The pastry chef from Kabul
Eating for an online audience in South Korea
Qatar: growing food in the desert
Means to Me
Ten personal stories from around the world about cooking, eating and refusing food.
A Syrian refugee in Sweden
The pastry chef from Kabul
“I remember feeling loved when we ate from the same plate on the floor.”
Naser Ali, the head pastry chef at Kabul’s Intercontinental hotel has made pastries for Afghan and foreign dignitaries and mujahidin commanders, but what he treasures most are his family meals of yogurt and bread - all they could afford - while growing up in rural central-eastern Afghanistan.
Story by Danielle Moylan
Kabul, Afghanistan - Pastry has given me a life no one would have thought possible. I’m an illiterate man. I’ve never been able to read a cookbook, but through hard work, I learned. People are amazed to hear my story - how does a simple village man end up making cakes for presidents and kings?
I began working at the Intercontinental in Kabul in the late 1960s as a labourer during the hotel’s construction. I came from a village in Jaghori, Ghazni Province for the job. I was glad to have any kind of work.
“Growing up, our family considered food a luxury.”
Growing up, our family considered food a luxury. My father was a farmer, and our home was a one-room mud house where nine of us slept. My mother, God rest her soul, prepared all our food from a tandoor oven in the corner.
When I tell young people today about how we ate back then, they laugh, but I treasure those memories. We couldn’t afford rice or meat, only simple foods, like yoghurt with bread, but we always ate together as a family. I remember feeling loved when we ate from the same plate on the floor.
After the hotel was finished, I was lucky to get a job working for the pastry chef. The hotel was always full of foreign tourists and wealthy Afghans - there was nothing else in Kabul that came close in luxury and size. And the kitchen! If I compared it to the village kitchens, it was like comparing a fine horse to a donkey.
Mr Hoppe, a German pastry chef, was my boss. The work was difficult - I cleaned a lot, and shelled nuts, pitted dates and cherries. My fingers would ache from shelling at least 14kg of nuts a day.
The work was so exhausting that some days I considered leaving. But I knew that learning how to make pastry was my only path to a better life. I worked harder and paid closer attention than anyone else. Mr Hoppe noticed and slowly, slowly taught me how to make the pastries. He was a patient and encouraging man. I was eventually promoted to head pastry chef in 1978.
“I knew that learning how to make pastry was my only path to a better life.”
I fell in love with the food at the hotel. I’d never even dreamed of food with such complexity. I’d never seriously thought about flavours and textures before. The minute our supervisors turned their backs, we would stuff our faces with the guests’ leftover food. The night shift was the best for stealing food because all the supervisors were asleep.
The Soviet invasion in 1979 was a turning point for Afghanistan. We could see their tanks from the hotel. The staff talked a lot about escaping, but I decided to take a chance and stay.
But the atmosphere at the hotel completely changed; all the foreigners left. There were no more amazing parties, where there would be dancing in the grand ballroom and even live horses and camels.
One thing didn’t change - the Russian soldiers loved my pastries! They had never eaten luxurious cakes before. To this very day, some of my best customers are Russians, including diplomats who still come to the hotel.
Civil war broke out when the Soviets left. The hotel was practically empty, but outside, Kabul was in complete chaos. I would run to work praying not to be killed. The only guests were a few journalists, who ordered a lot of doughnuts, and sometimes the different mujahidin commanders would visit the hotel, like Ahmad Shah Massoud, Abdul Ali Mazari, and General Dostum.
I remember one day when Massoud and Dostum had a meeting at the hotel, and they ordered cookies and tea. I sent a plate of my usual pastries. I heard from the server that day that both of these famous commanders were interested in the cakes. General Dostum asked the server, “Who made this? Is he a foreigner?” He was shocked to learn it was an Afghan.
Like many Hazaras during the civil war, I was arrested and put in jail for eight months. It was hell. But a former colleague who had become an influential commander, finally arranged for my release. It was 1994 and I decided to leave Afghanistan after that; everyone knew the Taliban were coming.
I was a refugee working in Pakistan as a house cook when, in 2002, I received a phone call from the hotel director asking me to return. The Taliban had fallen. The day I walked back into the hotel, I have never been more thankful to God. I thought: ‘I have come back to my country, my hotel, my kitchen. I am home.’
The hotel has gone through more difficult times. There was a Taliban attack on the hotel in 2011, and we haven’t had many guests since then. People also feel less safe now that the foreign troops have left.
“It doesn’t matter to me if it’s for a poor person,
for kings or for presidents, I make it all the same.”
For Afghans, though, serving sweets to guests is a tradition, so I’m still working. President Karzai constantly ordered my cakes. Chief executive Abdullah Abdullah does now too. Both order a simple vanilla loaf - a traditional Afghan cake you serve to guests with tea. I take my family the exact same cake when I visit. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s for a poor person, for kings or for presidents, I make it all the same.
I have a room at the hotel now, so this really is my home. Five or six of the staff have been here from the very beginning. My own family is in Pakistan, but in my heart, the hotel staff are also my family.
I never eat my own pastries any more. I’m an old man and have lost my appetite for very rich or sweet foods. But I still enjoy making pastry and as long as I’m alive, I would like to continue. I’m proud of what I have achieved.
