All-refugee cooking company shares culture and home through love of food
Eat Offbeat is one of many catering businesses that had to re-invent itself when COVID-19 struck 18 months ago.
But its employees had a little experience with sudden, difficult change: They all came to the country as refugees. And they say reinventing their business model overnight came naturally.
The New York-based company, founded by Lebanese siblings Manal and Wissam Kahi, was inspired nearly six years ago by Manal Kahi’s dual realizations: that she couldn’t find hummus “like her grandmother’s” in New York, and that the perfect people to cook food from their home countries were the refugees coming to the U.S. from around the globe.
She partnered with the International Refugee Committee to find cooks and launch a unique business. Now, the group has also released its first cookbook, “Kitchens Without Borders.”
In Queens, New York, the group cooks in a large, shared warehouse space — a sort of We-Work for chefs — called Commissary Kitchens. The smells of cooking waft up from giant pans and pots sizzling and bubbling on industrial-sized cook-tops. At noon, Eat Offbeat’s large meal boxes are piled high on a trolley and then head out for delivery around the greater New York area.
Alassane, an Ivory Coast native and delivery man, explains that each box reflects the food from a different country. The day’s fare includes specialties from Afghanistan, Senegal and Venezuela.
Deeper into the kitchen, a group of women are hard at work chopping and stirring. Among them is Chef Shanthini, who is Sri Lankan. Today, she’s preparing a spicy yellow potato and onion mixture for her signature samosas, which also include a generous amount of green chili and cilantro.
Relying on her son Sarujen as an interpreter, Shanthini says working at Eat Offbeat and having her recipes featured in the “Kitchens Without Borders” cookbook has been a joy.
“Obviously we can learn new languages, we can learn new things, but cooking is something they brought with themselves,” Sarujen says, adding that “for them, to be able to still cook what they cooked at home and still be loved by the customers” is particularly meaningful.
“I know how my mom feels,” he says, “She talks to me about every time she has a new menu idea, and every time she makes a new recipe, it’s from home.”
At a long stainless steel counter next to Shanthini, Senegalese chef Mariama is packaging her sweet and spicy peanuts, one of many peanut specialties enjoyed in the country’s cuisine. She shares Shantini’s excitement about cooking at Eat Offbeat.
“I feel like I’m home,” she says.
Manal Kahi, who started it all, says that emotional connection to food, to home and to one another is typical at the company. And she laughs about the fact that it all started with hummus.
When she arrived in the U.S. in 2013, she says she couldn’t find the hummus she was looking for.
“It’s never the perfect amount of garlic or the perfect ratio of garlic to lemon to citrus to acid,” she says, pausing before she admits, “it wasn’t like my grandmother’s.”
At the height of the refugee crisis in Syria, she says she started thinking about who would be well-positioned not only to bring the best hummus to New York but also to bring a host of cuisines from around the world. The answer, of course, was refugees.
“There are so many recipes that are better when they’re made by someone who really knows what they taste like back home … who can transport you to those lands far away by just sharing the spices and the smells,” she says.
The International Rescue Committee helped find her the refugee chefs she was seeking, and the company opened in 2015, thriving until the pandemic nearly shuttered them in 2020.
“In March 2020 with COVID, we lost nearly 100% of our revenue overnight,” she says, recalling a week when every single client canceled their order.
She says she gathered the team together and explained the options: to close since there were no more corporate clients, or to re-invent themselves. The team chose the latter.
Kahi says they decided to take their best sellers from catering and package them as meal boxes that could be delivered to clients’ homes. Recently, the company also launched a subscription service where clients receive a curated meal box featuring a specific country’s cuisine monthly.
For clients outside the region, they’re now shipping gifts: Chef Mariama’s Senegalese spiced nuts, Iraqi walnut tahini dates, Syrian sesame cookies, Venezuelan jams and more.
She credits the strengths that refugees bring to the company for its survival.
“Everyone on our team has built their lives three, four times over,” she says. “So rebuilding a business from scratch? That wasn’t going to stop us.”
Kahi is aware of the trauma that her employees have experienced and says the company focuses on the positives while acknowledging the traumas.
“It’s about showing people how beautiful those cultures are and telling those stories,” Kahi says.
She also says that being a for-profit company is very important to her and adds that the company has three goals. The first is to create quality jobs for talented refugees, the second is to create connections between the people who make the food and the people who are eating it at home. And the third, she says, is about changing the narrative around refugees “by showcasing a different and more positive story.”
“They are the heroes. They are the ones helping us New Yorkers discover something new and something different,” she says. “We’re not the victims.”
Kahi adds that her chefs are contributing to the local economy “and not taking anything from it.”
