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Cooking Workshops Offer Israeli Foodies a Taste of African Cuisine

Kitchen Talks events allow migrants from Eritrea, Sudan, and elsewhere to share their recipes, and break down cultural barriers

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Yamane Tesfai, from Eritrea, readies trays of injera. He’ll ladle over them potatoes stewed with swiss chard, along with a red stew made with chicken and spiced with a pepper mix called berbere. (Daniella Cheslow)
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Fleeing violence in his native Darfur, Hassan Shakur arrived in Israel three years ago. To make ends meet he found work as a dishwasher in a Tel Aviv restaurant called The Streets. But his real passion is cooking. After years in the back of the kitchen, Shakur finally got to work the front in late June—in honor of World Refugee Day—as one of two migrant chefs commanding the kitchen of Jaffa’s Tarnegol restaurant, serving up hefty quantities of Sudanese food. The exotic dinner was part of the Kitchen Talks project, which brings together African migrants and adventurous Israeli eaters.

“What really encouraged me to join Kitchen Talks,” said Shakur, “is first of all, my curiosity about food, and second, the opportunity to know more about the Israeli people and show them our food.”

Shakur, 26, presided over a production line ladling a thick, delicately seasoned soup, known in Arabic as shorbet lubyia, made of white beans. He’d also cooked kabab hala, a stew of meat and vegetables, served with a white flour flat bread called kisra. Alongside he served salat aswad, or black salad; a plate of fire-roasted eggplant mixed with peanut butter; and a lancing red hot sauce called moreh, made of fried onion, lemon, pepper, and bacteria from the guts of a cow.

About 50 people paid roughly $25 each for the chance to try it.

Yifat Unger, 23, said she had never sampled a Sudanese supper. She came with her boyfriend, who sweated as he slathered his food in the atomic hot sauce. “It’s really special,” Unger said. “You don’t usually find peanuts in Israeli food. We only have it in bamba,” a peanut-based snack.

Shakur looked on as Israelis scooped up his specialties. “We are isolated,” he said. “We are not integrated with the Israeli community. Maybe this way I can get to know more Israelis.”

***

The two Tel Avivi founders of Kitchen Talks, Yael Ravid and Goor Somer, say they want to use food to break down the barriers between the thousands of African migrants living in Israel and their Israeli hosts. Ordinarily Ravid and Somer organize workshops in private homes, where migrants give cooking lessons to curious Israelis. (The June event in Jaffa was more of a tasting night at a restaurant; the organizers are considering turning the project into a cooperative with a permanent location.) In the past four months, there have been eight of these events across Tel Aviv, drawing about 10 people to a typical gathering. Ravid said the next workshop will take place in late August or early September. The menu varies each time, with cooks hailing from Sudan, Eritrea, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and further across Africa; Ravid said she plans to include cooks from Asia as well. Participants pay 130 shekels ($36) to learn at one of the workshops; their money covers ingredients and a small stipend for the cooks.

Ravid said she got the idea while volunteering for Lewinsky Soup, a group that cooks traditional Eritrean and Sudanese food and brings it to the homeless African migrants sleeping in a playground in south Tel Aviv. “We were going to Lewinsky Park every day to feed the refugees,” said Ravid, 33. “And I was thinking all the time that even though I make the food at home and come to the park, there’s still a hierarchy and a gap between me and the people, and I can’t really get to know them. If I want to create an interaction, the best place to do it is in the kitchen. The minute you’re cutting vegetables and cooking together, and asking questions, slowly the ice breaks.”

Areas of south Tel Aviv are full of thousands of migrants from Eritrea and Sudan and the flavors of their cooking. One of the most common jobs for undocumented African migrants is washing dishes and busing tables in Tel Aviv, but those who don’t find work often open their own restaurants without permits. As a result, there are dozens of hole-in-the wall eateries and dry-goods stores stacked with lentils and spices lining Neve Sha’anan, the central boulevard of the south Tel Aviv neighborhood where they live. But these are not stable businesses: In May, health inspectors raided eight Eritrean restaurants in Neve Sha’anan, citing lack of permits and health violations.

Since 2006, about 60,000 African asylum-seekers have crossed the Egyptian border into Israel; just over half are from Eritrea. They live all over the country, but large numbers crowd the impoverished neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv. For the most part they enjoy protected status, meaning they cannot be deported; however, the state has not examined their requests for asylum. This means most have no right to work or register businesses. The result has been bedlam, with poor neighborhoods overrun with thousands of Africans, who crowd into apartments, sleep in the playgrounds, pile into health clinics, and loiter, jobless, in the streets.

Israelis are divided over how to cope. The government sees the Africans as illegal job-seekers; others say they are refugees and that Israel has a moral obligation to help them. In January this year, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced that a fence stretching from the Gaza Strip down to Eilat was nearly completed at a cost of $1.4 billion, cutting off 99 percent of the illegal border crossing. Those Africans already in Israel are facing tougher terms. One year ago, the Knesset passed a law allowing police to arrest foreigners for minor infractions like bike theft or graffiti; jail terms last as long as three years. In mid-July, Israel deported 14 Eritrean men back to Eritrea, sparking condemnation from Human Rights Watch and Israeli migrant advocacy groups.

But even as the government deliberates their future, several initiatives to explore the migrants’ neighborhood and their food are cropping up. In addition to the Lewinsky Soup initiative where Ravid got her first exposure to African food, a group called CTLV runs night tours through the neighborhoods. The itinerary includes stops at the weekend bazaar where Africans sell clothing on the street, along with a visit to a Filipino pub in the area. The tours are geared as much to locals as to tourists because most Israelis steer clear of Neve Sha’anan. The grimy seven-story Central Bus Station towers over the streets, and drug addicts and prostitutes sleep in its shadows. Reports of rapes, thefts, and assaults have added to the area’s reputation as a slum.

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Cooking Workshops Offer Israeli Foodies a Taste of African Cuisine

Kitchen Talks events allow migrants from Eritrea, Sudan, and elsewhere to share their recipes, and break down cultural barriers