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The Icelandic sea chef
“The chef is the diplomat on board”
A chef in the North Atlantic for more than four decades, it’s Icelander Finnbogi Kristinsson’s job to lift spirits, keep his crew healthy, and step in whenever a problem arises.
Story by Egill Bjarnason
Reykjavik, Iceland - When you are out on the sea, you don’t choose who you live with, where you go or what you eat. I remind myself of this - everyone’s diet is my responsibility.
Fishermen have long considered tomato paste a vegetable and marinated their meals in margarine. Having witnessed the unusually high rate of cardiovascular diseases among the profession, I have come to realise that broccoli and bananas are no less important than safety helmets.
“Broccoli and bananas are no
less important than safety helmets.”
For large parts of the 20th century, enrolling in a state army was safer than sailing the North Atlantic. However, with the drastic improvements in maritime safety over the past 40 years, danger doesn’t lurk up on deck any more. It has moved into the galley.
Making a difference in a traditional workplace takes time.
More fruits and vegetables have been well received. Exotic dishes like lasagna or hummus? To the blue bin [the ocean] with them. I find that healthier ingredients are more likely to be approved of if they go with potatoes as a side dish.
The industry keeps adding volumes to the safety handbook, while making no official guidelines about the fuel driving the crew itself.
Shanghaied as a sea chef four decades ago, I asked the shipping company for a job description. Sure, they said, we will send a description - via floskuskeyti, a message in a bottle. Either my duties were completely obvious or they were impossible to list.
By definition, the chef’s sole order is serving meals. The traditional authority is greater. Consider the simplicity of life out on sea. Day and night, the crew is running shifts.
Uplifting pleasures are few and life passes without much intimacy. A nice meal, served by someone who cares for your wellbeing, leaves a definite mark.
Everyone on the ship leads a double life, spending one half together in Herman Melville’s ‘watery part of the world’, and the other apart, in Iceland.
On a small vessel, the crew know each other better than their own children, immediately sensing if anyone is plagued by problems at home - paying the bills, raising a child, maintaining a romantic relationship.
“I cook for my crew - the men who congregate at the sound of the ship’s bell and give me honest feedback”
To lift spirits or solve debates, the chef is the diplomat on board, grabbing men by the coffee machine and connecting across ranks.
After a full month, 90 communal meals, we dock in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital. On fishing boats, the crew share the value of the catch. The cook gets one and a half shares. That’s a lot of money. A chef on a trawler can leave with enough money to buy a restaurant, give or take.
I used to think, and say to friends and family, that I was in it for the money. I can’t say that anymore. I now work on a cargo ship. Same job. Same environment. Same hours. Just no catch to split and thus I could make the same salary cooking on land with fresh produce and no scissors flying around during rough weather.
But I don’t care what people ordering from a restaurant menu think about my food. I cook for my crew - the men who congregate at the sound of the ship’s bell and give me honest feedback. With healthier calories, I hope to prolong the joy of having each and every sailor around. The boat is changing course, one radish at a time.
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Eating for an online audience in South Korea
“I give viewers the sensation of eating with a friend.”
Several times a week, this South Korean university student eats in front of a webcam to an audience of thousands.
Story by Steven Borowiec
Daejeon, South Korea - At 8pm, Jeong Man-soo, who is better known by his stage name ‘Benzz’, sits down to a meal of pork belly - a staple of Korean barbeque joints.
He has arranged the meat, sliced garlic, mushrooms, julienned green onions, hot peppers and two kinds of kimchi (the spicy pickled cabbage that is Korea’s national dish) on a platter.
Except Benzz isn’t sitting in a restaurant, the conventional setting for such meals; he is sitting at a desk in the apartment he shares with his parents. And he is about to be joined via webcam by thousands of spectators who spend their evenings watching him gorge as they sit alone.
In South Korea, eating is generally a group activity and going out to a restaurant unaccompanied is uncommon. But nowadays, more and more South Koreans live alone and many can’t find time to socialise.
Online personalities like 25-year-old Benzz are filling this gap.
Called mokbang stars (‘mokbang’ is a combination of the Korean words for ‘eating’ and ‘broadcast’), many have gained large followings in recent years by providing online companionship to solitary eaters looking for a dinner mate.
“Nowadays, more and more South Koreans live alone and many can’t find time to socialise.”
Several times a week, anywhere between 3,000 and 10,000 people watch Benzz eat large quantities of different dishes.
Some get a vicarious thrill from watching him eat tasty food; others feel a sense of connection or shared experience as they interact with him through online messages.
Once his webcam is on and his viewers have tuned in, Benzz speaks animatedly, introducing them to the food in front of him.
He appears on his monitor next to a long vertical window of his viewers’ enthusiastic comments, which come in a steady steam. “That looks delicious!” and “I envy you!” are punctuated by emoticons of surprised and smiley faces.
Benzz, who borrows his stage name from the German carmaker, turns on an electric grill and heats some oil. He delicately lays each strip of pork belly down with a sizzle. Beside the meat he places the kimchi, garlic and mushrooms - all the while, maintaining eye contact with his webcam.
His viewers type comments and he answers them verbally, his responses rarely amounting to more than, “Oh yes, thank you.”
