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This Refugee-Led Cooking Class Is Making Space for Cultural Exchange

Migrateful gives refugees and asylum seekers in London the chance to share favourite recipes with their new communities.

by Ruchira Sharma
12 April 2019, 1:44pm

Photo courtesy Migrateful. 

“When you're an asylum seeker, you can't work and your social life is almost nothing. You feel like you’re useless,” says Noor, who relocated to the UK from Pakistan in 2015 to escape a harmful family situation. For the last two years, she has been working with Migrateful, a cooking class that sees refugees and asylum seekers share favourite recipes from home.

“After joining Migrateful, I felt useful and like I could give something back to the community,” Noor says. “I’ve now gained lots of confidence and in any class, I feel really empowered.”

Founded by Jess Thompson in 2017, Migrateful classes are held every week to paying customers at venues across London. Each session is led by a migrant chef, hailing from over ten countries including Ethiopia, Albania, Iran, and The Gambia. Thompson founded the social enterprise after returning to the UK from Morocco, where she volunteered at a refugee camp.

Tonight’s session is taking place at the India Club in Central London, established in 1951 as dining and social space for British-Indians. Noor will be teaching us how to make a chicken biryani, tarka dhal, dahi bhalla, and raita. We gather in a circle around her as she details the ingredients needed for our first dish, the biryani.

“Could someone chop this?” she asks, pointing to a bowl of onions.

Next, Noor heats water in a large pan and places in the chicken pieces. I join Thompson to help chop a pile of bright green chilis. She tells me that she developed the idea for Migrateful through her interactions with migrant women when working as an English teacher in London.

“Very qualified women who were unemployed because they couldn't speak English well and their qualifications didn't count in this country,” she explains.

Many of them invited Thompson to dinner, allowing her to learn more about recipes they had grown up with. They may have lacked language skills and connections in the UK, but they had confidence in cooking and an eagerness to share their knowledge with others. Migrateful was born.

“Our mission is to celebrate vulnerable migrants on their journey into integration,” Thompson continues. “It's all about empowering them: they're the leader of the cookery class. For a lot of them, they're seeking asylum, constantly asking the Home Office for something and getting nowhere. This is a situation where they're totally in control.”

Not only do Migrateful cooking classes offer Londoners a way to learn new recipes and cooking techniques, but they help migrant chefs build on their employability and language skills. Those seeking asylum in the UK have no right to work and even people who are granted asylum find it hard to gain employment due to cultural and language barriers.

Noor tells us: “When I first came to the UK, I did a fashion textile course and then applied for a visual art one. I did my degree in fine art in Pakistan but when you’re an asylum seeker, that doesn’t count. You have to wait and see your status first.”

1555070346002-migrateful-cooking-class
Photo courtesy Migrateful.

As a group next to us begins chopping onions and coriander for the rice and dahi bhalla, Noor starts another table on preparation for the dhal. Soon, everyone in the room has a task—there’s not a unused hand in sight.

“Biryani is a really royal dish,” Noor says. “I tell people to feel royal when they’re having a royal dish.”

As the onions fry in the spices and fill the air with fragrant aromas, someone asks Noor why she uses her hand to judge spice ratios, rather than a spoon. She tells us that her mum and grandma always pinched their fingers together to measure their spices. Each person’s hand is different so there is variation in how each dish turns out.

“No one’s will ever taste exactly the same,” Noor adds.

An hour into our lesson at the India Club and the group of strangers starts to feel more like acquaintances. Over the stirring of spices and sharing of tips for shallow-frying garlic and ginger paste, a contented chatter spreads across the room.

"I did my degree in fine art in Pakistan but when you’re an asylum seeker, that doesn’t count. You have to wait and see your status first.”

When I first heard about Migrateful, I wondered whether a cooking lesson led by a migrant chef would feel like an unequal balance of power—attendees paying to enjoy a “charitable” cause with uncomfortable white saviour undertones. Would it be another kind of food-based cultural appropriation? We have certainly seen many instance of this lately, most recently New York entrepreneur Arielle Haspel, who faced backlash for promoting the opening of her Chinese restaurant Lucky Lee’s as a place that served “clean” versions of traditional Chinese dishes, the insinuation being that this food is “dirty” and needs changes to be enjoyed by Western eaters. (Haspel and her husband, the restaurant’s namesake, are both white).

To explore this issue further, I spoke with Mukta Dias, who researches South Asian food at SOAS, University of London. She says that when it comes to learning and adapting to cuisines outside the mainstream food culture, sharing can sometimes occur on unequal terms.

“It’s then that the claim of cultural appropriation can help us draw a line in the sand against abuses of culinary cultural power,” she says.

Dias explains that cultural appropriation of food is not always damaging but in the case of Lucky Lee’s or when a high-profile chef like Jamie Oliver profits from a jerk rice product, the outcry is unsurprising.

“Here was a multimillionaire making even more money with a recipe that felt inauthentic to a large population of hard-working home or professional cooks who will never get the same recognition,” she says, referring to Oliver’s packaged rice, which contained none of the ingredients found in a traditional Jamaican marinade.

At Migrateful, however, the focus is on exchange. Everyone here has worked together to recreate Noor’s recipe, chopping, stirring, and seasoning as instructed. When it’s time to eat, we line up in an eager queue and spoon large helpings of the steaming curry and fluffy rice onto our plates.

The biryani is perfectly spiced and the chicken tears from the bone. I tell Noor that it reminds me of a dish my mum cooks and she smiles, telling us a story about cooking with her family in Pakistan.

Soon, we’re all talking with our mouths full and sharing our own memories of food and loved ones.