As Israel engages in a tumultuous debate over what to do about African migrants, other conversations, more personal and friendly, are taking place between Israelis and asylum seekers. As part of a social art project called Sihot Mitbah (Kitchen Talks), which takes place every weekend in Tel Aviv, African migrants give cooking workshops to groups of curious Israelis.
The people behind the project are Yael Ravid and Goor Somer, both in their early 30s. For more than a year Ravid, an artistic photographer, has volunteered at the Soup4Lewinsky project, which brings hot, nutritious meals every day to homeless asylum seekers living in Levinski Park. Kitchen Talks is her graduation project for her studies in curating at the Contemporary Cultural Center in Tel Aviv in cooperation with Kibbutzim College. Somer’s first encounter with migrants and meals was held on the last World Refugee Day, in connection with the first Sudanese restaurant in Israel.
The two have recruited workshop instructors from across the African continent: Claudine of the Ivory Coast, who caters out of her home for events and for the embassy; a Nigerian woman, who runs a restaurant near the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station; Hassan, a well-known cook in the Darfur community, and Yemane, from Eritrea.
“We tell them it’s a project for bringing people together," says Ravid of the participants, who heard of the initiative by word of mouth, spread from a library in South Tel Aviv, kindergartens, restaurants and human-rights groups. The price for the vegetarian workshop in NIS 130, says Ravid, and the cooks are paid for their work.
"Every recipe taught in the course is translated into the cook’s native language and into Hebrew," says Ravid. "The result is that there are recipes in Tigrinya, Amharic, Arabic, French and Hebrew.”
“As a resident of south Tel Aviv, I live near [the African migrants], but I don’t get to meet them regularly,” Somer says. “I work in a cafe in Jaffa myself, and it’s not always comfortable for me to approach the dishwasher and sit down to talk with him. The environment we live in creates a situation of distance. Some of the workshop participants are already convinced from the political perspective, but others come because they are curious about the cuisine and can learn about it only in south Tel Aviv. Not everyone finds it easy to go there — there’s stigma, fear, pity or disgust. We try to create a setting where people can learn new information and become free of those tensions.”
The unease and unfamiliarity sometimes manifests itself in the preparation of the food.
“We had one meeting where the meal was supposed to be fish, and we were told that the fish would be baked in the oven for an hour,” says Somer. “All the Israelis, who came with some cooking knowledge, said, ‘What are you talking about? Put a fish in the oven for that long and it will burn. We’ll have dried-out fish!’ I asked them to wait and listen to the instructor. When the fish came out of the oven, it was delicious, not dry at all, with soft flesh and a crunchy skin.”
Last month, many people in south Tel Aviv were dismayed when an inspector from the local district branch of the Health Ministry poured bleach into pots containing a great deal of food, in a Sudanese restaurant in Neve Sha’anan, part of a raid by police and municipal inspectors on illegal businesses owned by African immigrants.
“After the raid, one of the cooks who worked with us said he was tired of working with Israelis and left the project,” Ravid said. “We tried to tell him that this was an opportunity to meet with people outside the loathsome system of the situation we live in.”
Chopping onions and crying
Last Saturday, the instructor was 26-year-old Yemane from Eritrea, who wore an Angry Birds t-shirt and Sketchers sneakers. The project’s participants met in a member’s apartment and cooked keih tesebhi, a spicy tomato sauce with a hard-boiled egg and three tablespoons of berbere spice mix, and hamli kosta, a dish made of root vegetables and chard. Since the workshop hosts are vegetarians, the food is as well, though Yemane says he enjoys meat.
During the first hour, Yemane walks among the participants, who have been chopping and grating enthusiastically, checking whether they added too much garlic or parsley. All eyes are on him as he demonstrates his technique for cooking carrots or peeling an egg (he strikes it on the countertop and rolls it). The participants chop onions, chat and laugh as their eyes tear up. When it's time to stir the pots, the participants approach slowly and ask delicately about life in Eritrea, the journey to Israel, Yemane's relationship with other migrants, his dreams and his day-to-day life.
Yemane answers patiently in fluent Hebrew, confessing his love for schnitzel and mashed potatoes and talking about his family. He says he came to Israel five years ago before the fences were built and receives a work permit every few months.
“In the first workshops, we sat with individual plates and silverware," said Somer. "We saw that Claudine was picking up the food with her fingers, so we put down the silverware and followed her lead. Yemane served the injera bread at the first meeting on individual plates. By the second meeting, it was clear that there are three people to every loaf of injera, and you eat only with your right hand. That’s how it’s done.
“The first time we tasted egusi in a Nigerian restaurant, I had a hard time with the taste," said Somer. "The second time, when we prepared it together and I got to know the ingredients (beef and melon), I understood what made up this new flavor and I could enjoy it. These are acquired tastes. Not everything is delicious right away.”
The meal is the exhibit
At the project’s seventh meeting, Ravid told the participants how food workshops connect to art.
“I was searching for a way to do social art that had an ongoing influence, not a finished product or a beginning, a middle and an end," she said. "The model of the art world can be applied to these meetings. The kitchen is the space. The meal is the exhibit. The one-man show belongs to Yemane, at center stage, and the audience participates in the creation. This could be called performance art or display art.”
Asked whether the format is in some way a reaction to the current Israeli culinary climate, which has become rather sophisticated in the past few years, Somer says the response is actually broader than that.
“It’s more of a reaction against what’s happening in society," he says. "The Israeli culinary scene is not all that open. It classifies certain cuisines by their profitability or the possibility of social expression. Haute cuisine in Israel usually means European cuisine, with some openness to the Far East. Palestinian haute cuisine has become recognized only in the past few years. Before that, there were 'Eastern restaurants' that served kebab and salads.
“It’s hard to find good African restaurants in Israel," he says. "One reason is the way people think about the population. The refugees are pushed to the margins like something menacing, dangerous, temporary and shallow. We have thousands of Africans in Tel Aviv. We can be curious about their culture and get to know it. We have an opportunity to treat them like human beings who come with a whole world that includes a fascinating culture.”