Then he plucks a tortilla-sized leaf of lettuce from a bowl and uses his chopsticks to fill it with a cartoonish amount of meat, garlic and mushrooms. The lettuce cracks as he rolls it into a fist-sized ball and muscles it into his mouth. For the next minute or so, he’s too busy chewing to say anything.
“Well done!” “Wow!” his viewers write.
Though he is one of the most popular mokbang stars, Benzz doesn’t have a clearly defined niche. Unlike some of the others, he eats at a brisk but still normal pace; he doesn’t gobble down his food or make exaggerated gestures.
Watch Benzz eat.
“It’s because I’m natural,” Benzz tells me when I ask what his appeal is. “I don’t have some strange persona. I give viewers the sensation of eating with a friend.”
I ask him why he thinks they don’t go out and eat with actual friends. He answers vaguely. “People work late. They’re busy,” he says.
Benzz has the large eyes, sculpted cheekbones and narrow jawline of a Korean pop star, as well as broad shoulders and a muscular build.
He tells me that in one sitting he can eat three whole chickens, 10 bowls of ramen noodles, two pizzas and still have room for cake. To fuel his appetite, and maintain his physique, he says he does cardio and lifts weights for several hours a day. He is also a full time university student. He sleeps for only two or three hours a night - that’s all he can manage after eating, exercising, studying and attending classes.
He got into mokbang around the time he started university as he felt he needed to improve his presentation skills. He says he felt odd sitting in front of a camera with nothing to do, so he started filming himself doing what he does best: eating.
Mokbang stars make money through direct payments from viewers. Benzz declined to specify how much he earns. He says that he enjoys the contact with his viewers and his mokbang personality allows him to interact with more people. “It’s like having thousands of new friends,” he says.
I ask him what it means to be good at eating. “It means to eat with a lot of enthusiasm, to really show your enjoyment of the food,” he replies.
He’s now almost finished his meal. Benzz holds the last morsel, a piece of kimchi, in front of the webcam and asks, “Wouldn’t you like some?”
At 9pm, still chewing, he thanks his viewers and signs off for a break. He says he’ll be back for another round of eating later that evening.
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Qatar: growing food in the desert
“Where does your tomato come from? They say, ‘Oh, the store.’ ”
How a Chicago native living in Doha is trying to restore people’s connection with their food and where it comes from.
Story by Tamila Varshalomidze
Doha, Qatar - Paige Tantillo is on a mission. She is trying to prove that Qatar - a desert country that imports almost all of its food products - can support sustainable agriculture.
Tantillo believes that with the right approach, people in this Middle Eastern country, where summer temperatures edge close to 50 degrees Celsius, can grow enough organic food to sustain healthy diets without wasting water or using pesticides.
And she believes she has proof. The gardening enthusiast grows fig, banana, lemon, papaya and other fruit trees in the limited outdoor space of about 20 square metres behind her house. She keeps seven hens and a rooster there. Various herbs, sweet potato, tomato, dragon fruit and other edible plants occupy the first-floor terrace, growing in pots and bathtubs she rescued from a dumpsite.
“When I came to Doha I noticed that nothing was growing here,” says Tantillo, who moved with her husband for his job five years ago. The “dead soil” made it virtually impossible to grow anything.
The Chicago native grew up with urban farming - her grandparents loved to grow their own food.
“When I came to Doha I noticed that nothing was growing here”
In Doha, she thought she’d have to stick to supermarkets. But then she discovered permaculture - a system of growing food and keeping animals based on making nature work for you.
“If you plant oregano next to a tomato, you will not need pesticides,” she says, sharing techniques she learnt at a 12-day permaculture design course in Jordan. “Insects don’t like oregano’s strong smell, so they won’t come near the tomato.”
There are other considerations. She recycles water by letting her washing machine drain into two huge pots with basil and papyrus (she uses a biodegradable detergent).
To nourish the black soil she bought from the local wholesale market, she adds manure, compost and worms she imported and layers this with leaves, sticks and other plant material.
But her biggest objective is to restore a connection between people and their food in Qatar.
She leads educational gardens at two local schools and also teaches her neighbours’ children, who help out in the community garden she started two years ago.
“At the beginning, if you ask them: Where does your food come from? Where does your tomato come from? They say, ‘Oh, the store.’ They have no idea [about nature],” Tantillo says, shaking her head in disbelief.
“I just started [a new class] with my little three- and four-year-olds. We planted seeds last week. I am not sure if they completely get what we are doing, but once they start to see it sprout up, they will say, ‘Wow, that’s what we are doing’,” Tantillo says.
Her classes have Qatari and foreign children aged three to 15, and the children have an area to plant seeds, which they water and take care of every day. They grow tomatoes, lettuces, radishes, and other plants.
Bricks from the schoolyard have been arranged into little plots for soil according to her methods for efficient water distribution.
When she first started gardening with the children, they’d balk when she told them to put their hands in the soil. “We’re not touching that,” they told her.
“We planted seeds last week. I am not sure if they completely get what we are doing”
“But once they get into it, they can’t stop,” she says.
“We’ve started composting recently in the community garden. Even then they started [off] being disgusted, so I just started digging it and putting it on something like a cart so we could drag it to where we needed it and they all got involved. They love turning the compost now.”
She hopes more schools will include gardening in their activities.
