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Feature: Refugee chef uses food to show people more alike than different



(170622) -- ATHENS, June 22, 2017 (Xinhua) -- 25-year-old refugee chef Hassan from Somalia, prepares dishes for customers in "Vassilenas", a restaurant with a long history in Athens, Greece, on June 22, 2017. (Xinhua/Marios Lolos)

ATHENS, June 23 (Xinhua) — For extrovert young chef Hassan to present his refugee journey from Somalia to Greece in a menu of 6 dishes was a bet to win during the Refugee Food Festival that run through this week in local restaurants in Athens.

We met 25-year-old Hassan inside the kitchen of “Vassilenas”, a restaurant with a long history in the Greek capital, preparing a fresh salad with black eyed peas, beetroot, lime, coriander and a traditional dish from his country, a roasted mackerel with hot sauce of paprika and chili.

“It is the first time I present my country’s cuisine, and I am proud that people come and taste it,” he told Xinhua.

While being used to cooking Mediterranean and Japanese cuisine for restaurants in Athens and Crete Island since 2012, it was the first-time Hassan, who was a guest chef for two nights at the restaurant, cooked Somali cuisine for so many people. The success was so huge that the owner decided to extend from two to three days the event.

Run under the auspices of the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, the Refugee Food Festival was inaugurated in Paris in 2016, and this year was expanded to 13 European cities to mark World Refugee Day.

A citizen’s initiative, the festival address to local restaurants to open their kitchens to refugee cooks with the goal to change people’s perception towards refugees, to trigger job opportunities and to make participants discover delicious meals.

“Food unites people,” Hassan said as he was looking people coming in the restaurant, expressing the value of the festival.

Not only people but cultures as well, as co-founder Louis Martin would say later. “We often talk about those countries through the prism of war. But these countries have much more to tell. They have culture, deep history and it is something you can find on our plates,” he explained to promote the positive approach of the refugee issue.

Hassan’s story reminds us the thousands of unaccompanied minors fleeing from war-torn countries in the Middle East, risking their lives to cross the sea and dealing with traffickers within the last three years.

With his life being in danger in his country Somalia, Hassan fled to Greece when he was 16 years old all alone leaving behind his family. For a whole month, he traveled by ship up until Turkey and then with a small inflatable boat reached Greece in December 2008.

“I did not know a lot about Greece, in 2009 I tried to leave illegally but I did not make it,” Hassan recalled.

It was when he was excluded from the family reunification program, where he had asked to unite with his uncle in Finland, that he claimed asylum in Greece.

“I stayed in a hospitality center for unaccompanied minors at Exarcheia, in the center of Athens from 2009 until 2012.”

With the support of the Network of Children’s Right, he enrolled into a professional chef’s course on a scholarship and had worked in hotels and restaurants since.

“I finished my school in 2012 and went on training in a big hotel in Crete for two years. Then I returned to Athens and started working as a chef,” he said.

The most difficult part was his first six months in Greece where he lived in a small apartment with 20 other Somalis in Athens.

“A minor in a foreign country feels frightened, thinks about his future, where to sleep, who to meet,” Hassan told Xinhua.

“But, then I managed to integrate into the society, to learn the language and meet with people who love me and want to be next to me,” he noted.

Despite the difficulties, Hassan’s integration into the society has been rather smooth, as he explained. After being in Greece 9 years, what does he dream? “To continue my work, to be at a restaurant as a chef,” he confessed with a big smile on his face.

When we asked him if he would like to run a Somali restaurant in Athens, he hesitated to answer.

“In Greece, it is difficult to open my restaurant with Somali dishes. Maybe if I go to another country like Sweden or Britain where there are large communities of Somali,” he said.

Though being something completely new to the Athenians who visited the restaurant, the Somali dishes made them a great impression.

“I did not have the opportunity to taste Somali cuisine before. Though we are only in the second dish, I must say that the menu is very impressive,” Nikos Kourtzis told Xinhua.

Martin acknowledged the success of the event in Athens and other European cities. “We are impressed by the reaction of all the people participating in the festival. All the restaurants are full. The restaurants ask at the end when we can do it again,” he said.

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Where to eat African cuisine in Metro Detroit



THE DETROIT NEWS — Being a huge continent, the food found in Africa varies among the countries within it. Some staples are seasoned meats, rice, couscous and fried plantains.

Metro Detroit is lucky to have a few authentic restaurants that serve the dishes of Ethiopia, Morocco, Senegal, Burundi and elsewhere. Here’s a look:

Maty’s African Restaurant: A small, colorful dining area that can seat about two dozen people is filled with aroma of grilled fish, lamb skewers and beef shawarma. I’ll return for the fataya, a Senegalese version of a fried empanada comes stuffed with chicken or fish and is served with a side of mustard-y onion slaw. 21611 Grand River, Detroit. (313) 472-5885 or Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.
Taste of Ethiopia: This cozy spot offers a buffet lunch on weekdays ($10.95) with jerk chicken, collard greens, fried plantains, split peas and a fantastic red lentil dish called yemisir we’t. Many of those dishes are on their vast dinner menu, which also includes vegetarian and meat combos, and beer, wine and cocktails. 28639 Northwestern Hwy., Southfield. (248) 905-5560 or Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Fri. and noon-10 p.m. Sat.

