A different flavor of neighborhood watch

imageWhen Margarita heard about a neighborhood watch program starting in her community, she wanted to go. Like many in northwest Aurora, CO, she was concerned about safety. She thought she’d go to the meetings, hear a few crime statistics and go home. “I never thought I’d have a role participating along with the police,” she said.

But this multicultural neighborhood watch is “non-traditional”, according to Jenny Pool Radway, OACIC Program Coordinator at the Aurora Mental Health Center. The nation’s 20,000 neighborhood watch programs and 50,000 informal programs have fallen under a controversial shadow following the acquittal of neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case. However, while critics of neighborhood watch programs may point to the risk of creating an ‘us and them’ environment, the Aurora program is about inclusion, engagement, and welcoming.

imageProgram participant Margarita with coordinator Jenny Pool Radway

“Its really hard when you’re a regular community member and you’re constantly seeing officers in blue —wearing their uniform. It’s very intimidating,” said Radway. This is particularly true for a community whose cultural fabric is as diverse as northwest Aurora. 33% of residents of this densely populated neighborhood are foreign born. 50% come from Latin America, but neighborhood watch participants also herald from Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sierra Leone—and more. To complicate matters further, many residents are undocumented—adding an additional layer of anxiety to the idea of participating in meetings with the police.

Still, over the last four years, this multicultural neighborhood watch group has blossomed. The group meets regularly, exploring everything from domestic violence to renter’s rights, using a three-pronged approach of socialization, education, and leadership. “Our goal was to bring all the community members together, even if they don’t speak the same language, because they all care about safety,” said Radway. She added that the key was giving them “an opportunity to interact with police department in a positive environment, in a casual environment, where they’re sharing a meal.”

Radway said it quickly became clear that food had an important role to play. Meetings were potluck style. Neighborhood watch participants were invited to bring food to share with the group. Food helped community members from different cultures get to know each other—and for the police to get to know the community. She said it helped community members see the police as “basic human beings who just have that job.” Food humanized them. “Everyone enjoys eating as far as I know,” she laughed. She added that it was also an opportunity for participants to share their cultures. The resulting cross-culinary exploration was enthusiastic—and resulted in newfound appreciations for samosas and chili rellenos.

imageMargarita’s dishes quickly became popular requests—from fellow participants and the police. Radway said she saw a grizzled police officer clapping at the sight of Margarita’s chili rellenos. Margarita said it made her feel happy to see everyone sit down together to share a meal like a big family. “I had a lot of opportunities to relate to the police officers, and establish a relationship with them,” she explained. She said she now feels comfortable reaching out to them when something happens. And she also feels more connected to her fellow community members. “Before I wouldn’t have noticed them, but now I see them at school.” She said they now say hello and share with one another because of the relationships they created over the potlucks.

Radway says as a result of the program she’s witnessed some unexpected social convergences—like undocumented participants inviting police to come to a birthday party. She added that after last year’s Aurora movie theater shooting, participants cooked a dinner for the police who were first responders to the tragedy.

As Margarita tests out some new dishes with Radway, including a delicious ‘pastel Azteca’, the care she puts into her cooking is obvious. The community may continue to need to meet to wrestle with a range of unsavory topics, from home invasions to DUI’s, but the food on the table will be delicious.

COMING SOON: Margarita’s recipe for Pastel Azteca:

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The magic of bean pie

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Navy beans and pie. While the combination may not be intuitive for many, bean pie is a classic staple for many African American Muslims. The pie has roots in the dietary practices of the Nation of Islam. They popularized the pie with their own bakeries and the entrepreneurship of bow-tied clad street vendors who would often sell their Final Call newspapers in one arm, and bean pies in the other.

Bean pie spread to the larger Sunni Muslim African American community and to African American neighborhoods across the country. There are now regional rivalries about the preferred type and texture of the pie—which varies from Chicago, to Baltimore, to Los Angeles—and can be found in flavors ranging from banana to butter almond.

In Capitol Heights, Maryland, a short drive from DC, Chef Stephen Thomas says his Supreme Bean Pie is consistently praised by ‘old-timers’ for holding true to the original. He was a trained pastry chef working in the hospitality industry, but after converting to Sunni Islam he started a halal bakery where you can buy wedding cakes, cakes in the shape of a Chanel bag, and of course bean pie.

