AidEx’s Anastasia Kyriacou went along to a refugee-run cooking class organised by Migrateful, to find out whether food really does have the power to enhance integration.
When it comes to ‘organised fun’ – I hate the phrase – social awkwardness prevails. So when I saw a tweet pop up on my Twitter feed by the UNHCR, about an opportunity to learn to cook dishes from around the world as part of a refugee-run supper club, my initial excitement was exceeded by an irrational wave of dread.
Nonetheless, I booked two places on the course and turned up with a friend. We walked through double doors into a brightly lit room at the top of a building in East London, to find a dozen or so people standing around a long table of portable electric stoves, pots, pans and bowls overflowing with colourful vegetables. I had signed-up to cook Ethiopian cuisine with Woin through an organisation called Migrateful, which that evening was in partnership with another event called Singa. We would be cooking food for both groups and was on a tight schedule to serve the food by 8pm.
Migrateful was established to help facilitate better integration of refugees and asylum seekers into communities, through ‘bringing people together to share a universal love of food.’ The partner event, Singa, meaning ‘connection’, shares a similar vision of joining newcomers with locals to exchange ideas and share the things they love or to try something new. Struggling to access employment and seeking to improve their English, the experience provides a valuable opportunity to share and learn cooking and language skills with individuals from all different backgrounds.
Woin explained we would be making five dishes, all of which were vegan. As an Orthodox Christian, her family abstains from eating animal products for 250 days a year and so there are a variety of appropriate recipes. Instead of following printed instructions, we were to cook through interacting and engaging with Woin and each other.
After a circle of introductions about how we had all ended up here, we were left to figure out what to do and what to use. Everyone appeared to be getting on with something or other, not entirely certain about what we were making, whilst Woin bustled around the room guiding the cooking. My friend was put on onion duty, while I fried an abundance of squidgy tofu. A task I quickly learnt was a lot simpler than I managed to make it:
Step 1: don’t put in too much tofu.
Step 2: be generous with the oil.
Step 3: don’t stir, turn the tofu to avoid it crumbling.
(Woin also helpfully addressed my need to use a fork to do this, as opposed to salad tongs.)
By 8.15pm the Singa groups’ stomachs were rumbling and we were rushing to get the food out. Twenty kilos of chopped and fried onions, my slightly burnt-but-let’s-call-it-crispy tofu curry, and an assortment of other dishes containing yellow split pea lentils, carrot, potato, beetroot, ginger, tomatoes and cabbage, were laid out on the table with Ethiopian flatbread known as Injera.
We collectively piled our plates with the dishes and sat around talking in between mouthful’s of food. The relief of eating a hard-earned meal (alongside a bottle of red wine) encouraged open discussion with our fellow diners. I can’t quite recall the names of the five recipes, but I will certainly be making those dishes again and recommending the cooking course.
The evening successfully challenged my irreverence for ‘organised fun’, as despite it being well-organised, like any kitchen the cooking was a chaotic environment where as long as you were roughly on the right track, anything and anyone goes – so long as we all get to eat. This proved to be a light-hearted and rewarding experience which exposed just how easily community spirit can be conjured, no matter who you are or where you are from.