Learning from the Best: A Cooking Class with Chefugee

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I arrived in Madrid for the first time jet-lagged and frantic and sweaty, toting a backpack more than half my size. It only took about 20 minutes of riding the bus from the airport for me to fall in love with the city. The architecture was unlike anything I’d seen before, old and ornate and immaculate. There were fountains and gardens and plazas on every corner. I’d never enjoyed waiting at an intersection so much in my whole life.

Then I saw the Banco de España building. I must have looked laughably stereotypical as a tourist craning my neck around to get a better view of the building as the bus raced past. Did I read that correctly? The bank faced a large roundabout with a circular fountain and flower garden in the center. On the front, there was a sign, in English, reading “Refugees Welcome.”

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Banco de España

This was May of 2017, shortly after Trump had been inaugurated and made his first attempt at implementing the Muslim ban, barring people from Muslim-majority countries from entering the US under any pretense. This was only a few months after the violence and destruction of the Battle of Aleppo. The refugee crisis was ongoing in Europe at that time, as the EU was still trying to manage the 1.2+ million people (50% from Syria) who had arrived on its shores during 2015 and 2016. Left with no other choice, the majority of refugees seeking asylum in Europe had set off across the Mediterranean on over-crowded smuggling boats or makeshift rafts.

At this exact moment, Trump was seeking to convince Americans that these people, the victims of years of violence and hardship, were dangerous and needed to be kept far away. For the most part, it seems he succeeded. So far in 2018, the US has accepted only 11 Syrian refugees.

The sentiment expressed in the sign was antithetical to the US’s reaction to the refugee crisis. It seemed almost to be in conversation with Trump, as if the Spanish government was calling out the cruelty of his rhetoric around keeping people out, which he built his entire campaign on. It was a relief to see some semblance of decency left in the world.

Madrid For Refugees

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Protesters in Madrid demanding the Spanish government to accept more refugees (Source)

The sign on the Banco de España building wasn’t the only indicator of Spain’s approach to the refugee crisis. In June of 2017, protesters took to the streets demanding that Spain commit to welcoming more refugees faster, after the country had agreed to accept 17,300 that year but had only succeeding in relocating a small fraction of that number. In other words, people weren’t satisfied with the Spain’s efforts to bring refugees into the country, to safety. But given the limited resources at the government’s disposal, ordinary people soon stepped up to welcome the new arrivals and help them with what comes next: finding jobs, housing, and a supportive community. Thus, Madrid For Refugees was born.

The organization began organically out of a small group of people coming together, bringing different skills and interests to the table, to work towards a common goal. They hoped to make the transition into life in Madrid as seamless as possible for the refugees arriving here. Today, MFR helps with housing and job applications, organizes donation drives, fundraisers and community events, and offers classes at refugee centers.

Since 2015, MFR has also developed a separate branch called Chefugee, which works with refugee chefs who are interested in cooking for and educating people about their cuisine. Chefugee organizes pop-up events that provide refugee chefs paid opportunities to cook for large crowds, giving them professional experience they can then use in different contexts. More recently, they’ve also started offering cooking classes led by refugees.

In late April, I had the opportunity to attend their second cooking class ever! I’d known about the organization for a while and had been looking for the opportunity to get involved. Plus, as you’ll know if you read my post on making tortilla for the first time, I’ve been trying to improve my cooking skills. This seemed like a great way to incorporate new recipes into my rotation of the 8 dishes I know how to make. And the 35 Euros were going towards an important initiative that I wanted to support and be a part of, however small.

After some light reading in preparation, I learned that the woman who would be leading the class, Wesal, was a Syrian refugee who had recently started a pop-up/catering project to raise money for her family still in Syria today. Her brother had been injured in a serious accident and was having a difficult time with the medical bills. Through Chefugee, Wesal has been able to help alleviate some of her brother’s financial burden by doing something she enjoys: cooking for and with other people.

The Class

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The lovely spread of fresh produce and spices before we got started cooking

I arrived a little nervous, unsure of what to expect (and feeling especially self-conscious about my Spanish that day). I was greeted in Spanish and welcomed into a room of mostly women politely chatting and waiting for the class to begin. We all introduced ourselves before getting started. I found that my fellow pupils had come from all over the world and had varying levels of Spanish, from beginner to native. Relieved, I started to relax and settle in a bit.

Soon we were introduced to Wesal and learned that she would be giving the class in her second language, Spanish. I realized this would be a great opportunity practice (as an English teacher, my interactions with people in Spanish are surprisingly infrequent). We were handed recipes and given a verbal roadmap of the class. We’d be making falafel, hummus, a rice dish, and a cucumber-yogurt sauce for what Wesal calls “Syrian falafel and hummus sandwiches.” Without further ado, we jumped in.

