Food is unquestionably visceral and powerful. But how in the wider world does a loving vibration around food bring us together, introduce us to and bridge cultures, empower and heal? In London, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi are the duo known for co-founding the Ottolenghi delis and restaurants, with food inspired by (but not confined to) their Middle Eastern roots. The collaboration is a success and all the more poignant given their upbringing: Sami was raised in Muslim East Jerusalem and Yotam in Jewish West Jerusalem. It’s a strong reminder that there is more that unites than divides us.
Says Ottolenghi: ‘Cooking and eating together – sharing bread, pouring wine, eating with your hands – is a very levelling experience, so that provides a platform upon which bridges can be formed. It’s not going to solve the world’s problems, but starting on a full tummy is, surely, no bad way to begin.’
Similarly, Shamil Thakrar, the founder of the popular London-based restaurant-cum-café Dishoom hosts celebrations during Muslim Eid, Hindu Diwali and Christmas with equal enthusiasm, while gender specialist Niki Kopcke has founded Mazí Mas, a social enterprise and roaming restaurant which employs women from migrant and refugee communities as chefs.
I took a friend along to the Albany Arts Centre in Deptford, London, for a Mazí Mas event. The lights were dim, a long, communal table had been set, Brazilian music played in the background and an array of Brazilian dishes appeared. There was a fish stew called moqueca, a kabocha and coconut casserole, guava and cheese canapés, bulgar wheat with mango, cashews and lime, and for dessert a passionfruit mousse. We all dived in, and pretty soon the strangers at this long table were chatting away like old friends. It was a warm, uplifting experience. As Mazí Mas’s Brazilian chef Roberta Siao said on the night: ‘Food is an excuse to sit together, share, laugh and love.'
This is a sentiment echoed by Yasmin Choudhury, who hosts Artisan Slow Wood-Fired Curry experiences in South London. She runs a venture called Lovedesh, showcasing all that is positive about Bangladesh, a country she feels has too often been associated with floods and famine. The culinary experience – getting people to roll up their sleeves and get stuck into cooking a curry, communally, as they might in a rural village – is one way of doing this.
However, it doesn’t have to be all about exotic ingredients and global awareness. At heart, food that heals will be food that is approached in a mindful way. And keen to share the benefits of eating in this way, Shruti Whittington, co-founder of Fairfield House Retreats in Somerset, offers Mindful Cooking weekends. ‘For me, this is a way of bringing my total attention into what I am doing in the kitchen – whether that is chopping vegetables, washing them, cooking, adding flavours, textures and colours,’ she explains. ‘In this way, cooking and preparing food becomes a meditation. And when so much awareness goes into the food preparation and cooking, the meal will taste delicious, no matter what.'
Where to begin
We spoke to Ximena Ransom, head cookery teacher at east London-based local food kitchen Made in Hackney, to learn from the experts.
- PICK SIMPLE OR ONE-POT DISHES. ‘When we work with teenagers, we often pick familiar food like pizza, but made with wholemeal flour and seasonal vegetables. Or try soup, casseroles, curries or soda bread.’
- WORK IN PAIRS OR SMALL GROUPS. ‘Our courses typically take eight to 12, but people work on a dish in pairs or threes.’
- GET PEOPLE TALKING. Ask people to bring their favourite recipes so they can swap and share ideas on what food excites them.
- SIT AND EAT! This is another chance to talk about what you did and to chat generally. ‘When people come into your kitchen they may feel intimidated because it’s a new space but, as with gardening, it’s therapeutic and the focus isn’t on them directly, so they are more likely to open up.’
See madeinhackney.org for more information
Photograph: courtesy of Mazì Mas