Seetha Tan writes about her experience at Migrateful’s cookery class with Chef Awa. St Ethelburga’s Centre hosts Migrateful cookery classes twice a month, working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers to share food cultures from across the world.

Hibiscus tea and bay leaves, mackerel parcels and hot pepper soup, the sound of hot oil smoking and chicken frying; these smells and sounds and so much more fill St Ethelburga’s nave on Monday the 25th of October. For Chef Awa, cooking and sharing food is a family tradition. Recipes passed down from her mother and her grandfather are infused with memories from her family kitchen in the Gambia. These recipes are tenderly recreated for us to share at St Ethelburga’s Centre, offering a delicious channel to explore the flavours, spices and warmth of Gambian culinary life.

The St Ethelburga’s Refugee Allies initiative and Migrateful share the same goal and project, to promote solidarity with refugees and migrants and build connection across communities. Migrateful seeks to use ‘recipes to rebuild lives’, by facilitating cookery classes conducted by migrant chefs. In recognising the legal barriers to work and the social obstacles to integration, Migrateful supports migrants and refugees host their own cookery classes. By offering training, mentoring, English practice, work experience and a sense of community, Migrateful endeavours to empower refugee and migrants and offers classes to the public in London, Bristol and East Sussex. It is also a chance for chefs like Awa to share traditional, family recipes and the stories behind those recipes, with new people from the local community. Migrateful recognises that food is a tool of connection and storytelling, by eating together and learning from Awa, participants can glean a more intimate understanding of the issues faced by migrants arriving in the UK.

St Ethelburga’s Centre has cultivated a rich relationship with Migrateful over the past few years. After attending a Migrateful cooking class in 2018, St Ethelburga’s Refugee Allies Programme Manager, Jo Winsloe Slater approached Migrateful to offer the Centre as a venue for their cookery classes. Migrateful places values into action by building connection and community through cooking and by giving agency to migrants, refugees and asylum seekers and offering a space where they can lead and cultivate skills. These values directly embody the core principles of St Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation and resonate particularly with the Centre’s Refugee Allies project. Now, twice a month, St Ethelburga’s opens its doors to Migrateful who transform the church nave into a bustling communal cooking and eating space. 

The evening begins with a brief introduction to the dishes we will be making together. There are five tables, each with its own burner and ingredients already laid out by the Migrateful volunteers. Each ‘station’ has a different recipe card: bissap juice, hot pepper soup, Yassa chicken, mackerel parcels and vegetarian parcels. The atmosphere is light and sociable, participants joke together about how nice it is to be socialising with new people; how nice it is simply to be out of the house.

Chef Awa teaches participants how to make vegetarian parcels.

The bissap, a spicy hibiscus juice boils on the table, it is a deep, magenta-red and bubbles gently with multiple knobs of unpeeled ginger and fresh lemon. The smell is both sweet and tart and Awa tells me that we can drink it sweetened (with brown sugar) or unsweetened. I want to try it unsweetened, and she passes me a spoonful to taste. I brace myself for the strength of the lemon and ginger and find the sharp and refreshing bite from the ginger clarifying. Awa explains that in the hot summer months, her family would cool the Bissap, and in the cold winters, they would drink it hot and sweetened.

Bissap: a hibiscus tea brews on the table.

The table to the right is busy making hot pepper soup, a spicy, warming starter that is perfect for the chilly October evening. Participants are encouraged to move between the tables, learn about the other dishes and mingle. Four guests crowd around another table to blend mustard, lemon juice, garlic, bell peppers and vinegar. This will form the basis of the Yassa chicken marinade. A staple of West African kitchens, Yassa chicken is well-loved in the Gambia and Senegal. The chicken is marinated and then cooked slowly over a medium-high heat. The chicken is then shallow fried before onions are added to the oil and caramelised. Awa is a reservoir of experience and knowledge; she intervenes in the mixing stage and suggests we use a wooden spoon instead of the stainless-steel turner. She warns us that we need to be careful when mixing the chicken otherwise we will tear it from the bone. This is truly the benefit of attending an in-person cookery class, watching Awa drift from table to table, correcting technique, telling stories, sharing her grandfather’s cooking advice is incredible.

On the next table, a few participants are busy making mackerel parcels. Awa demonstrates how to knead the dough; she shows us how to roll the dough until it reaches the right consistency before crimping the parcels. She warns us not to overstuff our parcels, but we accidentally do that anyway and the filling oozes into the hot oil as they fry. These parcels remind me of my own childhood kitchen. Samosas and wontons, ‘dumpling-like’ staples in the kitchen of my Malaysian Chinese and Indian family. I am reminded of something someone told me years ago, that every culture and culinary tradition has its form of the ‘dumpling’. The Italians have ravioli, the Polish – pierogi, the Argentinians have empanadas. It seems that we have all collectively agreed that wrapping food into small packages of fried deliciousness is the way to go. I find myself returning to the mackerel parcels throughout the night, secretly sneaking a couple here and there as the cooking continues.

At the final table, a couple are preparing vegetarian parcels. Their hands sticky with dough, Awa expertly guides the pair and corrects their technique. She tells me that the parcels are food for gossip; that in the Gambia you eat the parcels as you sit and gossip together. It is a small reminder that food is deeply social. Eating together and cooking together are social activities, shared activities. There is a reason the kitchen is often said to be the heart of the home. It is a space of nurture and connection, a place to be fed and feel full, emotionally, physically and mentally. Still in the shadow of the pandemic, I think we are all craving this type of sociability. The chance to come together and share food with strangers feels wonderfully grounding. Recent research[i] suggests a strong correlation between social eating and social bonding. During the pandemic, the emergence of social eating networks around the country reveals a developing recognition of the importance of eating together to build community and fight alienation. This evening embodies this ethos, using the principle of cooking together as a vehicle of connection and community.

Participants gather in the centre of the nave to share food together.

Everyone fills their plates and sits together in the centre of the nave. Eating together beneath the beautiful stained-glass window of St Ethelburga feels like a sort of celebration. A celebration of community and connection, of delicious food and conversation. It is also a celebration of collaboration and the wonderful community of organisations St Ethelburga’s fosters connections with. As we share Awa’s food, and quite literally ‘break bread’ together, I am reminded of the importance of spaces like this; spaces to be nourished and fed, spaces to socialise and connect, spaces to share knowledge and experience across cultures. If the way to the heart is the through the stomach, then food is an immensely powerful tool of memory, connection and community.

[i]  Smith, M. (2020) Using eating together to think: reflections on doing research at public mealtimes, University of Nottingham Blogs, 30 January. Available at: https://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/futurefood/2020/01/30/researching-social-eating/ (Accessed: 26 October 2021).