The idea behind the “Migrant Kitchen” lunch series, first organized in Istanbul this fall by Istanbul Eats and Culinary Backstreets, is simple: get locals to sample the food of some of the immigrant communities living in their city and, through that experience, to learn more about those often invisible communities. In Istanbul, the series gave locals a taste of some fantastic Cameroonian, Liberian and Ethiopian delicacies.
Last week, the “Migrant Kitchen” moved over to Athens. Like Istanbul, Athens has its own deeply rooted food culture but is not particularly familiar with foreign cuisines, especially when it comes to African food. This is despite the fact that in the past 30 years Greece has become one of the main entry points for immigrants to the European Union, due in part to the country’s relatively porous borders. Recent years have seen a surge in immigration, particularly as a result of upheavals in Africa and the Middle East: Pakistanis, Iraqis, Afghans, Nigerians, Sudanese and, lately, Syrians have been crossing over to Greece in the thousands. Unfortunately, the financial crisis in Greece and the resulting high rate of unemployment have created new tensions, leading to an increase in racist incidents and growing xenophobic extremism in Athens. We felt that at a difficult time like this, there was a need for a strong bridge between the immigrant communities and Greeks.
Held on a Sunday afternoon, CB’s first Migrant Kitchen event in Athens focused on Ghana. With the help of Omada Asty, a team of enthusiastic young people who organize free walks around Athens, and the nonprofit organization Give Hope Greece, which is dedicated to helping economically disadvantaged cancer patients, we found two enthusiastic cooks, Richard Akanzim and Benny Otchere. The event was held at Vryssaki, an old, neoclassical-style house in Plaka right next to the Temple of Hephaestus that has been lovingly converted into a performance and art space with a great coffee shop.
Food plays a central role in the Ghanaian community in Athens, particularly at important events such as funerals, weddings and church picnics. It’s no wonder, then, that both Benny and Richard view food as a way to bridge cultures and bring people from different backgrounds together. As Benny reflects, “There’s a saying: the way to someone’s heart is through their stomach. Maybe you meet a Greek person and he doesn’t know where Ghana is or what we’re all about. Then you put a dish on your table and he starts asking you about the ingredients and how you made it. Next he invites you to his party and asks you to bring a Ghanaian dish. It’s an easy way for people to come together.”
Before the event began, we set up our cooking area in the open courtyard at Vryssaki, with Richard and Benny fully in charge of our makeshift kitchen while the rest of us frantically chopped up onions and chilies and exchanged pleasantries over our enormous pots and pans. Richard, who was born in Greece to a Ghanaian father and a Seychellois mother, talked about growing up in Athens; he is now married to a Greek woman and has a baby. Benny has been in Athens for about four years and currently works at a family-run hairdressing business in the downtown area of Kypseli. He told us he would like to be a professional cook someday. Both cooks say they’re able to recreate authentic dishes in Athens because they can find almost all the ingredients they need at the city’s specialty African supermarkets.
By four o’clock, people started arriving and we were pleasantly surprised by the huge turnout: more than 250 people showed up, a testament to the uniqueness of this event for Athenians. The main dish was nkrakra soup with fufu, a classic Ghanaian dish. Our cooks made it with beef (although it can also be made with lamb). The meat was diced into small cubes and cooked in a fiery tomato and onion broth made with plenty of black pepper, paprika and chilies. At one point Richard exclaimed, “It’s not spicy enough,” left the kitchen area and came back with more spices. In the end, a dried eel – an item that can only be found in Athens at African supermarkets – was added to further spice up and deepen the flavor. (Many of the locals who turned up, from architecture students and hipsters to lawyers, actually found the food to be too spicy.) Fufu, a staple of West and Central Africa usually made by boiling and mashing cassava until it turns almost doughy, was in this case made with mashed potatoes mixed with semolina. As a side dish, the two cooks also prepared a traditional Ghanaian dish of chopped and boiled okra.
Despite an enormous line for food and such a crowd inside that many people had to take their plates outside and eat in the street, overlooking the ancient ruins of downtown Athens, we thought the event was a major success. Good food, good times and a good cause – we are very much looking forward to the next one.
Editor’s note: Additional reporting for this piece was contributed by Elizabeth Ganley-Roper.