Refugees are cooking up a fresh twist
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When Manal Kahi moved from Lebanon to New York to start a degree at Columbia, she loved exploring the myriad cuisines on offer in the sprawling metropolis, but couldn’t find a decent pot of hummus for love nor money.
After she started whipping up batches of hummus using a recipe handed down by her Syrian grandmother – batches that were eagerly devoured by friends – Kahi thought she might have spotted a gap in the market.
This was in 2013, says Kahi, in “the midst of the refugee crisis back home in Lebanon, [which] was starting to reach the shores of Europe. So when we started thinking of who could bring better hummus to New York, it kind of made sense to think of Syrian refugees being resettled here.”
Teaming up with older brother Wissam, who had moved to the US previously, the siblings started hatching a plan.
“We thought, ‘Why not make it more global?’ Have recipes from all over the world, have refugees from all over the world bring recipes that are just like hummus – so much better when they’re made with love, made from family recipes versus mass production.”
That’s how Eat Offbeat was born. The catering company was founded in 2015 with an initial investment of $25,000 (around £17,700).
Via a partnership with the International Rescue Committee, the firm hires refugees who have been resettled in New York, mostly amateur chefs (some had restaurants in their home countries), and is currently staffed with a team hailing from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Senegal, Sri Lanka, Syria and Venezuela.
“Part of our goal, ultimately, is about changing the narrative around refugees by showcasing a different story, a more positive story, where refugees are the chefs, they are the heroes,” says Kahi.
They’ve now launched their first cookbook, which brings together recipes from Eat Offbeat chefs past and present (including granny’s much-loved hummus), and dedicates a page to each chef, talking about their foodie memories from home and how they found their way into the Eat Offbeat kitchen.
“I really hope it does bring across our point of highlighting the chefs for all the value they’re adding to the New York economy, rather than, you know, portraying refugees as people who are relying on charity,” Kahi says. “That’s not necessarily the case. Most of them are entrepreneurs. They’re starting businesses, they’re creating value.”
It’s been a turbulent time recently, but Kahi is feeling optimistic about the future, particularly after the arrival of President Biden.
“[President Trump] had even stopped the programme of welcoming refugees – now we’re back on track with the new administration,” says Kahi. “It’s definitely a hopeful climate.”