“I think, little by little, once they see that it’s a really good thing for kids, they’ll start implementing it,” she says.
Tantillo has also got some adults involved at her community garden. The gardener at the compound where she lives planted tomatoes and cauliflowers and some of the Filipina domestic workers planted sweet potatoes.
“People are starting to get involved. This is exactly what I wanted. Not just me working with the kids, but everybody getting involved. Now it’s turning into a real community thing,” she says.
And nature has given her the biggest reward yet - ladybirds, which are rare in Qatar.
“I came up here last summer and saw some larva on one of the plants,” she says, standing among her pots on the terrace. “I thought it was something bad because typically there are only bad bugs here. I picked it up and realised it was a ladybird larva. I had ladybirds reproducing up here. It was amazing,” she says. “That’s what happens when you let nature work.”
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Reflections on hunger striking
“A hunger strike is a tool to maintain your rights, your dignity”
A 31-year-old Palestinian recalls the two hunger strikes he undertook while imprisoned in Israeli jails.
Story by Edmee van Rijn
Ramallah, occupied West Bank - Saed Omar was just 19 years old when the Israeli army arrested him during the Second Intifada on January 6, 2005.
He was accused of joining the armed wing of the Palestinian Communist Party and was sentenced to nine years in prison.
At the beginning of his detention, he endured countless hours of interrogation.
“Without any daylight or clocks around, the delivery of food became the only indication of time. I only ate that food to survive. It was disgusting, but I ate it to break the daily routine and to share something with the other prisoners,” Saed says.
When he was transferred to a larger prison compound, food became interesting again. What was served at the canteen was terrible - “not food”, he says - but the prisoners had a small kitchen where they could recook the meals with canned goods bought at a small prison shop.
Saed’s relationship to food changed completely when, in September 2011, some prisoners called for a hunger strike to demand the release of detainees held in isolation cells. “A hunger strike is a tool to maintain your rights, your dignity, or to request more rights. It is the last effective weapon you have in jail,” he says.
“The first time I went on hunger strike, I was very afraid.”
He didn’t hesitate to take part, but admits: “The first time I went on hunger strike, I was very afraid. I was part of the first 100 and I knew this group had to carry the full responsibility of the hunger strike.”
His first hunger strike lasted 21 days; his second, 30.
Over the years, he says they’ve learned from doctors and other experienced hunger strikers that between one strike and the next, the body needs at least one year to completely recover and regain its strength.
But five months after ending his first, he began his second. It was April 2012. This hunger strike included all the Palestinian political parties, except Fatah, and took place across different prisons. The prisoners had two demands: that the detainees kept in isolation be released from solitary confinement and that the families of prisoners from Gaza be allowed to visit - something they had been denied for six years.
“They barbequed meat in front of our cell with fans blowing the smell in the ‘right’ direction”
Saed says refusing food is both a physical and mental battle.
“The first three days I had a headache, stomach ache and was really bored. The fourth day the headache disappeared and I didn’t feel the hunger anymore. Then it got very silent around me. It literally felt as if life around me slowed down.”
Besides water, Saed also licked a fingertip of salt every now and then.
“Salt helps to make you drink more water and helps your body to process the proteins it takes from itself,” he explains. It also prevents the stomach from rotting. The detainees bought salt from the canteen before starting their hunger strike, and hid it in their cells. But most of the time, the guards found and confiscated it. The hunger strikers were placed in communal cells in groups no larger than ten and all their belongings - apart from a towel and a pair of underwear - were taken.
As the days passed, the weaker they became. It was harder still when the Israeli guards tried to force them to end their strikes.
“They barbequed meat in front of our cell with fans blowing the smell in the ‘right’ direction,” he says.
“The first time I saw food [brought by the guards], I didn’t feel anything. I got afraid of feeling nothing and thought that there was something wrong with me,” he recalls.
“The relationship with food was one of rejection; it’s about the strength of will,” he says. “Your body can collapse but the strength of your will keeps you going.”
In order to kill time, Saed and the other prisoners began to cook in their imaginations.
One imagined what they would cook that day, describing in detail how they would make it. Another would “taste” the food in case it needed more salt. “This made our mouths water. It felt like we ate and our stomach was activated, we laughed about it,” Saed remembers with a laugh.
“They cornered me and they brought
food and tried to force me to eat”
Every day the hunger strikers were weighed. The scale was always placed in front of a table of food. At 49kg, Saed lost the ability to stand on his own. He had lost 34kg.
After day 24, Saed started passing out. His condition worsened and, on several occasions, he was transferred to a clinic. “They cornered me and they brought food and tried to force me to eat, they tried to put a spoon in my mouth and one guard threw yoghurt on my face. ‘You die or you eat,’ they screamed. I refused and I told them I didn’t want to. It was a hard experience.”
As his health deteriorated, Saed realised that he might die. But he refused to break his promise.
Instead, he thought about how light he was and which of his friends would put stones in his pocket to make him feel heavier for his funeral. On the evening of day 30, the prisoners’ demands were met and they ended their hunger strike.
“The first time I ate after ending the hunger strike it felt like electricity was going through my veins,” Saed recalls. “My body woke up. It’s a great feeling, but I don’t wish anybody to experience it.”
After this second strike, Saed suffered temporary paralysis of his lower body and couldn’t walk for almost a month.