First up was the falafel. All of the ingredients were laid out on the table in front of us, and Wesal began by adding garlic, parsley, and spices like black pepper, paprika, and sumac to a large bowl of chickpeas. Though soaked overnight, the chickpeas needed to be left uncooked to achieve the ideal texture. I watched in disbelief as she emptied the bowl into the giant meat grinder at the end of the table. The machine crushed all the ingredients into a vibrant green, aromatic dough.

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Falafel requires some heavy duty hardware! The uncooked chickpeas were ground up using the large automatic meat grinder in the corner

“What if you don’t have a meat grinder at home?” someone asked. I had been wondering the same thing myself, given that my inventory of kitchen appliances is, shall we say, lacking.

“Go buy one,” Wesal shrugged. We all laughed, and she continued: even the most industrial blender or food processor is no match for the uncooked chickpeas. Either the machine would break or the chickpeas wouldn’t be nearly broken up enough, or both.

It was saddening to discover that I wouldn’t be able to make falafel at home without a meat grinder, but this also made me fantasize about my future life when I can have fancy kitchen gadgets. Anyone who knows me knows how I won’t stop talking about buying a waffle iron when I return home from Spain. I think next on my list would be a Le Creuset Dutch oven, immediately followed by an electronic meat grinder like this one.

Before long, the kitchen was filled with small talk. We soon learned that Wesal was not originally a chef, that she had worked as a lab technician before leaving Syria. But she wanted to share these recipes they were special to her. They were what she’d always made at home. I remember her commenting on how expensive it was to buy falafel sandwiches for each of her kids at a kebab shop here in Madrid. 4 Euros was outrageous, she said.

I laughed awkwardly at this. My friends and I often go get kebab when we need a quick, cheap dinner.

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From Kebab Yaros in Madrid

In some ways, the popularity of these types of meals in the Western world is partly due to a food industry that values cheap, fast food over all else. In this “fast food” culture built on the labor of immigrants, it seems that all the history of the ingredients, the hard work of preparation, and the art of the assembly process are lost on the customer. I thought about all the different stereotypes surrounding relatively cheap, fast food (like kebabs or tacos or what Americans refer to as Chinese food) and the people who make it. The notion that the ingredients are cheap and of poor quality is ubiquitous. Many may assume that the chefs are uneducated or unassimilated or are somehow unsuited for other careers.

What was lost in the making of my cheap falafel sandwich? And what did it mean that the person teaching me how to make falafel told me that 4 Euros was outrageously expensive?

Next, we took the falafel batter into the kitchen for frying. The kitchen was big enough for about four people to stand comfortably, so I snuck in as close to the stove as possible for the best view. Wesal was spooning the mixture into an ice cream cone-like contraption that easily formed the dough into a compact ball and then released it into the pan of simmering sunflower oil.

I watched Wesal curiously and, referring to the spoon-like tool in her hand, asked “What’s this thing called?” She stopped what she was doing and looked at me blankly for a moment. “No sé!” she finally responded. I don’t know. The tool didn’t have a name that  easily translated into Spanish, but she said if I ever wanted to buy it at an “Arab” shop here in Madrid, the shop owner would certainly understand if I asked for a cuchara de falafel, or falafel spoon.

“Do you want to try?” she asked, gesturing for me to take the spoon from her. I grinned and nodded, shyly taking the tool and making my way to the large bowl of uncooked falafel.

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My first attempt at making falafel!

“It reminds me of an ice cream scooper,” I said, and the other students in the kitchen agreed that they had also noticed the resemblance.

“Or a microphone,” one of the madrileñas said in Spanish. “Are you going to sing for us?”

I glanced over at Wesal, who was laughing at our conversation and watching as I clumsily maneuvered the tool. I cleared my throat and held the spoon up to my mouth as if to sing, but instead got busy making the dough into balls to be fried. Meanwhile, Wesal was vigilantly timing and taking care of the falafel already cooking in the pan.

I was awkward with the falafel spoon. Wesal had made it look as simple and natural as brushing your hair. Her hands already knew exactly what to do. Meanwhile, I made one ball but hadn’t used the spoon correctly. It wasn’t packed tightly enough and flopped into the pan, making a crumbly mess. After a few tries, I handed the tool off to the next person waiting for the chance to give it a go. We all concurred: it wasn’t as easy as it looked.