WATCH Chef Stephen show off his pies: image

Thomas says food has been a great avenue for cultural exchange. He says he often meets fellow Muslims from different cultural backgrounds and enjoys introducing them to bean pie and other comfort foods. At the same time he’s discovered his own love of naan bread and now regularly takes his family out for South Asian cuisine. The bean pies have also brought a taste of African American Muslim culture to broader segments of DC. Thomas has started sharing samples of the pie at some food events. Other bean pie fans have even shared mini pies on Capitol Hill to wish Congress people a happy Ramadan. 

Chef Stephen Thomas’ recipe may be top secret, but Potluck has experimented and come up with a recipe you can try at home. Enjoy!

Visit Chef Stephen Thomas in his Capitol Heights’ Bakery, Sweet Tooth Cakes and Pastries

Recipe: Bean Pie!

Bean pie filling

(makes enough for 2 pies)

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1 cup navy beans (dry)

1 can evaporated milk (12 oz)

½ cup butter melted

1 tsp cinnamon

½ tsp nutmeg

¼ tsp cardamom

¼ tsp ginger

1 tbs fresh lemon juice

2 tbsp flour

1 cup white sugar

½ cup dark brown sugar

1 tbsp vanilla extract

2 eggs

2 egg  yolks

Presoak navy beans for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight. Cook beans until soft. May take approx. 45 min on stovetop, less with a pressure cooker.  You could substitute canned navy beans (2 x 15oz cans)—though they won’t taste quite as good. imagePrepare 2 pie crusts. I badly mangled this recipe, but you may want to just use a store bought crust—or one that calls for part butter and part vegetable shortening to ensure fool-proof flakiness.

Once beans are tender, drain well. Puree in food processor, with immersion blender in large bowl, or in regular blender in batches. [I pureed mine until smooth, but to get more texture, you could mix a bit less. For a thicker filling you could also try straining the beans through cheesecloth or paper towel after blending. I did not and so the mixture is very liquid and results in a pumpkin pie-like texture.]

imageAdd the remaining ingredients to the bean mix and blend.

Pour bean filling into pie crusts. Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 325 and bake another 45 minutes —monitoring closely as it may vary based on your oven—until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. The pie filling will puff up during baking, but will settle and darken as it cools.

Puffy:

imagePost-puffy:

imageCan serve hot or cold. Store refrigerated. 

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Home-cooking from Cleveland to Cape Town

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“The purpose of today is bringing communities together over food,” Mealsharing founder Jay Savsani explains while helping to mix up some last minute peanut sauce. “Unfortunately a lot of people don’t know their neighbors. A lot of people might be in their home microwaving a hot pocket by themselves.”

Today there are no hot pockets on the table—though there are plenty of people poised to enjoy fresh baked pizza, chicken tikka, empanadas, key lime pies, and more. It is a multi-ethnic hodgepodge that befits the meal’s purpose of connecting people through food. It is Global Sharing Day—an effort to break the world record for most meals shared. Mealsharing collaborated with several international organizations, such as The Big Lunch and The People Who Share, on the effort.

Mealsharing allows users to connect to share a homecooked meal while traveling—or even in their own hometowns. It aims to promote cultural exchange and build community through food.

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“There’s no meal unless it’s the most awkward meal in the history of meals where there’s no conversation,” Jay explained. “I think that’s just something innate, when we are sitting down and are eating.”

You can listen to more about Mealsharing and Global Sharing Day on The World and on WBEZ’s Worldview.

Check out one of Jay Savsani’s favorite Mealsharing recipes here

Conflict Cuisine

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“I think provocation to some extent is important,” says Jon Rubin, an artist with a penchant for interactive local-global initiatives. In Brazil, he’s invited visitors to a park to choose paddleboat rides with characters in either Hugo Chavez or Barack Obama costumes. Back in Pittsburgh, PA, he’s done a talk show broadcast from a see-through truck, and managed a waffle restaurant where diners took part in live radio. Now, along with co-founder Dawn Weleski (who also collaborated on the project in Brazil), he’s running Conflict Kitchen—a take-away restaurant offering a rotation of cuisines from countries that happen to be on the wrong foot with the US government.