At the same time, food became something he longed for again. But he had to rebuild his relationship with it. That took four months.
When he was transferred yet again to another prison, Saed suffered a heart attack.
“It was a consequence of the hunger strike; my body was bleeding,” he says.
But his health began to improve, and a year later, after spending nine years in jail, he was released. His doctor says his heart is weak, but he believes he hasn’t suffered any other permanent damage to his body.
Now, almost two years after his release, Saed occasionally forgets to eat - sometimes for days at a time. “I got used to not eating. I can easily stand two days without food, or only eat a piece of chocolate. But at a certain moment my body tells me ‘I have to eat now’, which I obey immediately.”
In July, Israel’s parliament approved a law that allows authorities to force-feed hunger strikers.
“It is our right to go on hunger strike;
it is a peaceful way”
“Even if a doctor would try to force feed someone, it’s a very risky … [procedure] and can go wrong easily; one mistake will kill you - it has happened in the past,” says Saed. “It is our right to go on hunger strike; it is a peaceful way. However, they take our rights away and want us to be silent.”
“The guards will push you to your limit to use violence,” he says. But if you do so, “it’s easy for them to kill and take more from our rights. But they will win because they are in power in the prison.”
Saed now studies filmmaking, and says he enjoys eating. He feels like a child again as he tries all kinds of new tastes. Food holds a different meaning for him these days, he explains. “Food to me is an occasion to be with somebody - friends, brothers, family, people I love.”
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Edmee van Rijn
A Syrian refugee in Sweden
“There is a story behind the dishes we make … What we eat is part of our Syrian identity.”
Mais, 25, cooks Syrian dishes in her new country of Sweden to keep the memories of Aleppo alive.
Story by Mais
Translated, in part, from Arabic into English by Patrick Strickland
Image courtesy Mais
Sweden - I left Aleppo in February 2011, one month before the uprising started, and lived in Lebanon until I moved to Sweden in September 2014.
My favourite restaurant in Aleppo was located in the Old City.
It was called Dar Zamaraya and they served delicious Syrian dishes. My favourite dish had cherries and meat, but, to be honest, everything they served was just perfect. I remember the guy who used to serve shisha at the restaurant. He was a Kurd from Afrin, and he was always smiling. He used to tell me about his dream of travelling to Erbil to open his own shisha shop there.
In Beirut, my workplace was multicultural. I used to cook Syrian food and share it with my colleagues. My French-Canadian colleague introduced me to tarte a l’oignon. My Italian friend taught me how to perfectly boil spaghetti.
Everybody would share a dish from their homeland. Food diversity is amazing; how every group of people on this planet use what nature gives differently, and how it’s always related to our history.
“I make the same dishes that my grandmother and her grandmother cooked.”
I cook Syrian food at home all the time. I make the same dishes that my grandmother and her grandmother cooked. I made mloukhiya and kibbeh the other day.
As I come from a city known for its food, I enjoy cooking for my non-Syrian friends, to keep the memories of my city alive.
What I most love about our food is that there is a story behind most of the dishes we make. My grandfather was a great cook. He used to tell me stories about the origin of every dish he made, and where its name came from.
A lot of places in Sweden sell Arabic products, especially from Syria. There are now a lot of Syrian restaurants here. You can get most of our dishes, like stuffed eggplant (makdous), falafel, Arabic bread and others. I know from Syrian friends who ended up in Germany, Denmark and The Netherlands that it’s the same there.
There is a special relationship between people and food, and what we eat is part of our Syrian identity. I forget that I’m in Sweden when we all get together at the dinner table - my friends and my family - and eat Syrian food and speak in our dialect of Arabic.
“I feel bad that my sisters didn’t have the chance to enjoy the spirit of their country.”
I feel bad that my sisters didn’t have the chance to enjoy the spirit of their country. And they may never. For that reason, I still cook Syrian meals at home. They are only teenagers, but they love traditional Syrian music and food. They like to go eat hamburgers, but they also love mloukhiya. I will do everything I can to help keep alive that spirit that was there when I was growing up.
If I have children, I want them to be able to know about Syrian food, Syrian music - about Syria. I’ll introduce them to our culture, to all the details about this culture that I love, and that includes food.
I recently heard that Dar Zamaraya was partially destroyed during fighting and that it’s no longer open. I wish I could go back to Aleppo’s Old City once more, to go to Dar Zamaraya and have one more night of food and music.
Mais gave only her first name as she still has family in Syria.
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Cooking to overcome prejudice in Kenya
“Even in the market, someone [will] start accusing you [of being] homosexual.”
A Ugandan refugee in Kenya hopes his cooking can help overcome prejudice about his sexuality.
Story by Jacob Kushner
Kakuma, Kenya - It’s just past noon on a blistering hot day in this refugee camp in northern Kenya. Inside a small hut, hungry customers sit at a wooden table as the smell of meat and beans wafts in from a back door. The customers take shelter within the cool, mud-walled hut as Junior (not his real name), a 23-year-old refugee from Uganda, cooks up some of his favourite traditional fare.
Junior, who is gay, fled Uganda in September 2014 after some friends were arrested in the midst of the homophobic fervour that surrounded the country’s notorious Anti-Homosexuality Act. Later struck down, the law prescribed life imprisonment for those found guilty of committing homosexual acts.