When it comes to the challenges of working with chefs from more than 20 different countries, Kahi says that language is surprisingly not one of them. Somehow, she says, they’ve managed to develop their own language where words are sometimes mispronounced — and occasionally invented — but always understood.
“There’s a language of food,” she says. “We always say it’s the language of love and it goes much further than any language.”
Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Robin Young. Miller-Medzon also adapted it for the web.
Recipes from ‘The Kitchen Without Borders’
Chef Nasrin’s Cake Baklava from Iran
A dry, nutty cake spiced with cardamom and saffron
Makes one 9-inch round cake
Flaky baklava, with its layers of sweetness and nuts, is delicious when made into a cake. It keeps all the same flavors with walnuts, almonds, and pistachios being added to the batter. If you want additional sweetness for the final cake, poke holes in the top and brush the cake with honey, or top with a honey-based frosting. The sweetness will round out the cake’s nuttiness.
- 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened, plus more for greasing the pan
- 3/4 cup (4 ounces) shelled pistachios, plus 1 tablespoon chopped pistachios for garnish
- 1 cup (4 ounces) shelled walnuts
- 2/3 cup (4 ounces) whole raw almonds
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 teaspoons ground cardamom
- 1 cup sugar
- 4 large eggs
- 3 tablespoons saffron water (see note)
- Chopped pistachios, for garnish
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a 9-inch round cake pan with parchment paper and grease lightly with butter.
- Grind each type of nut separately in a food processor, setting each aside.
- Place the flour, baking powder, and cardamom in a small mixing bowl. Whisk to fully combine. Set aside.
- Place the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer. With the paddle attachment, beat the butter on low speed until it begins to break up, about 30 seconds. Increase the speed to medium and beat for 1 minute. Stop the mixer to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Increase the mixer speed to medium and slowly add the sugar. Continue beating until the butter and sugar are creamed, about 5 minutes.
- Reduce the mixer speed to medium-low and add the eggs one at a time, beating for 30 seconds after each one to incorporate and scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Once all the eggs have been added, increase the speed to medium and beat until fully incorporated, about 2 minutes.
- Reduce the mixer speed to low and slowly add the flour mixture in three parts, beating for 30 seconds after each addition. Increase the speed to medium and beat until the batter is light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
- Reduce the mixer speed to medium-low and slowly add the ground nuts and the saffron water to the batter. Beat until the nuts are fully incorporated, about 5 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, as needed.
- Using a rubber spatula, fill the prepared cake pan with the batter, leveling the top to smooth it. Bake until the top is golden and a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Sprinkle the chopped pistachios over the top in the last 5 minutes of baking. Let cool completely on a wire rack before serving.
- Note: According to Nasrin, the foolproof way to get saffron into this cake is to grind 4 threads of it in a spice grinder with 1 teaspoon of sugar and then place that mixture in a bowl with 4 ice cubes. When the ice melts, the saffron will have infused the water, which can be added to the cake batter.
Chef Rachana’s Chari Bari from Nepal
Chicken meatballs in Nepali-spiced cashew sauce
Makes about 30 meatballs
Throw out any notion of beef-, pork-, or lamb-based meatballs. This chicken dish, which Rachana makes at home by deep-frying the meatballs, is distinctly Nepali in flavor from all of the spices. The tomato-based sauce is more like a curry than marinara, making it perfect for scooping over rice. Cashew flour for the sauce can be found in the baking section of many grocery stores or online.
For the meatballs:
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ½ teaspoon onion powder
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder
- 1½ teaspoons garam masala
- ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1 pound ground chicken
- 1 large egg, beaten
- ½ cup dried bread crumbs
For the sauce:
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
- 10 green cardamom pods
- 2 black cardamom pods
- 2 tablespoons dried fenugreek leaves (see page xvii)
- 1 star anise pod
- 2 tablespoons coriander seeds
- 2 tablespoons cumin seeds
- 2 tablespoons ghee
- 2 cups chopped yellow onions
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- 1 tablespoon ground cardamom
- 1 tablespoon garam masala
- 1 can (14.5 ounces) whole peeled tomatoes, pureed in a blender
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 3 cups chicken stock
- 1 cup cashew flour
- ¼ cup cornstarch
- Fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish
- Chopped scallions, for garnish
- Pinch of flaky Himalayan salt, for garnish
- Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.
- Make the meatballs: Combine the salt, black pepper, onion powder, ground cumin, garlic powder, garam masala, ground cinnamon, and ground cardamom in a medium mixing bowl. Add the ground chicken, egg, and bread crumbs and mix together using your hands.
- Form the chicken mixture into 1-inch meatballs and place them on the prepared sheet pan. The meatballs can be prepared ahead of time, covered, and refrigerated for up to 2 days.
