrant workers introduce their community, its culture and its cuisine to the general public. The objective is to allow people who belong to transparent communities – with whom there is usually no interaction on an everyday basis – to take center stage and to introduce them to the Israeli public.”

Ravid and Dagani note that in addition to the workshops, Kitchen Talks organizes tours to local ethnic restaurants, and that information about its activities spreads via the grapevine.

Darfur and falafel

Meanwhile, the workshop area is now full of tantalizing aromas; after all the food has been prepared, the participants sit down around a table together. While enjoying the flavors of the kisra and other dishes, Ahmed talks about peanut butter, a main ingredient in Darfurian cuisine, makes a rather provocative observation when he firmly insists that falafel actually originated in that cuisine, and explains that what characterizes the culinary culture of his homeland is that everyone sits together and eats with their hands.

“It’s social food,” he explains. “You’re eating like Merav Michaeli [a Labor MK who was seen on TV eating with her hands],” laughs one of the participants, and Ahmed smiles and says: “It’s a very unifying experience.”

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Ravid says she discovered Ahmed, his love of cooking and his natural culinary talent, after she was invited to a meal that he prepared.

“The relationship between us began when I was imprisoned in the Holot facility [for asylum seekers] in 2014 for a year and a half,” he explains. “She arrived as an activist and since then we’ve become good friends.”

When you cook and talk about your childhood and life in Darfur, does that make you more homesick?

“Of course,” says Ahmed, his eyes softening. “It immediately reminds me of my mother, my childhood, my home, the family. When everyone prepares food together it brings back memories and immediately takes me back home. It’s important to me to provide information and to present Darfurian cuisine. People are unfamiliar with our culture. I’ve been living here for 11 years, I’m learning Israeli culture and I feel an obligation to share and teach my culture in return.”

What is it like to introduce Darfurian cuisine to Israelis?

“I enjoy it and learn from them, too. I don’t only teach. Every person who prepares food shares his culture with you, shares stories, and gives tips. It enriches your knowledge. You meet people, prepare food and eat. It’s a path to peace. It creates a family atmosphere.”

“Are there desserts in Darfurian cuisine?” asks one participant, to which Ahmed replies that they are traditionally made with rice, flour, grains and fruit.

“When there’s peace in Sudan,” someone asks, “will you return there?” Says Ahmed, “I believe that if there’s genuine peace and stability, all the Sudanese who are scattered all over the world now would return home in a minute.”

The leftover food is packed up in doggie bags for the participants to take home and one declares, “I’m going to prepare pots like these for the entire family!” They say a fond farewell to Ahmed and are presented with a gift of hand-made lentil soap from Ethiopia and a card with recipes.

“Were we all okay? Would you take us again as your sous chefs?” they ask Ahmed with a smile.

Meged Gozny

Eatery outings

The other popular activity organized by Kitchen Talks are group tours to restaurants in Tel Aviv’s Neve Sha’anan neighborhood.

“We bring groups to a restaurant and the cooks demonstrate the preparation of a dish – say, injera or momo (Nepalese dumplings) – in the kitchen. When they finish everyone sits down to eat,” Dagani explains. “There are also meals in restaurants that include instruction, with the participation of the cooks.”

One of those restaurants is Pasal, which specializes in momo. Jangchup Choedon, 32, who runs the restaurant with her husband, is teaching a Tibetan cooking workshop there and dazzles us participants with her skills. Nepalese music plays in the background as she rolls out dough on a floured surface. She smiles bashfully when replying in English to a battery of questions, while making balls from the dough, deftly flattening them out and forming dumplings.

“This is the second time that I’m teaching a cooking workshop,” she says, blushing. “They’re very curious. I’m trying to give the best answers I can.”

Choedon, a Buddhist, was born in Tibet. Her mother, who died when she was 8, was a native Tibetan; her father came from Nepal. “Our cuisine was very simple and based on potatoes,” she says, adding that at age 13, due to the oppressive regime that took over in her homeland, she was forced to flee together with the rest of her family to India.

“My aunt taught me to cook,” she continues. “Everything I know I learned from her. I started cooking at 13 due to force of circumstance, but I fell in love with it right away.”

Eventually, Choedon made her way to Nepal, where she encountered Israelis; local friends said they were going to work in Israel and she ended up coming here about 10 years ago. She worked as a caregiver for about six years, and became a legal Israeli citizen after marrying an immigrant who was a citizen; today they have little boy and have been running Pasal for about two years.

Meged Gozny

On the workshop table Choedon has piled up pots and ingredients for the dishes she is going to prepare: vegetable momo, laphing (noodles made of potato starch) in chili sauce, Nepalese dal (black lentils), steamed mustard leaves, chana masala – a traditional dish based on chickpeas – and rice.

“All this bounty can be found here and these people live among us,” says Ravid. “This is a wonderful way of meeting them and learning about their cuisine.”

Adds Dagani, in summary, “Culinary arts can expose people to new cultures, connect them to communities with which they were unfamiliar, and in that way create ties and friendships by means of an empowering and satisfying experience.”

Sudanese okra sauce (serves 5)

Ingredients:

1/2 kilo okra

2 onions

2 tomatoes

1 hot green chili pepper

3-4 garlic cloves

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 bunch of fresh dill

Meged Gozny

salt, ground black pepper

1 cup oil

Preparation:

Chop the onions, slice the okra into rings after removing the ends, dice the tomatoes, and chop the chili pepper and garlic. In a medium-sized pot, saute the onions in the oil over a medium flame until soft. Add the okra and cook until it softens; add the garlic and stir. Then mix in the tomatoes, the pepper and the dill, sauteing until everything is soft. Add the tomato paste and hot water as necessary, then salt and black pepper to taste, and cook for 3 minutes. Bring to a boil until the sauce thickens and add more water, if needed. Turn off the flame and let the pot cool for 5 minutes.

To serve: Pour the sauce over kisra, injera or rice

***

Tibetan chana masala (serves 10)

Ingredients for the chana:

1 kilo black chickpeas

2 tablespoons salt

Ingredients for the masala:

1 large onion

3-4 garlic cloves

small piece of ginger

garam masala

sweet red paprika

turmeric

Preparing the chana:

Soak the chickpeas overnight; rinse and drain. In a pressure cooker cook the chickpeas with the salt for about 10-15 minutes until they soften.

Preparing the masala:

Cut the onion into cubes. Crush the garlic cloves and add them to a finely chopped piece of ginger, grinding and mashing them together so as to get a paste. Saute the onions with the turmeric and garam masala, add the paprika and mix well. Add the ginger-garlic paste and stir, add the chana and continue cooking for about 10 minutes.

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