Conflict Kitchen has highlighted the arepas of Venezuela, the bolani of Afghanistan, and lechon asado from Cuba. The Kitchen is now serving up kubideh and kookoo sabzi, specialties of Iran. It’s shifted to a shiny new location in Schenley Plaza. Food vendors circling the park ply everything from funnel cakes to bubble tea –appealing to college students lounging in the grass, office workers on lunch breaks, and families drawn to the park for various festivals and activities. image

Conflict Kitchen’s food comes wrapped in (or accompanied by) a colorful flyer containing clumps of opinions, anecdotes, and proverbs on an assortment of cultural and political issues. For the ‘Kubideh Kitchen’, wrappers highlight perspectives of Iranians, based in Iran and the US, on everything from ‘bread’ to ‘film’ to ‘Israel’. The statements, sourced from interviews, offer a range of views—some contradictory. “To us it’s really important to present just a scope of viewpoints as opposed to a singular viewpoint,” Rubin explains.

Rubin and staff take care to stress that they are not experts on Iran, or the other countries they feature –but they do their homework. Each iteration of the kitchen is the result of intensive research, whenever possible in collaboration with members of local diaspora communities. This includes the food, which Rubin says is usually “vetted by mothers” from the countries in question.

WATCH Conflict Kitchen in action: image

Culinary Director Robert Sayre had never cooked Iranian food before he left his career in fine dining to join Conflict Kitchen. He says he likes the challenge of learning entirely new cuisines “top to bottom”. He also thinks food is an effective tool to reach people, particularly given the current foodie ethos in the US. “People are more willing to commit to trying something with food just a little bit,” he says. For example, Sayre explains, if they tried to hand out literature on a street corner no one would want them—but if you get it with a meal you’ve paid for you’re likely to take a look as you nibble your sandwich.

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“There’s just an organic quality food creates,” says Rubin. “We’re used to all of our great conversations happening around meals. And once that comfort is created there’s this space that’s opened up—where people are open to suggestion and possibilities of engaging in ways they don’t normally engage.” Rubin says Conflict Kitchen tries to create a safe space where people can feel comfortable asking “dumb questions” and broaching political taboos. Workers try to engage customers in conversation—from the very basic, to the highly complex, depending on the knowledge and perspectives they bring. But they try to interact with humor and a “sense of play”. “I think that’s pretty important when you talk about politics—especially with strangers, especially in public, especially in the United States,” he says. 

Rubin started Conflict Kitchen to address things he thought were missing in Pittsburgh: nuanced political discourse, ethnic diversity, and culinary diversity. “So then we threw all those into a pot very quickly and came up with why don’t we just solve all those problems at once with one place.” There has been little vocal opposition, according to Rubin, who had braced himself for resistance at the project’s start. “We’re within the stream of daily life. We’re not out there with protest signs. And it’s food. Although there’s a provocation to our existence it’s also kind of easy and comfortable to approach food even if you’ve never had it before.” He says their biggest critics have come from the left, which he calls a “circular firing squad”. They’ve accused Conflict Kitchen of exploitative cultural tourism, and complained of their lack of vegan options.

When possible Conflict Kitchen tries to deepen community engagement through more substantive interactions. They’ve hosted a live meal via skype between diners in Pittsburgh and Tehran. In the future the nearby library will devote a display of literature and media to Conflict Kitchen’s focus country.

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Rubin admits he doesn’t really have a clear way to measure their impact. He’s an artist, not a metrics guy. He does not claim a direct correlation between consuming a sandwich and changing a customer’s consciousness. Still he is positive. “We feel like on a very basic level, if we can introduce them to the food, and talk about the region and culture, and some basic information —that to me is quite important in the United States.”

Conflict Kitchen is currently researching the cuisines of North and South Korea, and Israel and Palestine for future kitchens. They will be revisiting their Cuban kitchen following Iran’s elections in June. 

Conflict Kitchen offers Pittsburgh diners a chance to explore the cuisines of countries in conflict with the U.S.