Junior fled to Kenya and settled in Kakuma, a densely populated refugee city in the Turkana region. Convoys of trucks occasionally rumble down a dusty road toward the camp, carrying basic food products like rice, sorghum and beans. The World Food Programme distributes these to the camp’s residents in monthly rations.
“The camp is home to hundreds if not thousands of restaurants operated by the refugees”
While many cook the food for themselves, the camp is home to hundreds if not thousands of restaurants operated by the refugees. And as the residents here come from all over - South Sudan, Somalia, Congo, Burundi - so these restaurants reflect a similar, culinary diversity.
Still, Ugandan food is hard to come by because the Ugandans in Kakuma are few and far between. Some of those who are here take turns cooking for themselves at their homesteads.
A Ugandan refugee named Grace cleans goat intestines to make a stew. She ties them together so that they don’t get “lost” in the broth. She cuts up onions, tomatoes and green peppers to flavour the broth, and throws in a big handful of salt once it boils. Many Ugandans like chilli, Grace explains, but she doesn’t use it - this stew must feed the children and babies, too.
Junior has no such restrictions. His customers are adults, and contrary to the image of Kakuma as a food-starved wasteland, a customer with money can choose from any number of small restaurants for lunch.
An entrepreneurial young man with squinting eyes and a constant smile, Junior prepares red beans in a large pot over a charcoal fire. The beans have a kick and a sweetness to them, which differentiates them from the blander, saltier Kenyan beans. His rice and chapati - a circular Indian-style flatbread dribbled with oil - differ little from Kenyan fare, but he often roasts and pounds groundnuts into a rich purple sauce that’s a staple back in Uganda.
Fifty Kenyan shillings - about $0.50 - will buy you a complete lunch.
Junior wears flip flops, camouflage shorts and an untucked blue dress shirt. Reggae music drifts in from a small radio out back where he cooks.
When he started the restaurant, Junior says he received all sorts of customers - Ugandans, Sudanese, Congolese, Burundians, even Kenyans from outside the camp. He earned enough to save for when camp food rations ran short, he explains. Things were going about as well as one could expect in a refugee camp. Until, that is, word got out that Junior is gay.
“Harassment of gay refugees in Kakuma is commonplace”
“We have people who don’t feel comfortable with a gay,” he says. It’s an understatement - homophobia is deep-seated in many of the countries from which the camp’s residents come, and harassment of gay refugees in Kakuma is commonplace.
“Even moving outside in the market, someone [will] start accusing you that you are a homosexual,” Junior says as he serves up a plate of beans, chapati and goat. “But me, that doesn’t bother me, because that is what I am.”
Still, it did wreak havoc on his business. Many people stopped coming altogether, and Junior struggled to pay the 4,000 Kenyan shillings ($40) rent he owed on the one-room, mud-walled restaurant.
“We” - he occasionally employs other refugees - “used to prepare food in big sauce pans, but now we just use little ones,” he says, due to the lack of customers. “You can work the whole day but the profit is not enough.” It is sometimes as little as a dollar a day, he adds.
But even the chance of a dollar a day is worth it for a hardworking refugee with few other ways to earn money. Junior says he’ll keep on cooking - hoping that the quality of his food will overcome prejudice of some of his potential customers.
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“In Western society, we are conditioned to turn up our noses at food that has gone out of date.”
Paul Saville, 30, a chai store owner, artist and political activist running for Bristol mayor next year, reflects on being a freegan and choosing to eat discarded food.
Story by Tina Remiz
Bristol, United Kingdom - Getting food out of a rubbish bin is something I have done many times over the years, both out of necessity and because it made so much more sense than paying full price at the counter.
I came to Bristol in 2008 to do a degree in sociology and criminology. Through my studies, I became increasingly interested in politics and social justice and got involved in local community projects.
Throughout my student years, I lived in a squat, which was much more than a rent-free shelter. It was a place where people met, shared ideas and got organised, so it’s no wonder that the new government made it their priority to put an end to the unauthorised occupation of abandoned residential buildings in early 2012.
At the time, money was scarce, so most residents opted for finding rather than buying their meals. I vividly remember the first time I dived into a bin, my legs dangling in the air, my heart pounding in my ears, trying to grab anything I could get hold of. I was very naïve back then, and have learned a lot over the years.
“There are few rules to follow: go at night when the place is closed to avoid being caught”
There are few rules to follow: go at night when the place is closed to avoid being caught, don’t leave a mess behind you and don’t take more than you need. Most bins can be opened with a regular triangular key that you can buy in a hardware store; I carry mine around on a key chain at all times.
Sometimes you find plenty; at other times, all you end up with is a bunch of flowers. You might get fruits and vegetables of all kinds, sacks of bread that are just starting to go stale and even cakes - a special treat.
When I was living in the squat, we once found about 150 parsnips, so we ended up cooking a pot of soup that lasted for days and shared or traded the rest with other squatters. Another time, a freezer in a large supermarket went out of order, so all its contents went into a bin. We got a call from a friend, who was ecstatic, shouting: “Get here quickly, you have about 20 minutes until all the ice cream melts!”
There was a real sense of community - working together and supporting each other through hard times.