The Blue Nile: Also Ethiopian, the Blue Nile offers all-you-can-eat feasts for vegetarians and carnivores, as well as several vegan dishes. Both Blue Nile and Taste of Ethiopia serve injera, a very soft, sourdough flatbread that is unlike any other bread I’ve tasted. It’s porous, spongy texture is perfect for soaking up stews and sauces. Blue Nile has two locations and both have a full bar. 545 W. Nine Mile, Ferndale. (248) 547-6699. 221 E. Washington, Ann Arbor. (734) 998-4746. Open 5-10 p.m. Tues.-Thurs., 4-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. and 3-9 p.m. Sun. Ann Arbor location is also open 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Tues.-Sat. for lunch.

Nwanneka’s Place: Specialties here include a large variety of soup, goat meat and yams. Nwanneka’s, which also serves American and soul food dishes, serves fufu, a dish found in Ghana and Nigeria. It’s white lump made by pounding yam flour and grounded cassava, and is often eaten with soup. 27532 Schoolcraft, Livonia. (734) 744-7777 or Open noon-7 p.m. Mon. and Wed., noon-9 p.m. Tues. and Thurs.-Sat. and noon-5 p.m. Sun.

Kola Restaurant & Ultra Lounge: Not just a restaurant, Kola is a nightlife destination with weekly events like Soul Thursdays, Tropical Fridays and Afrobeat Night on Saturdays. The menu offers beef and chicken suya, which is thinly sliced meat seasoned with onions, tomato and yaji spice. There’s also a full bar, a variety of soft drinks, and Nigerian beverages like palm juice and Maltina. 32523 Northwestern Hwy., Farmington Hills. (248) 932-5652 or Open 5-10 p.m. Wed.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-midnight Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Sat. and 11:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Sun.

Casablanca: Named after the largest city in Morocco, this Ypsi restaurant specializes in Moroccan and Middle Eastern dishes. Choose from bistilla, a chicken pie, or chicken Mhammar roasted with butter, onions, saffron, herbs and fresh ginger, or get both with the Moroccan combo plate for two. 2333 Washtenaw, Ypsilanti. (734) 961-7825 or Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Sat. and 1-8 p.m. Sun.

Windsor: Our neighbors across the border have two Somalian restaurants: Jubba(2000 W. Wyandotte, Windsor) and Somali Restaurant (2127 University, Windsor). Somali cuisine is influenced by a variety of regions and includes beef, chicken, rice and even pasta and samosas.

Pop-ups: There are several chefs in Metro Detroit that operate as a pop-up while they work toward opening brick-and-mortar restaurants. Kitchen Ramarj blends Liberian and Mediterranean flavors and pop ups at places like Corktown’s Brooklyn Street Local. YumVillage pop-up and food truck serves West African and Caribbean food like jollof rice and jerk chicken. Until it’s food truck season again, find chef Godwin Ihentuge cooking monthly dinners at Colors Restaurant the last Thursday of each month. Burundi restaurant Baobab Fare is readying to open in West Village after winning a $10,000 grant from Comerica Hatch Detroit. While they ready to open, the husband-and-wife team have been hosting pop-ups around town. Jerk & Jollof is a nightlife pop-up that blends African and Caribbean music, food and culture that most recently took over Saint Andrew’s Hall for a New Year’s Eve event.

Did I leave out a restaurant that you think should be mentioned in this list? Please, let me know.

Twitter: @melodybaetens

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A delicately spiced love triangle



I first tasted samosas when I was about eight years old. They’re very child friendly. A warm handheld pastry snack is always welcome but when it has potatoes and a mild curry flavour, it’s just perfect on a cold day. I haven’t made them in years but my little girl spotted Fizzy, from Emye Ethiopian food, making vegan sambusas at our local market in Midleton and she loved them. So I’ve started to make them at home now but have been baking them in the oven. So far I’ve been able to cram all sorts of vegetables in.

This minced beef version is delicious though, with plenty of ginger and a fresh burst of coriander. Complete with filling protein-packed lentils, these samosas are a complete meal in themselves. My recipe is a little mild and family friendly so do add extra spices or chili if you prefer. I usually serve mine with sriracha sauce. You can use finely shredded leftover roast chicken to make chicken pies too or use regular potatoes in place of the sweet potatoes.

