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 United States which appeal to the appetites of Americans and give 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 good it is,” Rachana said.
On a recent day in the company’s kitchen, she paced between a counter and stove top where oil was heated for the cauliflower, to be served with a tangy tomato and tamari sauce flavoured with fenugreek.
Although the cauliflower is a Chinese dish, Rachana, 53, said she developed her own version in Nepal. “From the age of 16, I’ve been cooking,” she said.
Half a 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.”
Initiatives such as Eat Offbeat can serve as counterpoint to anti-immigration sentiment, their proponents say. Despite the at-times hostile context, Eat Offbeat has found success through its tantalising tastes and hard work, said co-founder Wissam Kahi.
It has 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.
Across the country at the Spice Kitchen Incubator in Salt Lake City, Utah, refugees from Somalia and Iraq are also 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 organisers 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 programme for the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian aid organisation. 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 flavours 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.” – Thomson Reuters Foundation