“Back home, there are no companies, no restaurants. Besides, restaurant food is different; it is all cooked by men,” Roda Suleiman says with a smirk. “It is the women cooking tagalia with aseeda, injera, gorassa.” She describes the traditional meat and okra stew, tagalia, which is traditionally served alongside fermented, jelly-like aseeda or rounds of sour flatbreads like injera, gorassa, or kisra. “Oh, and even medeeda,” she says. “You know medeeda?”
I shake my head, and she continues describing the toasted fenugreek custard that is considered a Sudanese comfort food. “We take milk straight from the cow, then we put it over the fire. We also make fresh butter for the medeeda,” she says almost wistfully. The look in Suleiman’s eyes shifts when she speaks about food, softening as happy memories of a childhood spent on her grandparents’ farm replace more recent memories of the burning of that home and slaughter of both livestock and humans during the genocide in Darfur.
Suleiman fled her village during the war, walking nearly 1,000 kilometers (over 620 miles) to the Nuba Mountains where she lived as a refugee for two years before being sent to another refugee camp in Kenya. “There I learned to write A, B, C with my finger in the dirt,” she says, describing her life in the camp where she waited for an asylum interview. “We were there seven years. When my visa was approved, they said I just need to wait for my flight,” she laughs. “My flight came three years later.”
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is a nonprofit organization that is committed to helping refugees, like Suleiman, not only with critical support in the midst of a crisis like war, conflict, or natural disaster, but also to empower new immigrants to build a future as they resettle in a new country. In San Diego, the IRC is doing just that through the Merging Agriculture, Kitchens + Employment (MAKE) Projects, a job training social enterprise program. MAKE Projects allows participants to gain paid work experience, practice their English, and begin to forge a new community. Food is an especially powerful way to achieve these goals.
“Many of these ladies don’t speak any English at all, but in the kitchen, it doesn’t matter. We communicate through food,” says chef Andrew Gerdes, who runs the IRC’s commercial kitchen and café training programs in North Park.
Chef Gerdes first became interested in international cuisine when he moved from Nebraska to New York to attend the French Culinary Institute. “There were all these flavors right outside my door,” he says. “After working in restaurants for a few years, I went to work as a sous chef at a private school where we were cooking different cuisines from all over the world each day. We saw lunchtime as another opportunity for the kids to learn—learning through eating.”
This background has served him well in his current role as he takes inspiration from program participants to develop menus for the weekend café and for the new family meal takeaway program. “It’s a two-way street,” he explains. “We learn from each other. I teach them some classic French techniques, and they teach me about the foods they cook at home.”
Some menus are easier to put together than others. Suleiman came to the program as an experienced cook and was able to translate her recipes almost directly into menu-ready dishes. Other participants have come to Gerdes with little more than memories of their mother’s cooking. That’s when he begins researching recipes and working with participants to recreate familiar flavors. “I had a couple of young Tanzanian participants whose parents cooked, and they remembered the foods from home, but had no idea how to make them. I did some research and we worked together to develop recipes.”
With participants from countries like Afghanistan, Congo, Haiti, Iraq, and dozens more, the flavors in the MAKE Projects kitchen are diverse and constantly changing. “We cooked a different food every day,” says Mercedes Sotolongo, a Cuban participant from the fall 2019 cohort. “I like to cook and here I learned a lot, food from 10 or 12 countries. Back home I like to make desserts like flan or arroz con leche, but here I wanted to learn about hojaldre. I didn’t know the English name, so I asked Andrew, and he said he would look it up. It means ‘puff pastry’ in English, and he taught me how to use it. We made empanadas with fresh jam using fruit from the garden. Delicious. My time here was awesome.”
Sotolongo was a doctor back in Cuba, but with different licensing requirements in the United States, she soon realized that she needed to think about other options. “It’s tostones al ajo,” she explains as she presents a plate of perfectly crisp fried plantains topped with shreds of pungent fresh garlic. “And this is very simple rice and beans—just cumin, salt, garlic, onion, bay leaf, oregano. In my country, we eat these things. And fried sweet bananas, sometimes chicken, arroz con pollo.”
