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It’s a buzzing Thursday night at Associação Renovar a Mouraria (ARM), a one-room bar and eatery found in a nook at the top of some ancient stone steps leading up from Rua da Madalena. Dani, a local tattooist born in Java, is cooking for around 35 people as part of the weekly Jantar Atravessado (“dinner crossing”), an initiative aimed to improve social inclusion in this old part of town through the simple act of making food.

Mouraria, the new multicultural core of Lisbon, is currently undergoing a process of urban rehabilitation, and ARM takes part by organizing social, cultural and touristic activities in the neighborhood. Once a week, a resident migrant is invited to cook for guests, introducing the food culture of his or her country of origin to tablemates. The objective is to create an encounter of cultures through food, promoting diversity and making these neighbors feel more integrated in the city where they live, establishing roots and the bonds of common living.

We follow Dani and an assistant around the stove as he shows us his method of cooking vegetarian nasi campur, a common southeast Asian dish composed of white rice with an assortment of side dishes – a good choice for those who want to try a variety of flavors. In this case, the sides are made from different seasonal vegetables sautéed in a large frying pan, with boiled chopped eggs and chilies, accompanied by various sauces. Unlike wider Indonesian food, which has notable Indian and Arab influences, Javanese cuisine is more indigenous, its sauces revealing a sweeter taste due to the copious use of gula jawa (palm sugar) and kecap (a sweet soy sauce).

Dani is already long familiarized with the concept of community cooking. “In Java it is natural to cook for the whole neighborhoods, especially for ceremonial events such as a new pregnancy or marriage,” he says. “It is a gesture for showing friendship and protection.” He was invited to cook at ARM after he turned up to its legal office for advice – the association also provides free civic counsel for new, foreign-born residents as well as services such as free language classes.

ARM also extends legal support to other locals who need it, a necessary measure considering the aggressive real-estate speculation and backlog of court cases. “Seven years ago the area was highly degraded, but thanks to some structural interventions, new cultural events and media visibility, Mouraria is now attractive,” says Inês Andrade, ARM president. “So the restaurants might be crowded again, but there are new threats.” An example of this is the story of an 80-year-old woman who was with Dani at the legal office; the building where she was living changed ownership, and the new owner decided to substitute the roof without offering her alternative accommodation.

Besides Jantar Cruzado, there is another well-known community meal event in Lisbon. In one of the tangled narrow roads of Alfama, the oldest neighborhood of the capital, where the castle, the Sé cathedral and other historical monuments are located, is a hidden, activist-occupied garage. It’s the headquarters of GAIA, an NGO that organizes events around the topics of ecology and social and economical alternative models. Once a week (often on Thursday, but it is best to check their website) they organize a meal that is of course vegan and transgenics-free, after which a political theme is discussed or a film screened.

The venue has the aspect of a collective self-managed space, with a long table in the middle, a zone with sofas and a corner where people can fix their own bicycles. Every week one of GAIA’s members cooks for everybody; CB met Chloé, who, while preparing a salad made from organic turnip, dressed with a sauce of soy yogurt, cumin and lemon, introduced us to hidromel (mead), a homemade alcoholic beverage created by fermenting honey with water. “A friend of ours made it; he always says that it cannot be described as wine, nor a liquor, but only as an elixir.” This is not the only homemade drink they offer; the fridge is full of beer homebrewed by Margareth, another GAIA member, who learned the process in Canada, where, according to her, it’s a popular practice given the high taxes on alcohol. After practicing for two years, she is now teaching the secrets of homebrewing in free workshops run in the venue. Like a lot of community meal events that are popping up all over Lisbon, eating at GAIA is cheap as well as engaging, with a suggested contribution of €3 per meal.

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Published on March 29, 2016

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