Dumpling Diplomacy

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Lamb kabob, pilau rice, yogurt, fruit. In some Afghan communities, these are not merely key components of a delicious meal. This sustenance can act as both symbol and tool, sweetening relations between disputing parties. A simple meal, or at least what it represents, can at times be a matter of life and death.

A little salt goes a long way

There is an Afghan expression, ‘I have had water and salt in your home’. It means, we’ve eaten together—we are intimates, bonded to one another. Then, there is the counter expression, ‘pissing in the pot from where you have eaten salt’. In this culture where hospitality is woven deep into the social fabric, betraying someone (particularly stealing from them, or looking at ‘their women’) who has welcomed you into their home and shared their food makes you ‘na mard’ (‘not a man’—perhaps women are too busy doing the cooking to have time for such devious behavior).

Mr. Nassimi shares a folk tale about a thief. The thief takes many valuables from a house. But his most treasured find, he believes, is a diamond. Then he tastes it. To his dismay he discovers it is rock salt. Upon tasting the family’s salt, he decides he cannot steal a single belonging from them and returns everything.

Conflict resolution carbs

A few years ago Mr. Nassimi, who lives in Kabul, tried to employ a bit of salt diplomacy of his own. Common meals, it seems, not only can prevent rifts—they also can be used as a tool to heal them. Two of his relatives had had a falling out. It was a matter of love, or rather of marriage. One sought to engage a son to the daughter of another. But it was not to be. The mother of the girl had her eye on another boy and refused the match. The two sides of the family cut their ties. Until the dumplings.

WATCH the Nassimi family make dumplings:image

Mr. Nassimi and his wife hatched a plan: ashak and mantu. These delicious parcels filled with leeks and meat respectively are highly labor intensive*. They are an all-hands on deck operation —so why not get the hands of the two families to make them together? Mr. Nassimi fell back on another pillar of Afghan culture—the taboo against saying no to an elder. Both families felt obliged to accept his invitation. And so, the women sat in a room, saying ‘please pass the salt’ and ‘can you hand me the leeks’, while the men sat in the other discussing cordially. It worked. The two branches of the family have been on good terms since.

Soup for peace

Sharing a meal can also help resolve disputes between different families. A woman in a rural village recounted the story of her conflict with a neighbor. During the winter the neighbor would shovel snow and it would land on the roof of her stable. She worried that the ceiling might collapse and injure the cows they kept inside. Then, her son got into a fight about it with the neighbor’s son. Elders got involved, and while there was initially more fighting, it ended up being resolved with the help of community mediation over bowls of shorwa—a soup of meat and vegetables with bread.

For serious trouble, bring a sheep

Sometimes a special meal in the home is not enough. For serious conflicts and accidents (particularly car accidents or accidents with serious injury or death), more intensive mediation may be called for. Sometimes local elders are involved in mediating the dispute. A third party mediator may cook a meal and invite both sides.

Other times the party who bears blame for an accident will show up at the house of the family who has born the loss, with a sheep, a sack of rice, and sometimes cash, seeking forgiveness. If the wronged family agrees to work out their differences, the next day both families and invited community members will come back to cook and eat a feast together. In these cases, men do the cooking. Particular men, known to be reasonable cooks, are tapped for such occasions, as well as weddings and more festive events. They provide their culinary services for free and share in the eating. However, there are times when the aggrieved family does not accept the sheep—signaling that the dispute may continue, or at least may demand additional measures before it will be resolved (some of which unfortunately may include harmful practices such as baad, where a family ‘gives’ a woman from their family to the aggrieved family—though many families now reject this practice).

Hospitality and hunger

While Afghan cooking can be complex and delicious, its influence is rooted in more than culinary sensibilities. One woman tried to explain food’s symbolic and objective power: “If there is no food, there would be no life.” Because of widespread poverty, Afghans appreciate food more because of its scarcity. If Afghans are invited for a feast and “there is a lot of food and everyone can have as much as they want—they will remember it,” she said. Hospitality is similarly prized because of the precious nature of food. “If they have a little bit to eat they will give it to the guest and they will remain hungry,” she explained.