In Western society, we are conditioned to turn up our noses at food that has gone out of date, even if there is nothing wrong with it. We use the term “food waste” to describe products our grandparents would have eaten without thinking twice, forgetting the real meaning of the “best before” label.
There is a lot of stigma surrounding freeganism, and, 10 years ago, I would likely have refused to eat from a bin too, but it’s not as disgusting as you may think.
Sure, the smell is often repulsive, but most food is wrapped in layers of plastic anyway, so it doesn’t matter if it comes from a bin.
“There is a lot of stigma surrounding freeganism, and, 10 years ago, I would likely have refused to eat from a bin too.”
I worked in a small supermarket for a few months, and was repeatedly asked to put food that was still fine to eat into a bin. Once, around Christmas time, we got nine boxes of the highest grade oranges delivered to our store by mistake. Instead of sending them back or giving them away to customers or staff, I was told to put the whole load into a bin. My conscience told me this was wrong, but I had to follow the order out of fear of losing my job.
I still get food out of a bin from time to time. I now work full-time, sometimes 45 to 50 hours per week, but after paying rent for my small apartment, I often have no money left at all. So, if I have just paid my rent and I need some food, I will go across the road to a supermarket and have a look in the bins.
Recently, some supermarkets have started throwing chemicals like blue dye over discarded products to stop people from taking them. Staff often refer to freegans in derogatory terms, calling them “scavengers” or “tramps”, not understanding that these are just people trying to get by. This attitude needs to change if we are ever to see a lasting change for the better in society.
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Nepal: after the quake, a restaurant’s revival
“As an outsider to the city … I was brought closer to it by food.”
Despite being destroyed in the earthquake, a much-loved restaurant in Kathmandu Valley has reopened in a makeshift shed on its original site - and loyal customers have returned from near and far.
Story by Prawin Adhikari
Patan, Nepal - A milk crate sits by the new entrance to Byanjankar, a Newari restaurant in the neighbourhood of Chyasal, at the heart of the old city of Patan.
Out of the crate, a new vine of tomatoes inches upwards with green clusters of fruit. In the narrow, roofless yard, benches flank plain wooden tables where men chat quietly. Their attention is reserved for the food, the Newari fare of the original inhabitants of Kathmandu Valley. Nobody is in a hurry to leave. There is additional seating inside a corrugated iron sheet shed, by the counter where food is prepared. There is soot on the wall behind the counter. This is old soot.
“In those days, wandering through the ruins of the city became a compulsive habit. It was a way of mourning the loss.”
Days after the April earthquake, I heard that Byanjankar had been completely destroyed. I went to see for myself. In those days, wandering through the ruins of the city became a compulsive habit. It was a way of mourning the loss.
Byanjankar was a heap of rubble, indistinguishable from the other heaps of rubble all around.
A friend who had never been there said that he, too, mourned Byanjankar. The nostalgia was for an experience he would never have. I mourned what was familiar; he mourned a lost opportunity.
But, in early November, another friend called, asking for directions to Byanjankar.
“It doesn't exist anymore,” I said.
“No, it is back up again!”
I laughed with joy. It was strange that I should feel so strongly for a restaurant, but it also made sense. As an outsider to the city - I come from a village 100km due west - and its Newari culture, I was brought closer to it by food.
“Through Newari cuisine the buffalo was revealed to me”
Through Newari cuisine the buffalo was revealed to me: as dyakla, the slow-cooked meat in broth; as tisya, the fried marrow and cord of the spine; as the tongue and testicles and brain and tripe; as sapu mhicha, the hot blobs of bone-marrow trapped in pouches of intestine and deep fried.
I feel absurdly proud of Patan, although I am still an outsider. Through food I began arriving to the city, if not yet belonging to it.
Each ancient neighbourhood in Kathmandu Valley has its distinguished Newari eatery, and Byanjankar is Chyasal's celebrated destination for Newari food.
Byanjankar is also a caste name among the Jyapu farmers of Patan. They were the custodians of Newari food culture. Byanjankar, the restaurant, is 35 years old, but the family that owns it has hundreds of years of collective experience of preparing and serving these foods. And they are sought out by patrons far and wide. Most of their clientele travel from the cities of Kathmandu and Bhaktapur just for a snack of choila, large hunks of meat charbroiled in damp straw, diced, sometimes beaten in a mortar, and marinated in hot mustard oil liberally flecked with chilli pepper, chopped green onions, garlic, and lots of ginger paste. It burns the mouth, fills it with the fragrant juices of the meat and ginger, and pushes you towards another cup of rice beer.
“This is not a place tourists wander into after some sightseeing. You have to decide that you want to come here,” says Manoj Byanjankar. His older brother, Binod Byanjankar, is the “hand with the spices”, and Manoj is the face of the family-run restaurant.
Manoj had just finished preparing for the Saturday rush and was trying to catch a few minutes of television when the first big earthquake hit. He ran out, and the house collapsed. Nobody was injured, but everything was lost.
The Byanjankars lived under tarpaulin on their paddy field on the outskirts of their neighbourhood. It wasn't easy. There were elders and children, and there was no familiar routine except the fear of the next tremor. They tried to return to clear the rubble of their restaurant, but another powerful earthquake hit on May 12.
