It's Friday night and in a community centre on an estate in Hackney, a group of people are perfecting their rolling skills. Sushi rice is carefully patted onto a base of nori and little strips of cucumber and avocado are placed on top. Next, they attempt the delicate fold-squeeze-roll technique.
"Oh, it actually looks really good!" says D'shell, standing back to admire her handiwork. "I like sushi but I'd never think about making it. I wouldn't have known where to start."
This is exactly why the Made In Hackney (MIH) group exists.
Funded by a number of organisations, including Hackney Council, MIH's mission is to teach residents of all ages and from all over the diverse East London borough about eating healthily and to provide opportunities for trying new global dishes. Tonight is the second of six international cookery classes. Each one is free to attend and ends with attendees sharing the meal they have made together.
"I heard about the class through the Hackney Gazette," D'shell tells me. "I like to cook anyway, but I thought it would be good to try international stuff and it would be fun to make something different. I'd say one of my favourite foods is Turkish food, I love it."
With Hackney being home to a large Turkish community (there are more ocakbasi here that you can shake a kebab stick at), the cuisine was the obvious choice for the first week of the course. Tonight it's Japanese food and next week, Mexican is on the menu.
We turn our attention back to the task in hand: the sushi rolls. The nine students set about following their recipe sheets, chopping cucumbers, carrots, avocado, and mango into strips as instructed. They start to chat about shared experiences around food.
An older man called Wayne says: "I came on this class as I wanted to get a bit more confidence in cooking. I can do certain things, like I cook curried chicken and curried goat, I can make a load of West Indian stuff."
"You cook West Indian food?" asks D'shell. "That's cool."
"Yeah, my mates showed me how to make it," he says. "When I first moved into my estate, I met these guys and they invited me up to their house. My nickname is Wonder and their mum was like, 'Come in, Wonder!' and there was so much amazing looking food on her table—curries and rice and stuff. She was like, 'Don't worry, sit down, I'll get you some food.' Then she cooked me eggs, bacon, and chips. I was like, 'I want to eat your food!' But I was polite and just ate my egg and chips. Later, they taught me how to make curry, though."
A girl called Nicola then shows us the best way to cut mango—something that's always escaped me—like she learned in Asia. Looks like we're all going home with new skills tonight.
We start to assemble the sushi on bamboo mats and get that rolling action into gear. The result is several burrito-sized rolls, which we then chop into individual pieces with sharp knives. And you know what? They even looks semi-professional. Maybe sushi has been this easy all along and we just never knew.
As we sit down to our homemade Japanese feast of vegetable sushi rolls with a banana, hazelnut milk, and tofu smoothie, I suddenly realise that there's no fish here. Or meat. Or even dairy. Is this … is this a vegan cooking class?
MIH's founder, Sarah Bentley, laughs when I ask if tonight is all just an act of friendly subterfuge on the meat-eaters.
"The term 'vegan' can be very off-putting for a lot of people, so generally we don't use it in our marketing," she says. "Our aim is to normalise plant-based meals to help people to experience meals they've cooked themselves that are delicious, nutritious, filling and—yes, shock horror!—contain no meat. It's just something very unfamiliar for a lot of people. Not to mention the propaganda by the meat and dairy industry that have convinced people over the years we need it for our health and that we are now starting to slowly accept is simply not true."
Bentley wants to convince locals that veganism isn't a fad diet accessible only to those who can afford organic chia seeds or "clean" eaters with active Instagram accounts. Everyone can enjoy a vegan diet and crucially, even those on a budget.
"Veganism can have this hipster, white, middle class association but the groups we work with are hugely diverse from recovering addicts, young people in care, young people leaving care, visually and hearing impaired, low income families, pensioners, ethnic and cultural minority groups," Bentley says. "We've even had an 82-year-old pensioner called Patrick who came to us to learn to cook after his wife died. He came to class each week wearing an apron with an arrow pointing down saying 'Big Sausage.' He left loving the food he'd cooked."
Last year, more than 2,000 people took part in MIH classes. Ninety percent of the participants said it had inspired them to cook more meals from scratch, and that it encouraged them to eat more fruit and vegetables. Interestingly though, connection with the community has proved to be an unexpected benefit of their course. Ninety-five percent of MIH attendees said that taking part made them feel more connected to their local area and the people in it. And in a borough with a desperate need for social housing as yet more blocks of luxury apartments seem to pop up overnight, destined for faceless bankers or investors who live on the other side of the world, this local contact is needed more than ever.
And food is always a great social leveller. After all, who doesn't want to chat about what they're making for dinner tonight?
"A 100-percent plant-based food policy makes loads of sense in a community kitchen as it's food that will meet everyone's religious and cultural needs," says Bentley. "If you're cooking on a low budget you can afford a packet of the lowest welfare, fattiest, nastiest sausages, or a pack of the best organic chickpeas money can buy. It's a no brainer to us—people just need to experience it for themselves."
And tonight, as we tuck into our homemade sushi rolls, that's exactly what we're doing. We all agree that meat-free Mondays no longer seem quite so daunting.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in April 2017.