During her time in the MAKE Projects kitchen, Sotolongo learned new words, asking Gerdes how to spell various names of ingredients and tools, and though she now works in a medical lab doing Covid testing, she credits the program with boosting her confidence during the transition. “Also, I still make this delicious chicken curry that I learned here,” she says, smiling.
The other participants echo Sotolongo’s passion for learning about new foods and cultures. “I never got to travel anywhere,” says Sahra Gamadid, a Somali participant who graduated from the summer 2020 program. “But, it is nice; I got to experience these other places with the food.”
Every participant has the opportunity to be both student and teacher. “I loved learning food of different countries,” says Gamadid. “For me, I teach them how to make malawah, a kind of sweet injera bread. It became very popular.” Her fermented crepes are now featured permanently on the MAKE Café brunch menu, along with Somali-spiced potatoes, onions, and eggs.
The MAKE Projects kitchen is steps away from the garden, where ingredients for the café brunch and weekly family meals are harvested fresh as needed. The produce is also available to CSA members along with specialty pantry items made by the team, including the likes of pickles, hummus, and jams. The garden reminds many of home. “I love to pick fresh things here,” says Gamadid, as she looks out over the garden. “Like we did back home. Everything in my country is organic. Here it is different.”
“We grew everything back there,” Suleiman says as she walks through the garden, pointing at the herbs. “Thai basil, corn, oranges, everything except the berries, we grow in Sudan. I miss the food of my country.”
Suleiman was hired to work part-time with the MAKE Projects, and now shares the foods of her homeland at IRC events and with new cohorts of participants. She has deftly adapted her recipes to make use of what’s available locally. Kisra bread, which is similar to Ethiopian injera, is traditionally made with a fermented sorghum dough (rather than the darker, teff-based dough used in Ethiopia). This yields a lighter-colored, subtly tangy round of similarly bubble-dotted bread. “Here in America, I use normal [AP] flour and cornflour [masa harina] with hot water. When it’s cold outside, I leave it two days to ferment. If it’s hot, maybe only a few hours. Gives a nice sour taste.”
“She is so good, we didn’t want to let her go,” Gerdes grins.
“I love my work here,” Suleiman says, adding that the extra money she makes with this second job all goes to support her mother in Sudan and her two sons, who are still awaiting immigration interviews in Kenya.
The MAKE Projects kitchen is a safe space where participants have an unspoken understanding of the difficult circumstances that brought them together. The food they cook is a borderless, yet tangible expression of home that they share with one another. The family meals have become reflections of these edible memories. “I wanted to stay true to home cooking and invite people into the kitchen to hear these amazing conversations about food that I get to be a part of every day,” Gerdes says. “I don’t include a dish you’d find at, say, an Afghani restaurant; instead, we focus on home cooking.”
Somali participants Abshiro Abdi and Sangabo Noor are three weeks into the program and they work skillfully alongside Gerdes and Suleiman on this week’s Burmese menu. Together they chop herbs and fry split yellow lentils for lahpet thoke, a crunchy tea leaf salad. They bundle dry noodles to send out alongside flavorful coconut curry broth for khow suey. They look serious, but happy as they cube melon for gin thoke fruit salad. “The semolina cake shows the Indian influence on Burmese cuisine,” says Gerdes as he places a few slices in a takeaway container.
For the North Park community, these family meals are about more than healthy, delicious international foods, and for the participants, it is about more than learning new job skills. “I ask myself, why do people order from us?” says Gerdes. “It’s not just the food, it’s the stories. So, I include handouts with the meals that explain where the food comes from and a bit about those who inspired them. People tell us they read the handouts to their kids over dinner.”
“It’s not just the food, it’s the stories.”
Stories are the way we make sense of the world and our place in it, and food provides a physical connection to our own heritage and to that of other cultures. Tapping into the power of taste and memory, IRC MAKE Projects create a gentle bridge between past and future, for both refugees and the communities they now call home.
IRC MAKE Projects in North Park include weekly family meals, a weekend café and pop-up dinners when dining services are permitted, and a CSA program. Learn more at ircmake.org.