In United States, refugees cook to win over hearts, minds and stomachs

Chef Satakshi Rimal makes traditional Nepalese dumplings for Eat Offbeat at their kitchen area in Queens, New York on Feb 25, 2016.
Chef Satakshi Rimal makes traditional Nepalese dumplings for Eat Offbeat at their kitchen area in Queens, New York on Feb 25, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Beaming with pride, a Nepalese refugee in the kitchen of a New York caterer holds up cauliflower florets she has steamed, battered and fried, part of a cooking repertoire she says earns her a living and keeps her spirits up.

At home in Kathmandu, explains Rachana, who did not want to give her full name, cooking once brought her pleasure as she fed her family delicacies from recipes inherited from her mother.

Then political violence struck, leaving a close relative dead and forcing her to flee the country. Now her happiness returns, she says, when she prepares traditional specialties for Eat Offbeat, a New York food company where refugees make and deliver ethnic fare.

The start-up company is one of several initiatives across the country appealing to the appetites of Americans and giving refugees opportunities to make a living. Others are located in California, Utah and Texas.

"It's a very, very good feeling when people come to eat my food, and they talk about how it is so good," Rachana said, clad in a white apron.

On a recent day in the company's kitchen, she paced between a counter and stove top where oil heated for the cauliflower, to be served with a tangy tomato and tamari sauce flavored with the herb fenugreek.

Although the cauliflower is a Chinese dish, Rachana, 53, said she developed her own version in Nepal. "From the age of 16 years old I've been cooking," she said.

A half dozen refugees have found work at Eat Offbeat.

Until Rachana became a full-time chef, she scraped by for nearly a decade in New York, speaking no English at first and taking odd jobs.

Now she tells other Eat Offbeat workers: "Don't worry, you can get whatever you like here. This is America."

COUNTERING HOSTILITY

Initiatives such as Eat Offbeat can serve as counterpoint to anti-immigration sentiment, their proponents say.

The US presidential race has been marked by candidates in the Republican Party calling for immigrants to be kept out and for those in the country to be sent back to their homelands.

A plan by President Barack Obama to admit some 10,000 Syrian refugees has been met with resistance by many politicians and pundits.

Despite the at-times hostile context, Eat Offbeat has found success through its tantalizing tastes and hard work, said co-founder Wissam Kahi.

It received more than 1,200 orders since a soft launch in November. A smartphone app to take orders is in the works and expanding to other cities is a possibility, he said.

"(The refugees) are bringing a skill to this country and they are contributing," he said. "They don't necessarily have to be a burden. It could be the opposite. They bring a lot of value," added his sister Manal Kahi, also a co-founder.

Across the country at the Spice Kitchen Incubator in Salt Lake City, Utah, refugees from Somalia and Iraq also are learning the food business.

Among them is Nour, who moved to the United States less than a year ago to escape the civil war in Syria and has astonished organizers with his talents. He, like Rachana, asked to be named by his first name only to protect family members. "His food is exceptional," said Grace Henley, who manages the Spice Kitchen program for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a humanitarian aid organization. The IRC runs Spice Kitchen and offers help to Eat Offbeat, which is private.

At Spice Kitchen, Nour has dubbed one dish "East meets West," fusing rice, chicken and beef with Syrian spices and Tex-Mex flavors to reflect his move to the American West from Damascus. "All this food diversity in our community makes it a more interesting place to live," Henley said. "It makes it a more delicious place to live."

Still, some refugee culinary projects have met resistance.

At Eat Offbeat this year, a handful of hate mails saying "go home, stay there, make America great again" came to the company, its Lebanese co-founders said.

The messages prompted the owners to remove the company's street address from its website. "Nothing serious, but better to be on the safe side," Wissam Kahi said.