- Place the meatballs in the oven and bake until the internal temperature on an instant-read thermometer inserted into the meat is 165°F, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside.
- Make the sauce: Place the cinnamon stick, black pepper, green and black cardamom pods, dried fenugreek, star anise pod, coriander seeds, and cumin seeds in a small pan without oil. Toast the spices over medium-high heat until they’re fragrant but not burned, 1 to 2 minutes. Place the toasted spices in a food processor or spice grinder and process until very fine, 3 to 5 minutes.
- Heat the ghee in a 5-quart pot over medium heat. Once the ghee is hot and shimmering, add the chopped onions and sauté until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the onion powder, ground cardamom, garam masala, and ground spices from Step 5. Continue to sauté until the spices are fragrant, about 5 minutes more.
- Add the tomato puree, tomato paste, chicken stock, and cashew flour. Bring the sauce to a simmer and cook, uncovered and stirring frequently, until reduced by half, about 45 minutes.
- Remove sauce from the heat. Whisk together the cornstarch and ½ cup of water in a small bowl, until a smooth slurry is formed. Add the slurry to the sauce and stir to combine. Bring to a boil over high heat and boil for 1 minute. For a smoother sauce, let it cool slightly, carefully puree it in a blender, and strain it, if desired. Return the sauce to the pot.
- Add the meatballs to the sauce and cook until they’re warm, about 10 minutes. Garnish with cilantro, scallions, and a pinch of flaky Himalayan salt. Serve immediately.
The Geography of Salt
Believed to be the most natural and beneficial form of sodium, Himalayan pink salt is akin to table salt save for its striking pigment, its unrefined nature, and a few trace minerals. Slabs of Himalayan pink salt can be used for cooking, curing, and serving food. Whether it is heated or chilled, the block infuses dishes (although not dry foods) with a light salty taste.
Chef Larissa’s Red Pepper Soup from the Central African Republic
Pureed red bell peppers with brioche croutons
Serves 6 to 8 as a starter
The Central African Republic has various regional dishes, including fufu made from cassava, foutou made from plantains, chicken stews, freshwater fish and seafood, and yams, which are indigenous to the nation. This soup from Larissa—which was created in collaboration with Chef Juan—is easy to pull together and delicious with fresh croutons. Be prepared for the evaporated milk to curdle when it’s heating, but don’t worry—it’ll come back together while pureeing in Step 5.
- 1 brioche loaf
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 5 cups finely chopped red bell peppers
- 3 cups finely chopped yellow onions
- 1 tablespoon ground red pepper
- 4 cups chicken stock
- 1 cup evaporated milk
- Cilantro sprigs, for garnish
- Extra virgin olive oil, for garnish
- Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, for garnish
- Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.
- Cut the brioche loaf into 1-inch cubes and place them on the prepared sheet pan. Bake until they are brown and crunchy, about 5 minutes. Be careful not to burn the croutons. Set aside to cool.
- Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add the bell peppers and onions and sauté until the peppers are tender and the onions are golden, about 10 minutes.
- Stir in the ground red pepper and chicken stock. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer, cover the pot, and cook until the peppers and onions are very soft, about 30 minutes. Stir in the evaporated milk and simmer for 10 minutes more. Remove the pot from the heat.
- Carefully pour the soup into a blender and puree until smooth, about 30 seconds. Serve the soup topped with croutons and garnished with cilantro sprigs, a drizzle of olive oil, and a sprinkle of salt and pepper.
Chef Nasrin’s Kuku Sabzi from Iran
Persian herbed frittata
Serves 6 as an appetizer
Although it may translate as such to Western audiences, calling kuku sabzi a frittata is doing it a disservice. The stars of this dish are the herbs; the eggs simply hold everything together. Green garlic—young garlic with tender leaves and a milder flavor than the bulbs—can be found at farmers’ markets in early spring. The zereshk (barberries) add a nice tangy component. If you can’t find them, dried red currants or unsweetened cranberries—chopped, if they aren’t very small—can be used in a pinch.
- Cooking spray, for greasing the pan
- 6 cups fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
- 2 cups fresh cilantro leaves
- 2 cups fresh dill fronds
- 1/2 cup shelled walnuts
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced (Nasrin uses green garlic)
- 2 teaspoons ground turmeric
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup dried zereshk (barberries), plus more for garnish
- 6 large eggs, lightly beaten
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spray a 10-inch round cake pan with cooking
spray and line it with parchment paper.
Excerpted from The Kitchen Without Borders: Recipes and Stories from Refugee and Immigrant Chefs by The Eat Offbeat Chefs. Photographs by Penny De Los Santos. Workman Publishing © 2021”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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