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The humble beginnings of Wesal’s deliciously creamy hummus

Once another student was able to form the falafel on her own, Wesal shifted gears and moved back to the other room to make the hummus. She had laid out all the ingredients (cooked chickpeas, tahini, “lemon salt,” garlic, spices) in pre-measured proportions on the table. This time, the process was simple: add all the ingredients to the blender, blend, and done. The mixture she poured from the blender into the bowl was lusciously smooth. I tried a small sample on my pinky finger.

After only having tried brand-name hummus out of a plastic container from the grocery store my whole life, it was easy to tell right away that this was the best hummus I’d ever had. There was no need for any additional ornamentation or ingredients to disrupt the flavor. It was perfect just like this, untouched.

Next, Wesal moved onto the rice dish, which was described as “similar to rice pilaf.” She started by deep-frying fideos (short, thin noodles) in a few inches of sunflower oil. Once the noodles had been simmering for a few minutes, she added rice and water at a ratio of 1 to 1.5. We all watched in awe as she placed two enormous spoonfuls of salt into the boiling water. No need to measure, I thought. She knows exactly what she’s doing.

As the rice simmered, we all gathered around the table to start making the yogurt sauce for our falafel sandwiches. Somehow, two hours had already passed and we were nearing the end of the class.

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Getting ready to assemble our falafel! (Picture from the Madrid For Refugees website, link here)

At this point, as in every cooking class I’ve ever taken, we were running low on knives, plates, bowls, and cutting boards and it became something of a free-for-all as we each prepared our respective sauces. I managed to secure a cutting board but eventually found myself cutting cucumbers on top of the plastic bag that the pita bread had come from. Everyone around me made due with what they had. Once I finished dicing, I added some plain yogurt and tahini to a bowl with the tomatoes and minced garlic, then seasoned with lemon.

Wesal soon appeared at my side with the final ingredients and demonstrated how to form the sandwich. She covered a strip in the center of the round pita with a layer of hummus, then took three falafels and crushed them into the hummus so that they’d stay put. Next, she covered the falafel with the yogurt sauce, more chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, and a squeeze of lemon. The room was filled with the aromas of the falafel, the citrus, and the rice boiling nearby, and we watched hungrily. Finally, Wesal tore up a sprig of mint and dropped it on top of the sandwich, rolled the pita skillfully, and offered the finished product to the first person eager enough to take it from her.

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The finished sandwich! Surrounded by an archipelago of yogurt sauce

At this point, we quickened our pace by about 25%, anxious to finish our own. I hadn’t noticed just how hungry I was until I watched my classmate bite into Wesal’s sandwich. We followed Wesal’s steps and a few minutes later, my sandwich was complete. I took a bite.

Given my level of hunger, the hours of anticipation, and the room full of good company and splendid aromas, this bite was unbelievably delectable. The freshness of the cucumber with yogurt and lemon and mint. The crispy, hearty falafel with creamy hummus. This was the perfect meal the ring in the summer months, refreshing and cool and satisfying. I finished it too quickly.

Luckily, the class provided tupperware containers for us to take the leftover food with us (and there was more than enough). I ended up taking home a full tupperware of the rice, which was finished just in time for us to pack it up, and another full of hummus. We each got a small amount of leftover falafel dough as well, which I made the next day so I could relive the experience and try to recreate the magical sandwich. It wasn’t exactly the same, but close enough.

There were a couple of big takeaways for me at the end of the class, as I was leaving with a backpack heavy with delicious, freshly cooked food. First, I wished I’d gotten involved with Chefugee sooner. So much of the work they do aligns with my interests and abilities, so I made a deal with myself to stay on top of future events and be as active a participant as I possibly can during my last few months in Madrid. Also, cooking is a fun and worthy undertaking on its own, but I find that the people I cook with and for always make the experience more enjoyable and memorable. I resolved to try to find more cooking classes in the future.

Finally, I have found that the most influential people in my life have always been my teachers. I admire those who work to enrich other peoples’ lives with new knowledge and skills. This was especially true in this class. Wesal gifted us with a tiny sample of the flavors of her home, and she gave us the ability to create them on our own, for the rest of our lives. Though making the recipes successfully without her guiding hands will take practice, I feel truly privileged to have had the opportunity to learn from her.

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Thank you Wesal and Chefugee!

Chefugee has two events coming up in the next month! One is a cooking class with a chef from Venezuela on May 19th. The second is a pop-up event on May 25th, in honor of Ramadan. Called “Chefugee Old World,” this event will feature chefs from Afganistan, Syria, Iraq, and Morocco!

For more information about Madrid For Refugees and Chefugee, check out these links and stay up-to-date on events:

https://chefugee.org/#

http://madridforrefugees.org/

https://www.facebook.com/ChefugeeMadrid/

Categories: Kitchen Adventures

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