“After two months in the field they started a restaurant under their tarpaulin”
After two months in the field they started a restaurant under their tarpaulin, purely out of boredom, until they could resume in the old location. They moved back on August 21, the day of the festival Janai Purnima. Then the regulars also returned, from near and far, and the Byanjankars were grateful for it. Busyness returned.
“It is because of how we treat our customers,” says Manoj. “People keep coming back because we don't treat this as just a business. We treat them well, and they love us for it.”
Nepal's southern borders with India are blockaded and there is no cooking gas in the legal market. The kerosene stove will run out of fuel in the next couple of days. Manoj thinks he will have to close the restaurant for some time.
I like that the old door and kitchen at Byanjankar have survived. I like that the tomato vine by the new door is fruitful and ambitious. Its roots will go deep. The neighbourhood of Chyasal is at least 2,000 years old. Its lore and customs are rich and ancient. I have no doubt that Byanjankar will keep alive Chyasal's food culture, and I will keep returning to it.
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Eating for a dollar a day in Mexico
“All kinds of people come here, but especially middle class types like me.”
A self-employed courier in Mexico City relies on a community diner for his only meal of the day.
Story by Alejandro Saldívar
Mexico City, Mexico - It's 4 o’clock in the afternoon and all 65-year-old Jose Luís Vergara has had to eat today is a banana.
He works as a self-employed courier, travelling by public transport across Mexico City with a backpack torn at the seams. Each morning, he goes through the delivery addresses and files them in a creased folder. In the evenings, he goes to Las Margaritas, a community diner in San Felipe alley, in Xoco, a middle-class neighbourhood surrounded by shopping centres in one of the most affluent areas in the city’s south.
The smell of beans floods the diner. He has been coming here since the last company he worked for went broke; they gave him a payout of 13,000 pesos ($755).
“Because of my age I don't get work. You have to manage to survive in this country, and since the only thing I knew how to do was be a messenger, I went ahead and started a courier company,” he says.
Jose Luís scrapes the last bits off his plate with a spoon. Sometimes he feels anxious, irritable and depressed. But he tries not to worry too much about the future, he says.
He talks about his “company”; but, in truth, he’s its sole employee.
“You can get rid of money, [but] never hunger”
“You can get rid of money, [but] never hunger,” he says, sitting in a folding chair at Las Margaritas, which is one of 197 community diners in Mexico City, where the price of a meal is 10 pesos - less than a dollar.
I ask him what hunger means to him.
“Hunger is the human need of feeding itself with nutritious things. There is a lot of hunger in Mexico because of poverty. In the field, they eat what they can harvest. Thank God I'm not yet at that point, but I only do one meal a day.”
Eating for less than a dollar each day doesn’t bother him - on the contrary, in fact: he is proud of being able to get by on the little money he earns. Luxury has never appealed to him and he says he’s happy with his modest lifestyle.
Like a tightrope walker, he balances the 4,000 pesos ($230) he earns each month in order not to fall into the void below. In Mexico, people who make 2,500-3,500 pesos (up to $203) per month, are considered lower middle class.
Real hunger, in a country where 55 million people live in poverty, is not the hunger he knows.
“This is a very good programme because it lets me save what little I earn,” he says. He is one of seven million people in Mexico who live in an emergency situation due to unemployment, sub-employment or some other form of precariousness, according to the Center of Multidisciplinary Analysis in the economics department at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
Jose Luís doesn't want to become bitter man, so when he goes to the diner, he thinks of good things.
One of the diner's walls has inspirational phrases written within painted daisies: “The look in your eyes reflects the needs of your soul,” or “Love is encouraged here, as well as understanding and respect,” or “What you are is reflected in every step you make.”
While people eat, the television at the diner plays an Animal Planet documentary in which a purebred dog eats food that costs 10 times the price of a meal here.
Guadalupe Barragan, 49, is the diner’s owner and says she has written the phrases on the wall to make her guests feel at home.
“Margaritas [daisies] are happy flowers. I like their colour and I think people who come here feel good when they see the flowers [on the wall],” she says.
Rice, pasta, beans, enchiladas, small cakes stuffed with nopal [cactus], tostadas made with canned tuna, but mainly rice and beans are what get eaten at Las Margaritas. Meat is out of the question - meals would become three or four times as expensive as they are now if they featured meat.
“My friends tell me every day that
I cook as if I'm having a party”
At 5pm, the sound of dishes clattering in the sink can be heard from the kitchen. Guadalupe has started washing a tower of plastic plates. “My friends tell me every day that I cook as if I'm having a party,” she says with a smile.
Every day she cooks for about 170 people - a parade of department store employees and office workers seeking cheaper eating options.
People who eat elsewhere can easily spend around 300 pesos ($17) a week; which is a waste of money, if you ask Jose Luís. Not to mention the restaurants in shopping centres, where a meal can cost more than 200 pesos ($11) - a luxury he can afford maybe once a month.
Something floral attracts his attention - it’s the perfume of a young woman. She passes by his table without giving him a glance. From her belt hangs an ID badge from a department store in the area. “Employee” is written in capital letters. “All kinds of people come here, but especially middle-class types like me,” he says.
He wipes his mouth with a napkin. With his backpack in one hand, and his folder of pending tasks in the other, Jose Luís bids farewell to Guadalupe with the closeness that only food can give.
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