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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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The area’s harsh realities make it difficult to bridge the cultural gaps between the migrants and other Israelis. Amitai Sandy, an illustrator in Tel Aviv, is part of a group trying to bring tourists and Israelis to the Eritrean restaurants in Neve Sha’anan. The plan was to translate the menus into Hebrew and English and publish a map of recommended eateries. Sandy even designed a logo for the area. But then he learned that many of these restaurant owners are pimps for Eritrean women forced into prostitution—and the initiative slowed down. “There’s no doubt that a refugee who makes a living will feel better and more independent and strong,” Sandy said. “But I don’t think we have a way of checking which restaurants are brothels and which are innocent.”

Sandy’s story shows that breaking bread with Israelis will not, by itself, solve the deeper problems of the Eritrean and Sudanese communities in Tel Aviv. Nevertheless, for the people involved in such a cultural and culinary exchange, cooking together is a moment where asylum-seekers raised on traditional African food find an ideal audience in Tel Aviv’s foodie community. And the exchange works both ways: Shakur says he has been curious about the food on offer in Tel Aviv, which in addition to being the capital of the refugee population is also the culinary center of Israel. “When I go to restaurants, I try to taste everything,” Shakur said. “Right now, I really love couscous. When we cook it in the restaurant—wow. “

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Hassan Shakur
Hassan Shakur, of Sudan, said cooking food from home for 50 Israelis inspired him to get better in the kitchen. (Shira Tabachnik, courtesy of Kitchen Talks)

At June’s Kitchen Talks event, Shakur was paired up with another cook from Africa: Yamane Tesfai, an Eritrean who moved to Israel five years ago to escape his country’s universal draft. He was a cook back home—and he continues to cook for Eritrean weddings on the side. But because he arrived in Israel relatively early, he got a work permit that helped him get a foothold in Tel Aviv’s restaurants: He was first hired as a dishwasher at a branch of Tel Aviv’s Café Café coffee-shop chain. Then he took Hebrew lessons and moved onto the cold line. “I learned how to read the orders, I learned to make the food, to close the kitchen, and do the prep work,” he said. “I work 12 to 13 hours a day. I live well, I speak Hebrew, and I have a lot of friends from the kitchen.”

For the Kitchen Talks event, Tesfai made injera, a flat sour pancake of teff flour that is ubiquitous in Ethiopia and Eritrea. It is served on a large round stainless-steel tray and piled high with vegetable and meat stews. Tesfai’s had hamli, made of onion, carrot, potato, and swiss chard. Another topping was keyh sebhi, a stew made with a berbere pepper mix, onion, beef, and chicken.

As guests ate off the platters, ripping off pieces of injera and dipping them into the sauces, Shakur and Tesfai made the rounds, answering questions. “The plates were coming back to the kitchen scrubbed clean,” Tesfai said, “and it gave me a great feeling.”

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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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