Nearly every street in Afghanistan has a bakery offering various sizes and shapes of hot, fresh nan bread. Nan is eaten with every meal. Some joke that if they have only bread, they will eat it with another piece of bread. But despite its ubiquity, Afghans never casually throw crusts of bread into the rubbish bin. Bread has an almost sacred quality. If someone finds a piece of it on the ground, they are supposed to pick it up, kiss it, and touch the bread to their eyes. Then they should place it somewhere higher up so birds can find it, or put it into running water. In the home or office, leftover bits of bread are gathered up and often given to the less fortunate.

And so, it should not be surprising that when the fabric of communities is torn, rifts are often repaired through a combination of negotiations and nourishment. Dialogue, and sometimes dumplings, can offer critical and delicious ingredients to ensure harmonious relations. 



The Nassimi family making ashak in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Recipe: Ashak, adapted

As with many inspired cooks, the Nassimi family prepared ashak by instinct rather than a recipe with standardized measurements. As a result what follows is an adaptation. It also integrates elements from the classic Noshe Djan cookbook by Helen Saberi (though my version is vegetarian).

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The dough…

(or if feeling lazy, substitute wonton wrappers)

2 cups flour

1 tsp salt

1 egg

1 tbs vegetable oil

In large mixing bowl, mix flour and salt, then add egg and oil. Add water slowly to make dough (approx. 1 cup, but may need more or less to make it smooth). Knead dough but don’t overwork it. Divide into 2 or 3 balls. Return to mixing bowl and set aside for an hour (cover bowl with damp cloth).

The filling…

1 lb leeks, finely chopped (at least 2 leeks)

½ tsp cayenne or red chili powder

1 tsp salt

1 tbs vegetable oil

Dry cleaned, chopped leeks by placing in a clean towel and squeezing out the water. In a medium mixing bowl, massage leeks with salt and chili until they soften. Mix in oil.

Assembly…

Roll out dough as thin as possible (a pasta making machine would likely work wonders), then cut out circles (about 2-2 ½ inches in diameter—use a pint glass if you don’t have cookie cutter). Place 1-2 teaspoons of leek mixture into the center of the rounds. Using a bowl of water and your finger, brush the inside edges of the circles with water to help seal the packets. Fold in half, pressing edges.

 Lay out dumplings, taking care not to let them get stuck to one another.

Steam or boil dumplings. Many Afghans (like the Nassimi’s) steam theirs. I had better luck boiling mine—simply drop them into salted water (could add a splash of vinegar to it also). Boil for approx. 10 minutes, occasionally pushing them down with a slotted spoon to make sure they cook evenly. 

Tasty toppings…

Instead of lamb or beef sauce, I top my ashak with lubia, a kidney bean stew (many Afghans use both).

1 ½ cup Kidney beans (uncooked)

1 onion

3 cloves garlic         

2 large tomatoes (could also use canned equivalent)

1 tbs tomato paste

1 fresh chili (Serrano is good, but any hottish pepper will do)

1 tsp cumin

½ tsp cayenne or chili powder (optional)

salt to taste

vegetable oil

Lubia is a remarkably versatile dish and can be adapted to your tastes and preferences. Traditionally, Afghan lubia had fewer spices, but as many have lived in Pakistan and brought home tastes for hotter and more nuanced flavors, these additions are now fairly common. You could take this further and add yet more spices to yield a more rajma-like result.

Soak kidney beans for 6 hours or overnight. (In a pinch, you could substitute canned beans—just sauté all other ingredients with beans and small amount of water.)

In a pot (ideally a pressure cooker), stir onion, garlic, chili, and spices over medium heat in small amount of oil. Add tomatoes and stir until they soften, adding tomato paste. Add kidney beans and 3 cups of water, stir, then cover, cooking approx. 15 minutes or until beans are softened (time will vary on pressure cooker v. pot).

Plating it up…

Fresh mint, chopped

Fresh cilantro, chopped

Plain greek yogurt (or strained plain yogurt)

Smear plain Greek yogurt (assuming you don’t have chaka!) over a plate. Arrange ashak on plate, dabble with more yogurt, lubia, and chopped fresh cilantro and mint.

The extra lubia can be served on the side, and/or for a separate meal—it is also delicious topped with yogurt and cilantro, and can be eaten with nan bread and/or rice.