You can make the filling mixture the day before if you want and assemble them at the last minute. Folding them can be a bit of a skill but once you start it’s easy. Just keep folding the triangle in towards itself so that each side is sealed and no filling can escape.

Many cultures have their own version of this. From Indian Samosas to Ethiopian or Somali Sambusa. There are also Turkish and many more Middle Eastern versions with cheese and vegetables. It’s a delicious way to serve tasty savoury fillings and perfect for packed lunches or picnics.

Ginger, beef and lentil samosas
Makes 8

1 tbsp coconut oil
1 red onion
1 thumb sized piece of ginger (2 tbsp once grated)
400g minced beef
1 heaped tsp garam masala or similar curry spices
150g sweet potato
400g tin bijoux verts lentils, 240g once drained
20g fresh coriander leaves, roughly chopped
150ml water
1 pack filo pastry sheets, defrosted
1 tbsp nigella seeds

Melt the coconut oil in a wide pan and add the finely diced onion. Cook on a medium heat for five minutes, add the ginger and stir, moving around the pan for a minute. Add the minced beef and garam masala. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Add 150ml water, the finely diced sweet potato and the lentils. Mix well. Lower the heat and leave to simmer for 10-12 minutes until the sweet potato is cooked and the mixture has reduced a little and is drier. Remove from the heat. Fold in the chopped coriander, season well with salt then leave to cool. Spread it on a large baking tray to cool it quickly if you’re short on time.

Preheat the oven to 200C. Cut each long sheet of filo pastry into a long rectangle. Lay one on the countertop and spoon 1/8 of the cooled filling into the top corner. Brush the pastry with water and fold it diagonally to create a triangle shape, continue to fold, retaining the triangle shape and seal the dampened edges. Repeat with the remaining filling and pastry till you have made eight. Lay the samosas on two baking trays lined with greaseproof paper. Bake for 10 minutes then turn each one over. Brush each one with a little water and sprinkle with nigella seeds and return to the oven for a final 10 minutes till golden and crispy. Leave to cool for five minutes before serving with salad and hummus or yogurt.

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Take a new approach to holiday leftovers with this sweet Somali tradition



The joy of sharing food with friends and loved ones lies at the heart of the festive season. A longstanding Somali tradition can help guests give back.

Given the communal nature of African families, holiday celebrations often involve a large number of relatives and distant cousins trickling into homes from far away. The families receiving them cook ample food, with the dishes, ingredients, spices, and flavors varying depending on the culture. Despite the fact that everyone is expected to finish what he or she is served at the lunch or dinner table, even after second or third helpings, copious amounts of food often remains.

Among the Somali community, food is never thrown away. Leftovers are stored to eat for breakfast or lunch the next day. Another custom is to pack the food into containers and send them away with guests. Often, guests will return this kind act by sending the containers back filled with sweet delicacies and desserts.

One of these delicacies is the halwa, a Turkish delight-like sweet dish made with sugar, cornstarch, oil, nutmeg. and cardamom. There are variations of halwa across the world—the word itself means “sweet” in Arabic. Another desert that is gifted is kac kac, or Somali donuts, sprayed with powdered sugar. These are often eaten as snacks with sweet Somali tea.

This practice of giving back after receiving something is an extension of the traditional code of hospitality known as martisoor, which ensures that strangers and travelers are welcomed and never leave empty-handed. The expectation is that this would be reciprocated the next time your family is caught in a difficult situation, whether it’s a simply undercatering for guests at holiday time, or something more drastic, like escaping a famine or drought.

If you’d like to go one step further and give halwa a try yourself, here’s a recipe courtesy of the blog My Somali Food.

Bring two cups of granulated sugar, two cups of light brown sugar, and four cups of water to boil. Mix cornstarch, saffron and half of cup water, and allow it to dissolve. Add the one cup of cornstarch to the mixture. Cook the mixture over medium heat while stirring. As the mixture turns thick, start adding one cup of ghee or oil. This might take about 30 minutes. Continue adding oil when it sticks to the bottom of the pan. Keep stirring until the mixture gets separated. When it starts to leave the sides of the pan, add two teaspoons of cardamom and one teaspoon of ground cloves. Put the halwa on a baking sheet. Let it cool. Cut and serve. Sprinkling cashews on top is an option.

And here’s a recipe for Somali donuts from Somali food blog Xawash that yields 24 donuts:

Combine two cups of flour, half a cup of sugar, and one teaspoon of baking powder. Mix well. Add all the wet ingredients: two eggs, half a cup of unsalted, melted butter, and two tablespoons milk. Mix well. Knead well for three minutes. Let the dough rest for 10 minutes. Roll out the dough to ¼ inch (½ cm) thick. Cut into 24 pieces, then mark the surface by pressing a knife lightly on the dough. Fry in canola oil (at any other time) at 375 ° F / for three to four minutes until golden brown. Use medium heat.

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